Boris Johnson has scrapped plans for White House-style televised media briefings after spending £2.6m of taxpayers’ money on a state-of-the-art studio in Downing Street.
The move sparked Labour accusations that the prime minister was “running scared of scrutiny” in the wake of a rash of negative headlines over “Tory sleaze and dodgy lobbying”.
The briefings were the brainchild of the prime minister’s former adviser Dominic Cummings as means of getting around the Westminster lobby of political correspondents, and former journalist Allegra Stratton was hired to be the TV face of No 10. But she is now moving from the role of PM’s press secretary to become Mr Johnson’s spokesperson for November’s Cop26 climate summit, which will be chaired by cabinet minister Alok Sharma.
It is understood that the flag-draped studio in 9 Downing Street will now be used for ad hoc press conferences by the prime minister, ministers and government officials. It made its first appearance on TV screens last month as the venue for regular coronavirus press conferences, which had previously been held in No 10. Its plain blue backdrop proved a godsend for pranksters who were able easily to photoshop inappropriate scenes into the space behind the PM’s lectern.
When former Newsnight political editor Ms Stratton was recruited in October, it was expected that she would take questions from the press on a daily basis, with her televised press conference replacing one of the twice-daily lobby briefings traditionally held by the prime minister’s official spokesperson.
The development was regarded with suspicion by political reporters, who feared losing the opportunity to subject spokespeople to sustained grillings away from the cameras. But the launch of the briefings was repeatedly delayed, and Downing Street’s appetite for White House-style press conferences seemed to evaporate after Mr Cummings’s resignation in November.
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.”
Ms Stratton said: “I am delighted to be starting this new role. The Cop26 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.”