Lobby Fires Back at Number 10

The Government’s decision to move No. 10 Press Briefings from Parliament to Downing Street has continued to rile the Lobby. After two days of briefings and a meeting this morning, the Lobby’s Chairman Chris Hope has written to Number 10 Director of Communications, Lee Cain, to set out the position of his members.

Hope’s message on behalf of the Lobby lays out two reasons why the new situation is uncomfortable for them, namely that it is harder to manage for smaller publications and that they will have “ask permission from the Government to be briefed by the Prime Minister’s official spokesman, rather than meet in a room in Parliament.”

The message goes on to say “the committee decided that the new plans make it impractical to continue with the informal ‘huddle’ after Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesdays given its proximity to the 3.45pm meeting.” The huddle after PMQs would be some 3 hours before that afternoon meeting. 2 briefings n afternoon seems too much like hard work for the hacks…

Expect more of this animosity in the weeks ahead. Read the text in full now:

Dear Lee,

Thanks for your text message in response to the Lobby committee’s letter last Thursday (2 January 2020) setting out our concerns about the Government’s changes to all Lobby meetings.

Around 40 members of the Lobby met with the committee this morning to consider how we propose to go forward with the new arrangements given their imposition without any consultation and your refusal to meet to discuss them.

The committee reiterated that from the outset we are all firmly supportive of Lobby briefings and recognise their importance in holding the Government to account.

It also made clear that it sees no problem with holding the morning Lobby meeting in 9 Downing St. Historically these morning meetings have been in a Government building.

The problem continues to be the moving of the afternoon XXXpm meeting and all afternoon ‘huddles’ from Parliament to 9 Downing St, behind police-guarded security gates on Whitehall.

To this end, we believe it would be helpful if you could set out your concerns with the existing arrangement that you are seeking to address by changing the briefing structure around huddles and afternoon briefings.

The committee was clear that its concern has never been about a reluctance to ‘cross the road’ for a briefing.

Far more pertinently:

1) It will severely damage the ability of smaller publications, websites, agencies with small staffs to attend the meeting and scrutinise the work of the Government and Parliament. I have received submissions from the Deputy Editor of the Yorkshire Post, the Society of Editors, and the Newspaper Marketing Association as well as contributions from the Political Editors of the Daily Record, The Herald, Associated Press among others, all making the same point about the damage to scrutiny of the Government. I will forward these separately.

2) For the first time in its 150 year history Lobby journalists will have to ask permission from the Government to be briefed by the Prime Minister’s official spokesman, rather than meet in a room in Parliament. The committee remains very concerned that the current or a future Government will be able to use this power to refuse access to journalists it may not approve of. This would be hugely damaging to the freedom of the Press.

Despite these serious concerns the Lobby committee decided to continue to attend the briefings with the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman at the new location in 9 Downing Street at XXXXpm, or at 9 Downing St after PM statements in the House of Commons.

We do accept reservations about the way ‘huddles’ are conducted and would like to find a better compromise for that works for both sides. This could for the Lobby chairman to keep order in the briefings in the Lower Reporters’ Gallery or move them to the Lobby room in Parliament, and ensure they are chaired by the Lobby chairman.

However the committee decided that the new plans make it impractical to continue with the informal ‘huddle’ after Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesdays given its proximity to the XXXpm meeting that.

We would be delighted if the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary could in future attend this Wednesday afternoon meeting along with the PM’s Official Spokesman instead of the usual ‘huddle’ if they want to brief politically.

I would be most grateful if you acknowledge receipt of this letter. The invitation in my letter dated Thursday 2 Jan 2020 for a meeting to discuss this issue remains open.

The Lobby committee will meet again in a month to discuss how the new arrangements are working.

Yours sincerely

Christopher Hope
Chairman of the Parliamentary Lobby

cc Rt Hon Boris Johnson, Prime Minister
cc James Slack, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman

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