Shortly before parliament went into recess, the Prime Minister appointed Robbie Gibb as the government’s new director of communications.
The former head of the BBC’s Westminster team is highly respected in SW1, so it came as a surprise when it emerged yesterday that he had made a sulphurous late-night call to City A.M.’s editor, Christian May, after he tweeted that the Prime Minister and her husband were having dinner with Gibb, Andrew Neil and the former Channel 4 chairman Luke Johnson.
It was an interesting group, and raised some fascinating questions. Was Theresa May getting strategic advice from Neil? Was she considering hiring Johnson?
But Gibb had his own question for Christian: “Who leaked that to you?” Christian said he couldn’t give him that information.
Gibb responded by threatening to fire the entire No 10 communications team. He went on to describe Gavin Barwell, the PM’s new chief of staff, as “a f*cking paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac”.
This conversation never happened, of course. The narrative above is loosely adapted from a New Yorker article describing the infamous briefing that Anthony Scaramucci gave in his first (and only) week as White House comms director, about Reince Priebus. The dinner was with talk show host Sean Hannity and former Fox News executive Bill Shine.
As I watched the news unfold on a trip to the States last week, it struck me how easy it is to become desensitised to the latest story from the White House. Ever since Donald Trump emerged onto the international stage as a contestant in the Republican primaries, his words and tweets have gradually lost their shock value.
So when I now watch the US rolling news, I transpose the latest development into its British context.
Next time President Trump uses Twitter to describe the US attorney general Jeff Sessions as “very weak”, imagine a similar tweet from @theresa_may about @DLidington.
Indeed, the big story which has been lost in the silly season is that the British ship of state has been steadied after the post-election wobble.
Even President Macron, elected at the beginning of May and much feted by the international media, has experienced four ministerial resignations and the departure of the head of the French armed forces.
It’s easy to be down on the UK government, and carp from the sidelines, but it has actually recovered from the election remarkably well.
And that is in no small part down to her new appointees, Gavin and Robbie.
As City A.M. kindly reported in June, I’m now also Shore Capital’s senior political adviser. The business leaders I speak to appreciate the government’s newfound effort to engage with them since the election (the Chevening meeting, the PM’s new business council, etc). But they are also looking for some confidence-boosting measures to enhance economic growth and the attractiveness of the UK as place to invest. These include supply-side reform (beyond low corporate tax rates) and significant infrastructure investment (especially transport and energy). They will be watching the party conferences and the new Autumn Budget closely.
Speaking of Gavin Barwell, one of the additional benefits he brings to his new role is his experience as minister of state for housing. One of the phrases which emerges repeatedly in the post-election analysis about how the Conservatives can take on Jeremy Corbyn’s left-wing populism is “you can’t be a capitalist, without capital”. This is why delivering the Tory manifesto pledge to build 1.5m homes by 2022 is not only the right thing to do, but also a crucial bedrock for our free enterprise economy. Delivering this pledge should be Sajid Javid’s number one priority as the UK communities secretary.
The Legatum Institute, where I’m a senior fellow, is about to publish a paper on how Brexit affects Northern Ireland. The media coverage of this issue tends to focus on the exports between the Republic and Northern Ireland, which amount to 1.6 per cent (RoI to NI) and five per cent (NI to RoI) respectively. Less notice is given to the exports from both countries to Great Britain, some 12.3 per cent (RoI) and 21 per cent (NI) of economic activity. This should provide a strong impetus to the Taoiseach to push for a strong EU-UK trade deal.