LONDON - It could have been a scene taken from “The Thick of It,” the internationally acclaimed British comedy series satirizing the inner workings of the British government.
The country’s top political reporters, collectively known as the Lobby, were summoned last week to No. 10 Downing Street for a special post-Brexit briefing, but once they had arrived, those considered hostile to Brexit or Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government were excluded.
That provoked the fury of the entire Lobby with all reporters walking out in protest. Britain’s main national newspapers reacted in anger — with even pro-Johnson tabloid newspapers criticizing the rare upset of the well-established protocols of parliamentary reporting and the Conservative government’s seeming determination to pick and choose who receives briefings.
“Information which should be available on the record, and of a type which was briefed freely in the past, is now being handed out as a favor to selected journalists in the expectation of favorable coverage,” said Adam Boulton, political editor of Sky News. “No. 10 is trying to control the media, and everyone in our democracy should be afraid,” he tweeted.
Last week’s spat came just days after Cabinet ministers were told to boycott a flagship BBC morning radio news program, which has a reputation for criticizing government officials. The squabble is being seen as an opening skirmish in what’s likely to turn into a long-running Johnson campaign to try to refashion key British institutions in ways more favorable to the ruling Conservatives, also known as Tories.
Prime Minister Johnson and his chief strategic adviser, Dominic Cummings, an iconoclast who’s been likened to Steve Bannon, U.S. President Donald Trump’s onetime firebrand counselor, appear determined to remake the BBC and the civil service, curb what they see as judicial overreach and political activism by judges, sidestep the so-called mainstream media and shake up Britain’s liberal-leaning universities.
Not since Britain’s Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, took on public institutions in the 1990s, lambasted reporters as “moaning minnies,” (Note: minny is a carp fish) and described her Cabinet ministers as lacking a backbone, has Britain’s so-called establishment been so nervous — and outraged.
The wider war was declared by Cummings in his less than discreet blog last month when he complained about what he dubbed “The Blob,” a reference to the 1988 remake of a Hollywood science fiction movie of the same name in which an amorphous, amoeba-like organism devours everything in its path. Cummings’ "blob" is an eclectic mix of cautious bureaucrats, academics, the mainstream media, judges and the traditional mouthpieces of British business, the Confederation of British Industry, the CBI, and the Institute of Directors.
For Cummings and his boss they are reactionary forces, which are pro-European Union, liberal-leaning and far too politically correct — as well as lacking optimism about post-Brexit Britain and Downing Street’s upbeat vision of a "global Britain."
Recently, Cummings called for “weirdos and misfits” to apply for jobs in Downing Street and the government quarter of Whitehall, saying what the new Johnson government needs is “true cognitive diversity” and not “more drivel about ‘identity’ and ‘diversity’ from Oxbridge humanities graduates.”
Graduates from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge have traditionally dominated the corridors of British power.
The Johnson-led and Cummings-advised government is moving quickly to combat the blob. Ministers are talking about decriminalizing non-payment of television licenses, which partly fund the BBC. And they are considering a judicial shake-up which could see Britain’s Supreme Court disbanded. Judges could see more restrictions introduced to hedge in their discretionary powers when sentencing.
The Downing Street door is being slammed shut on the CBI and the Institute of Directors. None of their officials was invited this month to a keynote Johnson speech outlining his plans for post-Brexit Britain.
And when it comes to the mainstream media, the government is copying the Trump White House by using social media sites — from Twitter to YouTube — to promote its governing narrative. On Brexit night, Johnson did not appear on any national television programs to welcome in a new era; instead Downing Street posted a broadcast straight to the internet.
Johnson supporters say the British prime minister has no choice but to take on the blob. Allister Heath, editor of The Sunday Telegraph and a prominent Johnson cheerleader, says, “It's now or never – Boris must beat the Blob or be suffocated by it.” He says the blob exists, “but no longer in small town America: its new home is Whitehall, and it has developed a predilection for gobbling up Tory politicians and advisers.”
Others, though, see the Johnson game plan as having political affinity with the populist shake-up under way in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a champion of what he once dubbed “illiberal democracy,” has taken on his country’s public institutions and battled a not dissimilar cast of foes.
Last month, Orban praised Johnson as one of the “the most courageous, the most dynamic” leaders and one of the most likely “to effect change.” A former Johnson aide and influential Conservative commentator, Tim Montgomerie, returned the compliment at two research group events in December and January in Budapest, Hungary, where he praised Orban for “interesting early thinking on the limits of liberalism” and compared the two populist leaders.
He said, “Long-term trends in economics and culture” are “changing how people align themselves,” and predicted Johnson’s Britain and Orban’s Hungary would forge a “special relationship.”
But not all Johnson supporters are as sanguine and fear the British prime minister may be over-reaching by taking on too many powerful institutions at once. Writing in the business daily City AM, Michael Hayman, a co-founder of Seven Hills, a London-based communication consultancy, warned, “Boris has a war to fight, and he’s going to need all the friends he can get.”