Ask any competent government press spokesperson anywhere in the world about their job and they will readily admit their biggest problem. Fancy words cannot bring coherence to an incoherent government; nor can a slick TV manner bestow credibility on a less-than-credible leader.
These observations make Boris Johnson’s search for an on-screen American-style press spokesperson – a “spox”, in American slang – all the more interesting. A friend – a Conservative party member – sent me the list of odds on who that new “spox” might be. Laughably the list put me on 25-1. (My friend won’t be wasting his money.) But for a moment I tried to imagine the verbal contortions required to work for Boris Johnson.
“Well, Laura, you may claim that England has the worst coronavirus death rate in Europe, but the prime minister’s strategy is clearly world-leading, as indeed is our world-leading drop into economic recession. ”
Or: “Robert, I only followed the first five sub-clauses of your question, but I think you will find that the ten mile tailback of lorries at Dover simply shows how countries round the world are queuing up to trade with the fantastic success story of post-Brexit Britain.’ Literally.”
Lost in a fog of bluster
The “spox” job pays £100,000 a year and there’s much speculation on whether in Johnson’s bloke-heavy administration it will be a woman with TV experience. But far more interesting than “who?” is “why?” Why does Boris Johnson, star performer on Have I Got News For You, with thousands of media appearances under his belt, require an on-camera surrogate? Is it a human shield? And why would any self-respecting journalist want the job?
The answer to the first question is that Boris Johnson has a profound credibility problem, matched only by that of Donald Trump. When Johnson speaks on details of policy or matters of fact, he is at best lost in a fog of bluster, and at worst simply making it up.
Keir Starmer’s weekly eviscerations of Johnson during Prime Minister’s Questions show the prime minister does not read his briefs or does not understand them. Previous Westminster press secretaries – Mrs Thatcher’s Sir Bernard Ingham or Tony Blair’s Alastair Campbell – could be gruff and combative, but – working for very different leaders with very different policies – they could trust that both Blair and Thatcher were masters of detail, and both had an over-arching plan for Britain.
Thatcher and Blair were big personalities with big ideas. Boris Johnson, again like Donald Trump, is a big personality with a butterfly mind and no big ideas beyond personal aggrandisement and political survival. In just over three years Donald Trump is already on his fourth White House press secretary. They don’t last, because every day they are faced live on national television with questions which suggest their boss is lying or hasn’t a clue – or both.
From Ziegler to Spicer, via Lockhart
Sean Spicer, Mr Trump’s first choice, lasted only 182 days in the job. Watching White House briefings nowadays is like spectating on a Destruction Derby in which journalists point out, for example, that the president’s suggestion that coronavirus could be cured with disinfectant injections is medically nonsensical and could kill people.
The hapless press secretary is left mumbling about “what the president really meant to say was…” Eventually, like Sean Spicer, the expendable “spox” is fed into the Washington meat grinder, minced and rejected.
It wasn’t always like this. Richard Nixon’s press secretary Ron Ziegler stuck with him through Watergate. Ronald Reagan’s press team were loyal through the Iran Contra scandal. No one resigned from Bill Clinton’s team during the Monica Lewinsky impeachment process.
Joe Lockhart, Clinton’s press secretary, once told me that even though he and the White House staff were appalled by Clinton’s conduct they separated the flawed man from what they believed was his great plan for America. It is difficult to imagine Boris Johnson inspiring such loyalty. And so the “why” questions remain.
Why would anyone want to be Boris Johnson’s human shield, sacrificing their own credibility in a daily damage limitation exercise? Presumably it will be a “loyal” Brexiter, someone already well aware that Brexit itself was based on a series of mis-statements and therefore he or she will not care that – unlike Thatcher and Blair – Johnson doesn’t really have a plan. What Johnson does have is a style – a style of prolonged verbal flatulence.
The new “spox” will certainly be famous, but all that exposure on television has not been career-enhancing for Trump’s former mouthpieces. If government press spokesmen and women know that words alone cannot bring about coherence in leadership, advertising professionals have a different phrase for it. Even the best advertising geniuses, as they put it, “can’t polish a turd”.