British politics may for the most part be a world of half-truths and spin, but two verities persist: a week is a long time and when the PM is forced to give one of his ministers his backing, the minister’s days on the front bench are numbered.
And so when, in November, Rishi Sunak, the PM, said he had “full confidence” in home secretary Suella Braverman after she published an inflammatory article in the Times newspaper, it was inevitable she’d be out of a job before the week was up.
Braverman is not new to controversy. She has stirred the pot with her interventions on a host of hot-button issues; her Times article, in which she described pro-Palestine protests as ‘hate marches’ and accused the Met police of turning a blind eye to Islamist terrorist chants and motifs, the straw that broke an already overladen camel’s back.
She had previously kicked up a stink with her interventions on subjects such as homelessness (a lifestyle choice for some, especially migrants), the seizing of gollywog dolls by Essex constabulary and even the relationship between political correctness and a vegan diet – she suggested that “tofu-eating” was responsible for the wokeness of a worrying number of modern Britons.
The British people are compassionate. We will always support those who are genuinely homeless. But we cannot allow our streets to be taken over by rows of tents occupied by people, many of them from abroad, living on the streets as a lifestyle choice. 1/4 https://t.co/fT1Ou5kD5Q
— Suella Braverman MP (@SuellaBraverman) November 4, 2023
Outside government, she’s continued her broadsides, aiming her ire at her erstwhile colleagues.
Most recently she penned an article for the Telegraph that counsels the government on the steps it should take if it is to sidestep the impediments the Supreme Court has thrown in the way of the government’s plan to send asylum seekers who cross the Channel by boat to Rwanda for processing.
Some might say that Braverman has played a blinder.
It is true that in the short term, she’s lost a very senior post at the top table of British politics.
But she now finds herself in a position familiar to her Conservative colleague, Boris Johnson – an ex-minister with a media profile that will allow her to make the political weather and position herself for a shy at the top job when the Tory party next implodes.
In this article, we take a look at some notable examples of how UK ministers have used a newspaper column to build their public profiles and advance their agendas.
Boris Johnson: A Reputation for Rabblerousing
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No sooner had Johnson resigned as foreign secretary in Theresa May’s government in June 2018 than he resumed his weekly column for the Daily Telegraph on his original salary of £275,000 (“chicken feed”, according to Johnson).
However, it was in an article he wrote for the Telegraph’s rival, the Daily Mail, that he chose to stick it to his old boss in the way Braverman has sought to do in the aftermath of her sacking.
In many ways, Johnson’s article, which took issues with May’s half-baked Brexit deal and its ‘Irish backstop’, was thirty years in the making.
Johnson made his name as a journalist in the early 1990s by taking issue with the bureaucracy in Brussels as a reporter for the Telegraph.
His dispatches from the Belgian capital usually saw him feed his eurosceptic readers’ appetite for euro-bashing fodder with outlandish claims on everything from the EC’s plans for one-size-fits-all condoms to its plans to correct the geometry of British bananas.
On his return to Britain, Johnson became the MP for Uxbridge but continued to write for the Telegraph, this time focusing on domestic issues, but using the same provocative tack he had employed in his Brussels days.
He was accused of Islamophobia when he penned a Daily Telegraph article that suggested he would ask a Muslim woman visiting his surgery to remove her face covering, before going on to say covered female faces “look like letter boxes”.
He also practised his line of truth-bending in his articles and his media appearances.
For example, when asked when was the last time he had shed a tear in an interview with the BBC, he responded by trying to have a dig at his successor as London mayor, Sadiq Khan:
“I had my bike for the whole of my mayoral career. It was never nicked during all my time as mayor and I used to chain it up across the whole city. Barely had Sadiq Khan’s reign begun before it was nicked.”
However, what had escaped Johnson’s notice was that he had previously written about his beloved bicycle in his Telegraph newspaper in 2014, where he informed readers that his bike, ‘Bikey’, had finally succumbed to a mix of age, weather and gravity (his 17-stone frame hadn’t helped, he conceded).
“After eight years of uncomplaining service, the venerable steed had charged his last,” he said. “Old Bikey had survived every prang and prangette that goes with urban commuting. No one had seen fit to nick it in all those years. Now it was dead, killed by the weather.”
The key to Johnson’s success as a communicator is his ability to change register, breezily switching between his affable man-of-the-people persona and his donnish Oxbridge-educated classicist one.
