Downing Street scraps plans for White House-style press briefings

Allegra Stratton
Image caption,
Allegra Stratton is to become spokeswoman for COP26

Downing Street has scrapped plans to launch new White House-style press conferences after spending £2.6m on a venue to host them.

The PM's media chief Allegra Stratton - who had been due to front the briefings - has confirmed the move to the BBC.

She will instead become the spokeswoman for the COP26 climate summit.

The government was criticised for the price tag of its new facilities at 9 Downing Street, which will now be used by the prime minister and officials.

Responding to the news, Labour's Deputy Leader Angela Rayner accused Boris Johnson of "running scared of scrutiny".

She added: "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."

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden insisted the venue was "not a waste of money" adding that the room previously used for press conferences had been too small and was "not fit for purpose".

He said the "modern press facility" was similar to what other leaders around the world have and would be used by future governments, not just the current one.

Mr Johnson used the room to host a Covid press conference on Tuesday.

The plan to hold televised press conferences, similar to those seen in the United States, was announced by Mr Johnson in July last year.

He said the daily televised coronavirus briefings being held at the time showed the public wanted "more direct, detailed information from the government".

I lived through a million daily televised briefings by the European Commission, when I worked at the BBC's Brussels bureau.

I saw how much work officials did to prepare them and how much time was wasted by journalists trying to get spokespeople to deviate from the prepared script.

I assumed something similar would happen when Westminster got its own version.

There have long been rumours that some in Number 10 thought the same way and it seems that they've won the internal argument.

It's also surely no coincidence that Downing Street has just appointed a new director of communications, who seems to have a more traditional view of how the government should interact with the media than some previous staffers in Number 10.

The total cost of the refit of the briefing room was revealed by a Freedom of Information request from the Press Association - £2,607,767.67, largely excluding VAT.

Costs included £1,848,695 for the "main works", £198,024 on "long lead items", and £33,395 on broadband equipment.

Labour attacked it as a "vanity project" which threatened to "unbalance" British politics, and the party's leader, Sir Keir Starmer, said the opposition should be given a right of reply.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The briefing room at 9 Downing Street cost £2.6m to refit

The briefings fronted by Ms Stratton had been due to start in October last year, but the government said they had been delayed because ministers were continuing to hold coronavirus briefings.

Ms Stratton has been given the job of the government's spokeswoman for COP26 - a UN climate change conference due to take place in November in Glasgow, chaired by former business secretary Alok Sharma.

She 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."