by Tom Watson
David Cameron’s press team didn’t just bury bad news yesterday, they built a mass grave and emptied a juggernaut of trash into it.
Back in January, Cameron proclaimed he would “end the culture of spin”. Even at the time, people sniggered. If he said it now, they’d fall about laughing.
Yesterday, the government released masses of information that in normal circumstances would have led the news today. Royal marriages are once in a generation after all.
The manner in which the announcements poured out yesterday was cynical, determined and ruthless. Will the government get away with it? Probably.
Our only response must be to deconstruct each announcement in detail and deal with it in slow time.
Take a look at what the government said:
Civil servant vanity photographer, Andy Parsons, was sacked and immediately rehired by Tory central office. He was joined by civil servant film maker Nicky Woodhouse. This is a humiliation for the prime minister. A degrading admission that he got it wrong – despite the advice of civil servants responsible for propriety and ethics in government.
In what appears to be a hurried statement, Ken Clarke announced to the House of Commons that he had reached an out of court settlement to pay the Guantamano Bay prisoners a secret amount of compensation running into millions of pounds. On a normal news cycle, journalists would be demanding to know how much and whether the prisoners received more than the 7/7 survivors were given in compensation.
The governor of the bank of England formally wrote to the government that it is a “concern that inflation is above target”. Which will be exacerbated next month when VAT is increased and petrol prices rise as a result. Ordinarily, white van men would be interviewed on petrol station forecourts up and down the land. Not yesterday.
And then Greater Manchester police announced that comprehensive spending review cuts would result in 1,387 uniformed police posts being axed, sending shockwaves around other police services in the country. Actually, this figure is so shocking that I suspect reaction to it will be reported for days and weeks to come in the north west. But it won’t be leading the front pages nationally. That would have been today.
Then there was the Redfern report – the one that tells the full scale of the nuclear industry’s old habit of secretly harvesting the body parts of nuclear workers without informing their loved ones. Imagine how on a normal news day this announcement would play out. Nuclear workers’ body parts systematically and secretly harvested for forty years? Even the Daily Mail might raise its eyebrows at that. On any other day.
When it comes to spin, Andy Coulson makes Alastair Campbell look like the eccentric old dame who volunteers to photocopy the parish magazine, such is his attention to the detail of news management. “We talk about our stories in great detail prior to publication”, Andy Coulson told the UK Press Gazette back in 2005. I can imagine his media grid meetings, stuffed with press officers and light on policy makers. They get great stories from the compliant Murdoch press but serious lobby journalists are picking up on the shallowness of their plans. It is for the opposition front bench rigorously to analyse each announcement.
We – her Imperial Majesty’s loyal opposition – must grin a bear days like yesterday and today. Our duty is to find loose strands of argument and pull at them. We already know from the child benefit debacle that this is a government that doesn’t want to be distracted by the detail. And that’s exactly how things begin to unravel for governments.
We know why detailed analysis of spun stories ultimately works for an opposition, because we suffered the consequences of it. There are countless examples where a tactical press announcement boiled over and left us in the stew.
When Tony Blair announced that all the people interned by the Japanese in the second world war would receive compensation, he was hailed as hero by the press the next day. There followed years of misery as lawyers, pressure groups and the public administration select committee argued with the MoD over the detail. What constituted citizenship? What level of proof was required to qualify for a payment, and so on. Lack of detail at the outset cost hundreds if not thousands of hours of misery for the poor civil servants who dealt with it.
Pulling at the strands of over-spun coalition announcement will tangle this administration up, leaving ministers over-burdened by the detritus of Number 10’s cynical spinners.
You probably won’t read as much as you should about Andy Parsons in today’s newspaper. But, make no mistake, we inflicted a defeat on the government yesterday. We did so because, after months of probing, we got to the facts, and David Cameron over-reached himself.
The genius of opposition is the devil of government: the detail. Yesterday’s lesson for our front bench is clear: read the small print.
Tom Watson is Labour MP for West Bromwich East.