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Operation Southside: Inside the UK media’s plan to reconcile with Labour
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As millions of Brits peered over their Sunday morning breakfasts last weekend, they were greeted by a noticeably tired, slightly croaky and somewhat solemn cabinet minister trying to get through a broadcast round.
The UK’s often jovial and sharp-witted Foreign Secretary James Cleverly looked a shadow of his usual TV-self as the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg gave him a live grilling about the tax affairs of his (and my own) party chairman, Nadhim Zahawi.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had decided to launch an ethics probe into Zahawi’s behaviour after it had publicly emerged that the leading Conservative had settled with HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) to the sum of a reported seven-figures during his brief stint as Chancellor.
Cleverly, who had spent most of the week in the United States and Canada, repeatedly stressed that he was unaware of Zahawi’s tax affairs beyond his colleague’s media statement.
After drawing the short straw amongst top Tory spokespeople, the Foreign Secretary proceeded to tell the nation that he had spent his Saturday shopping with his family, rather than being briefed by the Prime Minister, Number 10 or Zahawi on the matter.
The exasperating episode was the latest bruising encounter between Sunak’s administration and the British media. It came not long after the Prime Minister found himself on the wrong side of the law.
This blatant own goal only compounded the current state of affairs Sunak’s government finds itself in ahead of an expected 2024 General Election.
The Conservatives have been consistently 20-points behind Labour in the opinion polls and the media is noticeably shifting with the political momentum towards Keir Starmer’s party.
Frustrations with Number 10
Future News spoke to six Lobby correspondents across the UK media to gauge their sentiment towards Labour and the government as we head into the long election period.
A clear picture emerged from the group of journalists (which attend twice-daily briefings in 9 Downing Street) that the new Number 10 team, which includes former Spectator Political Editor James Forsyth, was “more structured” than under Boris Johnson and Liz Truss’s watch.
Though this dose of professionalism has helped to prevent Tory in-fighting and unscrupulous briefings from ‘Whitehall sources’ – two features of Johnson’s and Truss’ regimes – the strategy is causing frustration for the media.
“If you don’t feed the Lobby lines, they will find them through other means,” warned one reporter. “The whole idea behind [the Number 10 strategy] is to get politics out of the news as much as possible, but we’re employed full-time to keep it in the news and keep reporting.”
Others have pointed to an apparent slowness from the Number 10 media operation. A point in case was the team’s failure to say whether or not Sunak had ever paid a penalty to HMRC on Monday, only to later state, come Wednesday evening, that the Prime Minister had not.
The Christmas Grid War
The incident created more friction with the Lobby and bad headlines for Sunak following a festive period when the Prime Minister and his ministers were relatively absent from the media scene.
This inaction opened-up a news void which Labour filled, scoring “free hit after free hit” in the process, as one Lobby correspondent put it.
“[It also] showed how much some hacks are cosying up to Labour spinners by running their stories, which will help build relationships with those advisers who will be brought into Downing Street under a Keir Starmer premiership,” they added.
Number 10 is not wholly ignorant of the worsening media situation, with the Prime Minister’s chief-of-staff, Liam Booth-Smith, reportedly instructing special advisers to create at least one attack line per week on their Labour counterparts.
Meanwhile, in an attack and rebuttal operation led by Labour’s Director of Communications Paul Ovenden, the opposition party is trying to score a hit against cabinet ministers across the British media everyday.
“Labour's attack and rebuttal operation has stepped up significantly, with the Tories appearing to pale in comparison,” one political journalist said.
There is also the fact that Labour is now being taken “more seriously”, as one senior Lobby correspondent put it, across the media (a reversal in relationships to the Jeremy Corbyn years).
Another political correspondent on a right-wing paper praised a new influx of media savvy political advisers, so-called ‘PAds’, to Labour.
The group of advisers meet each Tuesday in Parliament’s Portcullis House to plot their best media stories, with Labour’s Executive Director of Communications Matthew Doyle overseeing the operation.
The ongoing crises in the NHS, cost-of-living, strikes, and channel migrants have given the PAds plenty of ammunition, even before they start combing through publicly available government records for more stories.
Labour’s Growing Confidence
Their party’s substantial poll lead has also given Labour operators a renewed confidence to engage with Lobby correspondents, who are actively looking to build and cement their relationships with the Shadow Cabinet, Labour MPs, the party’s central press office and advisers through coffee, lunch and pub meetings at venues like The Red Lion, The Dispatch Box and other Westminster favourites.
These burgeoning relationships, the political weather and ongoing issues for the government has seen Labour gain positive coverage in unlikely places, including The Daily Express and The Telegraph.
The centrist and influential Sunday Time has also notably reported on Labour’s policies in depth and presented the party’s leading spokespeople, including Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves and Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting, in a positive light.
Even the Conservative’s favourite magazine, the aforementioned Spectator, has put the knife in, running with “The Return of Tory Sleaze” as its cover story this week. All the while a lack of cabinet ministers and top Tories on the broadcasters, has allowed Labour to dominate the airwaves.
It was in this climate of confidence that Starmer and Reeves travelled to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week, where they rubbed shoulders with some of the world’s wealthiest people amid a cost of living crisis back home.
It may, however, not always be this easy for Labour in the media. Sunak and his top team travelled to the Prime Minister’s grace-and-favour country house, Chequers, yesterday to thrash-out a plan for the next general election. Strategist Isaac levido reportedly presented to the group, explaining that the Conservatives had a “narrow” path to victory at the next election.
The agreed strategy will build on Sunak’s speech at the start of the year, where he focused on the economy, the NHS and small boat crossings in the Channel as part of his five top priorities as Prime Minister.
The first two issues (the economy and the NHS) match the current top concerns of the British public, while immigration is currently a second-order issue, according to pollster Ipsos MORI.
There is no doubt, however, that the Tory press machine will seek to increase attention on these issues and the polls will tighten as we get closer to the next general election. When Sunak ramps up the media operation, if at all, is another question.
As one senior Lobby correspondent pointed out, the Prime Minister faces a series of treacherous flash-points throughout the year, kicking off with the Spring Budget in March, an expected slew of Conservative MP resignations in Summer and the Tory Party conference in October.
Then there is the omnipresent case of the former Telegraph reporter turned author turned Prime Minister turned memoir-man, Boris Johnson, and whether he will make a triumphant return to the scene.
“There is a Tory truce at the moment, but it does seem like it’s a pretty precarious one – all it could take is one prod to get things going again,” one reporter warned.
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