Union jacks, oak and lots of Tory blue: inside Downing Street’s new £2.6 million press room

Well, that’s £2.6 million the British taxpayer will never see again.

Instead, taxpayers will see, ad nauseam on the TV news, the Union Jack-bedecked media briefing room that they purchased for the Prime Minister by sacrificing the equivalent of a hundred coppers’ salaries.

For that cash, we got three new oak lecterns, lots of Tory blue screens (the exact shade Margaret Thatcher used for her manifestos and campaign coats) and enough overhead lighting to grace a Pink Floyd gig.

And, of course, a brace of crisply ironed Union Jacks.

Today, in case you missed it, was not just any Prime Ministerial Covid News Briefing, but the first to be broadcast from the swish new “White House style” media centre created at No 9 Downing Street.

A few minutes before 5pm, the Prime Minister, Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Valance trooped down Downing Street two metres apart (think Abbey Road for balding middle aged men) to the new nerve centre.  What happens when it rains? Will a future Labour government change the screens to red? And what was wrong with the bigger room at No 10 that they used for free?  It’s not as if the PM or Carrie are throwing parties in it just now… are they?

Incidentally – take that, Robert Jenrick and Grant Shapps! Boris now boasts, not the paltry single flag of an average Cabinet members’ spare bedroom, but a grand total of four red white and blue banners.  We know from leaked photos that two more flags exist that can be arrayed behind that lectern to make it resemble The Mall on VE Day. So today’s pair perhaps marked a rare lapse into relative good taste and restraint by the showman premier.

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson at his new oak lectern

/ PA Wire

The podiums used by the scientists were emblazoned with DOWNING STREET in roman capitals. Boris’s had a crest.  The old “hands, face, space” logos were dumped.

The trio put on a good show, incidentally. The science from Whitty and Valance was genuinely enlightening and encouraging, with stats showing how amazingly effective the vaccine has been as slowing deaths.  Johnson was colourful, comparing an uptick on the graphs with “old British Rail sandwiches” and – gulp – not ruling out another winter lockdown in his answers to the Standard’s own Sophia Sleigh.  “We have to remain humble in the face of nature,” he said. Humble? Boris?

On the whole, nothing really changed. We had the same routine of intro, baffling graphs and questions from the public and media.

So what was the point of the expensive new venue?

Note well that phrase “White House-style”, for that’s what this is really all about.  A couple of years into taking office, most British premiers cast envious looks at the toys and perks their better remunerated and supported counterparts enjoy in other countries.

So their minds turn to copying them.  A succession of premiers tried to copy Air Force One (Tony’s pipedream was dubbed Blair Force One), or the West Wing (just look at First Lady Carrie’s reported £2 million redecorations carried out with US-style fat cheques from US-style “donors” who may or may not expect something in return) and now the dedicated media briefing room, just like Joe Biden’s.

We’ve seen it all before.  The daily No 10 briefings have changed venue umpteen times in my three decades as a member of the Lobby. When I first arrived in Westminster, they were still hosted by Bernard Ingham in his modest office with a bow fronted window at No 10.  There was a sofa big enough for three journalists, and everyone else had to stand up.  Lobby briefings were much shorter in canny Sir Bernard’s day.

Alastair Campbell moved the whole shebang to a purpose built media centre (no cameras or lighting) in the bowels of No 10.  Last time I saw it, the room was being used as a dumping ground for old chairs and stuff.  Then he shifted it to Foreign Press Association. Then it moved to conference rooms at the Treasury and then to the House of Commons.  Last year it moved to a former colonial courtroom at 9 Downing Street.

Now, emerging from its lockdown chrysalis, the new centre designed for on-camera briefings has emerged, wings glossy in the spring sunshine. From May 17, there will be daily televised briefings by the PM’s new on-camera spokeswoman, Allegra Stratton.

But the one thing a briefing room needs is a good story to tell, and good answers to hard questions. No amount of money or makeovers can provide that.



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