The rising of a dark star: Why Boris Johnson’s new TV spokesperson will be a dangerous character

Like Ingham and Campbell, the new appointee will be an attack dog for their boss, the bumptious Etonian charlatan in Number 10

It’s too bold a statement to say that there have never been famous spokespeople in British politics. While Alastair Campbell was not the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesperson when he made it to Downing Street, he was Tony Blair’s spokesman and campaign director from his ascent to the Labour leadership in 1994 to the famous election win of 1997.

Campbell’s current media career is a result of his time as Press Secretary and Downing Street Director of Communications. By printing the legend — that Campbell was the real-life Malcolm Tucker, something he has always denied strenuously — newspapers made him a star, though the permanent stain of Iraq, Hutton, and ‘the 45-minute claim’ mean that for many (me included) it’s a dark fame. 

Before Campbell, there was Bernard Ingham. A bluff, bulldog figure, the Yorkshireman — a detail that every profile of him obsesses over — was Margaret Thatcher’s Chief Press Secretary for 11 years as well as head of the now-defunct Government Information Office.

Ingham had previously been a press secretary for ‘the other side’, working with Barbara Castle and Tony Benn among others. He became a legendary user of ‘the black arts’ of spin and deception to make Thatcher’s case in the press, including regularly using the cloak of anonymity to brief against wayward ministers. In one notorious case, Ingham declared that the Leader of the House, John Biffen, was “semi-detached” from the government. Biffen was reshuffled out at the next possible opportunity. 

Christopher Hitchens called Ingham “a nugatory individual” — ‘nugatory’ meaning being of no worth of significance — but contradicted himself by going on to discuss how Ingham shifted the centre of gravity in British government communications:

“During his time in office, Fleet Street took several steps towards an American system of Presidentially-managed coverage and sound-bite deference, without acquiring any of the American constitutional protection in return.”

Hitchens, who died in 2011, moved to the US eventually and his interest in British politics dwindled to almost microscopic size, but I believe he would have had interesting things to say about the latest development in Boris Johnson’s authoritarian war on the media.

The American system that Hitchens was warning of, stripped away from its constitutional protections, is being levered in UK political discourse by Johnson and his chief advisor and principle handler, Dominic Cummings (Cardinal Richelieu as dressed by Sports Direct). 

Downing Street has announced plans for White House-style daily televised press briefings, fronted by a showbiz hire, an experienced broadcaster who will act as a new form of official spokesperson for the Prime Minister, becoming, in the process, the de facto face of the government.

You might think that the face of the government should be the red-wine ruddied countenance of the optimist-in-chief, the Prime Minister, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, but such a role wouldn’t suit him. He works part-time hours and high-minded ideals such as ‘scrutiny’ and the ‘rule of law’ are quite inconvenient to his projects and the plans of Mr Cummings, who only avoids goose-stepping because he disdains the formality of the required footwear. 

Downing Street claims it will begin the process of recruiting its gorgeous Goebbels this month, with the intention of live TV briefings from Number 10 beginning in the autumn. Expect ministers to be delighted as they can shove their new metaphorical bullet magnet out there to strut, sigh, and lie, while they do their dodgy business behind the scenes, freed once again from having to deal with uppity journalists and their desire to know what is actually going on.

Not that any British political appointee ever hounded anyone to ‘assisted’ suicide on a hill or other natural beauty spot, and it would be wrong to suggest otherwise…

The TV briefing will be on every weekday afternoon. Expect broadcasters to have very little choice in showing them as they will become singularities, dragging news towards the concentrated gravity of being the single point of conversation with a government that doesn’t see why it should debase itself in front of hacks.

This will be an issue for both broadcasters and Her Majesty’s Official Opposition, which under Sir Keir Starmer is starting to resemble a small and mildly critical think-tank rather than a Labour opposition, red and tooth in claw.

The broadcasters who run the briefings live will please the government, but they will also give rivals airtime, and raise questions about giving disproportionate airtime to what will be — given that the spokesperson will be a political appointee and not a civil servant — effectively propaganda. Will Labour get briefings broadcast live? Possibly, but the Opposition can never pull the ratings that the Government can. 

Any experienced broadcaster who does take the joke of Boris Johnson’s carnival barker will be selling their soul relatively cheaply. The job will make them a star.

Like Alastair Campbell and Bernard Ingham before them, the new spokesperson — who I predict will be a woman — will be destined to become a dark star in the constellation of British politic liars and charlatans.

Still, it’s been a good gig for Campbell…

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