42 Times In 70 Days: Ministers Absent From Morning Media Amid National 'Crisis'

Remember when they used to turn up every weekday?
ITV empty-chaired a minister back in January 2022. This year, it's become so common that broadcasters have stopped doing it.
ITV empty-chaired a minister back in January 2022. This year, it's become so common that broadcasters have stopped doing it.
ITV/Good Morning Britain

Ministers have significantly cut down on their airtime with the morning media shows over the last 70 days, despite warnings of an ongoing “crisis” in the UK.

In fact, it’s happened so often that broadcasters have stopped empty-chairing them, as ITV’s Good Morning Britain and Sky News have famously done in the past.

Meanwhile, Labour leader Keir Starmer said in his New Year’s speech that Sunak was “in denial” about what is happening to a country in “crisis”.

Reports that prime minister Rishi Sunak asked the members of his government to stop with the daily media appearances emerged on November 18, less than a month after he was elected as Tory leader.

Since then, there have been 28 minister appearances on the morning media rounds in 70 days – including Sundays, where the government is still obliged to put forward a representative.

This number does also include the Christmas and New Year holiday period.

Even so, this is an average of four morning appearances per week prior to the festive break, and an average of three afterwards, working out to a total of 42 absences overall since late November.

For comparison, there used to be a minister available on the broadcast rounds for six days out of every seven, with Saturdays being the exception.

The Tory battle with the morning media appearances

The morning media round had been a political tradition for years, with ministers speaking to journalists from shows such as Radio 4′s Today programme, BBC Breakfast, LBC’s Nick Ferrari at Breakfast and Sky News Breakfast about the most pressing matters of the day.

As former Today programme presenter Brian Redhead once said, this enabled politicians to “drop a word in the ear of the nation”.

There was then a stint after the 2019 general election, where Boris Johnson won by a landslide, when ministers dodged the Today programme in particular.

Then-editor of the programme Sarah Sands accused the then PM of a “Trumpian” attempt to “delegitimise” the BBC in his boycott.

This cold-shoulder tactic was allegedly led by Dominic Cummings, the most senior adviser to the PM at the time, who claimed he “never listened” to the popular show.

No.10 sources also said the show was “irrelevant” and an example of a “pro-Remain metropolitan bubble in Islington,” which was one of the Johnson administration’s favourite lines of attack.

The government was repeatedly taking aim at the BBC during this period, criticising its supposed left-wing bias, and threatening to drop the licence fee.

The Radio 4 programme was not able to book any ministers until the Covid outbreak began in March 2020.

A month later, the government started to avoid Good Morning Britain instead, because then-presenter Piers Morgan was being critical of the government.

It was only in November 2020 that Downing Street lifted the boycott of the breakfast show with an appearance from then-health secretary Matt Hancock.

This change of heart was seen as an indication that No.10 was shifting its approach to the media following the departure of Cummings and Johnson’s comms chief Lee Cain – both of whom had been outspoken about various outlets in the past.

Johnson’s government oversaw a string of other boycotts too, including one towards Channel 4 News, when the PM repeatedly refused interviews in 2019 and threatened to cut off the channel’s funding.

Sky News experienced it too in November 2019, and empty-chaired the minister they were expecting instead.

Kay Burley "empty chairs" James Cleverly in November 2019
Kay Burley "empty chairs" James Cleverly in November 2019

There was also a phase where then press secretary Allegra Stratton was set to host daily TV press conferences in place of the morning media rounds, echoing the current White House style.

This was scrapped once a clip of Stratton joking about the government breaking Covid rules during a practice run of these press conferences was leaked, resulting in her stepping down.

Why has Sunak put his foot down again?

Ministers did start up the more regular morning appearances during the height of the pandemic, but now the shows seem to have dropped off their radar once again.

Sunak has not confirmed a change to the morning media rounds.

But, the Daily Mirror first reported that ministers would only appear when there is an “announcement” or new government policy (roughly three times a week) on November 18.

Downing Street claimed it was going to take a “flexible” approach instead, and sources insisted that this was not akin to cutting the broadcast round altogether.

Yet, it was heavily criticised for clashing with Sunak’s early speech that the government would have “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”.

Steve Reed, shadow justice secretary, tweeted at the time that it looks like this commitment from the PM “has gone the same way as his commitment to integrity and professionalism”.

After all, by the time this policy change was reported to have taken place, scandals related to home secretary Suella Braverman, then-minister without portfolio Gavin Williamson and deputy PM and justice secretary Dominic Raab had all made headlines.

Farming minister Mark Spencer had also caused a stir by suggesting to the morning media that a “little man in China” might be listening in on his private phone calls just days before Sunak’s supposed new strategy came about.

Even with the reduced appearances, ministers have not always created positive publicity through their morning media rounds – especially as the country is facing new struggles with industrial action and the cost of living crisis.

Policing minister Chris Philp struggled to explain away the furore around Tory Party chair Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs only this month and housing minister Robert Jenrick was skewered over the ongoing nurses strikes.


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