The leaked recording of the UK prime minister’s then press secretary role-playing with colleagues in a rehearsal for an imagined press conference justifying a party held at 10 Downing Street at a time when the UK government had forbidden such gatherings among ordinary citizens is clearly a massive failure of political communication.
Allegra Stratton, the press secretary seen in the video, resigned from her new role – as the government spokesperson for COP26 – shortly after the scandal broke on December 7. But I am less interested in the embarrassing consequences of this exposure than how it was constructed as an event. At Prime Minister’s Questions on the day after the leak, Boris Johnson apologised for what played out in the recording, stating that he was “sickened” by it, but then went on to accuse the opposition parties of “playing politics” over the story.
Playing politics is indeed a good way of describing the role-play exercise. We might see the leaked video as a rare opportunity to observe political actors rehearsing what they imagine to be performances of authoritative and persuasive communication. Much of the public will know precisely why the content of this video is so enraging to them, but there are key elements of the aesthetics that add to the offence. These are not necessarily immediately obvious to the untrained eye but a closer analysis helps explain why it has prompted so much anger.
1. Political performance is aesthetic
Before anyone even speaks in the practice press conference, we see the expensively designed room. This is the media briefing suite constructed by the current government at a reported cost of £2.6 million. The oak panelling, solid central podium and royal blue decor are not accidental features. They are components of an aesthetic framing of power. Anyone speaking at that flag-decked podium is the authoritative carrier of official information. Courtrooms have long depended upon such aesthetic allusions to convey authority and gravity.
Participants in the linked video did not expect to be witnessed, so their chairs were laid out in a disordered fashion. The press secretary, giggling at what she imagined to be their private collusion, leans casually over the podium. But the trappings used in this rehearsal of authoritative communication are still present. They were designed to show future viewers that what they were observing was power in action and they still do that in the leaked video – only now they act as an unwelcome reminder.
2. Evasion is a game
Asked about the rule-breaking Christmas party by a member of her mock audience of Downing Street staff, the press secretary immediately senses her task as being to evade and distract. When politics is seen mainly as a strategic game, the smartest people in the room are deemed to be the ones who dodge incriminating questions. When politics is turned into “a parlour game played by small and quasi-intimate circles”, its function as a space for the exchange of views and values is diminished. Here, we see this tendency taken to extremes as public officials make light of what was, at the time, a life-or-death situation.
The fact that the prime minister’s press secretary had previously been a television reporter, whose role in the game was to expose politicians’ evasions and distractions, will have made it much easier for her to ape their performative script and tone.
3. The most important audience is absent
In this rehearsal, journalists were the potential enemy in the room. What was being practised was a traditional game of cat and mouse. Beyond the walls and the grand furnishings in which “the parlour game” plays out are the public. For these performers, the first question would be “will it cut through to them?”. In other words, even if journalists pick up on something negative in the government’s conduct, will anyone care? One of the roles of spin doctors is to divert attention: “nothing going on here”.
But this was at a time when many millions of people were making the most dreadful moral decisions about whether and how to comply with the rules set out for them by the government. The prospect of people, whose family members were dying without visits from their loved ones, turning a tolerant eye to a Downing Street party does seem naïve.
4. It’s all ironic
Political communication involves setting agendas and framing situations. There is nothing inherently dishonest about either of those objectives. Political irony enters the scene when political actors appear to be thinking, saying or implying: “look at me setting the agenda and framing this situation”. At that point, politics begins a subtle shift from substance to strategy – from “this is how it is” to “this is how we’re going to make you think it is”.
But this embarrassing leaked rehearsal was worse than that. All that the hapless actors in this exercise had to offer was irony. In the face of egregious, unjustifiable misbehaviour, all they had to offer was a bad rehearsal of a cover-up. What they produced was little more than an exercise in poor strategy and dishonest substance.
The leaked footage was a rehearsal for a performance that was never to take place in real life. After devoting so much time and money to it, the prime minister changed his mind about the value of running US-style presidential press briefings. While the pomp of such a ritual might have appealed to him, it turned out that the rehearsal was more embarrassing than the televised performance could ever be.