Government abandons White House-style TV briefings – after £2.6m spend on new studio

It was an idea that was ridiculed from the start. And now Downing Street has confirmed that plans for White House-style news conferences have been ditched.

Number 10 press secretary Allegra Stratton, the former Guardian and TV journalist hired to front the on-camera briefings, is to instead become spokeswoman for the COP-26 climate change summit.

And the new custom-built media suite given a £2.6m makeover for Ms Stratton’s briefings will now be used for news conferences by the prime minister and other senior ministers.

Opposition MPs have already stepped up their claims that the expensive refurbishment of the room, in 9 Downing Street, was a waste of taxpayers’ money on a vanity project by Boris Johnson.

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said: "Boris Johnson is clearly running scared of scrutiny and questions about Tory sleaze and dodgy lobbying.

"Instead of wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on a pointless vanity project the prime minister should have used the money to give our NHS heroes a pay rise."

And veteran Labour ex-minister John Spellar tweeted of Ms Stratton: "She didn’t last long, then. Descending into a real Whitehall farce."

Announcing the U-turn and her new job, Ms Stratton – who is paid £125,000 per year – said in a statement issued by Number 10: "I am delighted to be starting in this new role.

"The COP-26 climate conference is a unique opportunity to deliver a cleaner, greener world and I’m looking forward to working with the prime minister and Alok Sharma to ensure it is a success."

When the new post of press secretary was advertised last July, to some it must have sounded like the job opportunity of a lifetime, but to others it was always likely to be a poisoned chalice.

The memoirs of Sir Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher’s legendary press spokesman, were called "Kill The Messenger" and that fate surely awaited Ms Stratton had the briefings gone ahead.

Immediately after they were proposed, the White House-style news conferences were denounced not only by Sir Bernard, but also by House of Commons’ Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle.

"Statements should be made to the House first," said Sir Lindsay. "Once you’ve made that statement, by all means go and have a press conference. But do it after, not before."

Sir Bernard blamed "the malevolent presence of Dominic Cummings", the PM’s "weirdo" adviser, and said the new post of Downing Street TV spokesperson was "a constitutional outrage".

The idea stemmed from the daily coronavirus news conferences which made household names out of Professor Chris Whitty, Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, which attracted big TV audiences and were judged a success by Downing Street.

But there was also a wider Downing Street agenda. Mr Cummings wanted to smash the so-called "Lobby system" favoured by Sir Bernard and seize control of the daily briefings for political journalists.

The on-camera briefings were also enthusiastically backed by the former Downing Street director of communications, Lee Cain, who previously dressed up as the "Mirror chicken" during the 2010 election campaign and taunted ex-Tory leader David Cameron.

But Mr Cummings and Mr Cain were both ousted last November in a Downing Street coup said to have been masterminded by Mr Johnson’s fiancée Carrie Symonds, a former Conservative Party media chief and Whitehall special adviser.

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It is claimed Ms Symonds persuaded the prime minister to hire Ms Stratton for the new role and the two women were said to have formed a powerful alliance that led to the demise of Mr Cummings and Mr Cain.

Mr Cain was replaced as director of communications by James Slack, a former Daily Mail political editor, who had been the prime minister’s official spokesman for both Theresa May and Mr Johnson.

He is understood to have been cool on the idea of on-camera White House-style briefings, which is thought to be one reason why he quit Number 10 to become deputy editor of the Sun earlier this year.

Mr Slack’s successor, another former Daily Mail political journalist, Jack Doyle, was only appointed last Friday and the axing of the briefings – doomed from the start, according to many – came only days after his appointment.

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