Government spokesperson

Boris Johnson’s search for a new face of government comes to a close

UK looks to the White House with plan to televise press briefings ...
Photo by Getty Images.

— 3 minute read — By Will Jones

Mirroring the White House televised briefings of his American counterpart, Boris Johnson’s nationwide search for a new face of government has come to its culmination.

Applications for the role closed on 21st August, with the successful candidate expected to earn a £100,000 pay packet. They will represent the prime minister to “an audience of millions on a daily basis, across the main broadcast channels and social media”. 

This new approach to public engagement is a result of the burgeoning popularity for live briefings during the formative period of the coronavirus crisis. The public responded well to the politicians and medical professionals that graced their screens on a daily basis – earning plaudits for Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak (who many identified as a future prime minister) and moulding Chief Medical Adviser Chris Whitty into a highly respected public figure.

Speaking in early July, Johnson claimed that “people have liked the more direct, detailed information from the government about what is going on”. He also noted the newfound trust and admiration for “our brilliant scientists and medical advisers”, reflecting that the public “possibly [liked them] more than the politicians to be frank”.

The vacancy, first advertised on the Conservative Party’s LinkedIn page on the 28th July, outlined the opportunity to work at the heart of government in order to “communicate with the nation on behalf of the prime minister”.

This stands as a major departure from the conventional method of communication between 10 Downing Street and the public. The government traditionally brief accredited media twice daily in closed-door sessions headed by a civil servant. Whilst the morning session will remain largely the same, the afternoon session will see all eyes (and cameras) on the new spokesperson as they take questions from journalists in a televised briefing.

This is considerably closer to the White House briefings that take place in the US. The Nixon administration first introduced this method of political communication in 1969 and it has been adopted by every successive president.

The role has promoted political advisors into household names, with George Stephanopoulos now cemented as the main anchor for ABC News. However, delivering the message of the president or prime minister places one at the centre of controversy if any ill-feeling towards government policy arises. Ex-presidential spokesman Sean Spicer felt the brunt of the backlash over false claims that he delivered on behalf of the Trump administration. He resigned just six months into his tenure. Johnson’s Conservative Party will no doubt look at this and search for an experienced media operator who can handle the fast-paced and high-pressured environment of the briefing room.

The successful candidate will become a “special adviser” – a class of civil servant. This will enable them to take a place in No. 10’s senior team and advise ministers, whilst still retaining the ability to attack opposition parties. 

Johnson’s decision to alter the traditional model of media address has come under scrutiny from politicians and journalists alike. Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer expounded that it risks “unbalancing the political discourse” whilst also giving the Conservatives the ability to attack Labour without the latter having the ability to reply.

Sean O’Grady, Associate Editor of the Independent, also voiced his concerns in his column: “Could it be that the tiresome business of facing the media is yet another chore that Johnson finds irksome and he’d really rather that someone else got with that while he finds some other way to idle the days away? Just like he lets Dominic Cummings do all the policy stuff, Rishi Sunak does the accounts, and Michael Gove is lumbered with the incredibly dull Brexit talks?”

With a departure from traditional political communication of this scale, it’s only natural that concerns have emerged. It’s Johnson that was elected into this role, not his rapidly growing armada of political advisers. However, if this new approach facilitates a closer relationship between politicians and the people, it could stand as a major positive for a democracy that has faced so many blows in recent times.