The puddle that eventually did for his bike he likened to Lacus Curtuis – a classical reference to a water-logged pit in the Roman Forum.
He had previously compared his bike to the ship of Theseus, a classical allusion that presumably appealed to his more cerebral readers, but then quickly re-likened it, for those unfamiliar with Greek legend, to Trigger’s broom, a sit-com trope that non-classists would be more likely to clock.
Liz Truss: The Carcrash
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If Johnson more often than not manages to strike an engaging, man-of-people tone in his newspaper articles, his successor, Liz Truss, uses a deadly earnest one in hers.
And where Johnson used his newspaper column as a springboard for his political career and eventual premiership, Truss used her platform in the national press to perform an undignified belly flop that made her the UK’s shortest-lived PM.
In the run-up to her becoming PM, Truss used the newspaper to lay out her plans for the economy, the centrepiece of which was an emergency budget that would seek to slash taxes in a bid to challenge what she termed Treasury ‘orthodoxy’, an overly cautious approach that put economic stability above growth, she believed.
“We will cut the basic rate of income tax, reverse the rise in National Insurance and scrap the rise in corporation tax,” she announced.
Perhaps most controversially, she also planned to cut the top rate of tax, which stood at 45% at the time.
However, the unfunded cuts didn’t convince the markets and her budget along with BoE interest rate rise just before spooked markets, leading to cataclysm and her eventual resignation.
If the leadership campaign had been “brutal”, the aftermath was a bloodbath.
She subsequently performed more cack-handed U-turns than a learner driver in the days following her budget.
She shed her chancellor to save her skin and backtracked on the twin pillars of her fiscal policy – first, the 45p cut went and then the plan to freeze corporation tax was rapidly defrosted.
Unrepentant, she has, in subsequent newspaper articles, explained away her failure as a mechanical one that concerned underfunded defined benefit pension funds and the fall in gilt prices precipitated by a BoE rate rise.
Many of the claims in her postmortem examination of her campaign and time in office have been contested by the Financial Times.
Neither in person nor in print does Truss come across well. She’s not an able communicator and is given to embarrassing faux pas in person.
Like Johnson, she’s not above indulging in deception, but in her case, she seems to be deceiving herself most of all.
Social Media: Lots of Risk, Little Reward
Of course, traditional media isn’t the only way today’s politicians can engage with their constituents.
But engaging with users via social media is fraught with risk for most politicians.
The format lends itself to quick, punchy statements that are often pithy but short on substance.
For this reason, it tends to be the go-to communications conduit for the world’s demagogues and populists. Donald Trump was a prolific tweeter before he was banned from the platform.
In Britain, no politician seems to have mastered the art of social media, but there are a few lessons in the abject use of the platforms that show us how not to engage with the medium.
First up is Ed Balls, who, as Shadow Chancellor, took to Twitter in its early days (2011) and famously mistook the tweet function for the search button.
Hilarity ensued when he tweeted his name to his mystified followers.
— Ed Balls (@edballs) April 28, 2011
The incident is now memorialised as ‘Ed Balls Day’, celebrated every April 28.
Similarly, then-PM David Cameron was mocked for tweeting a selfie in which he struck a self-important pose when on the phone with Barack Obama to talk over Russia’s incursion into Crimea.
The tweet was supposed to reassure followers that the PM was across his brief, but Twitter decided he’d made a fool of himself, with thespians Patrick Stewart and Rob Delaney among social media users uploading images of themselves speaking into everyday objects.
And finally, we have Emily Thornberry, who was shadow home secretary when she was caught out by Twitter.
She was sacked after she tweeted an image that users suspected was suggestive of the Labour Party’s sniffiness when it comes to a certain sub-demography of the white working class.
The image, which was captioned ‘Image from #Rochester’, featured a white workman’s van and a new-build house draped in the St George Cross.
Thornberry later apologised (via another tweet), but the damage had been done and she was forced to resign.
I apologise for any offence caused by the 3 flag picture. People should fly the England flag with pride!
— Emily Thornberry (@EmilyThornberry) November 20, 2014
As these fails suggest, the art of the tweet and digital PR is yet to be mastered by Britain’s political class.
Ex-PM Cameron perhaps put it best when he cautioned his fellow politicians on the overuse of Twitter – “too many tweets make a tw*t”.
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