The TaxPayers’ Alliance is demanding ministers urgently explain why public money went on a £2.6 million Downing Street TV studio, only for proposed US-style televised press briefings to be axed.
The briefings were due to be fronted by Boris Johnson’s press secretary Allegra Stratton, who now moves to become his spokeswoman for the COP 26 climate change summit, due to be held in November in Glasgow.
The £2.6 million purpose-built TV studio designed specifically for White House-style afternoon briefings was only completed last month. Officials confirmed tonight that the proposed televised briefings will now not take place after months of delays.
John O’Connell, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, told PoliticsHome: “Without an urgent explanation, taxpayers will be furious that their funds were wasted on the government’s high-priced spin suite.”
Officials say the TV set, housed in Number 9 Downing Street, will continue to be used regularly by the Prime Minister for intermittent press conferences on coronavirus, and other political events.
Ministers and officials are also expected to use it, and it will be the location of off-camera physical meetings of lobby journalists and the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson when this begins again face to face.
The studio, kitted out with a bright blue background and Union Jacks and No 10 branded lecturns, was first unveiled in March.
It was reported to be the brainchild of ex-communications director Lee Cain, who quit the government in the autumn, allegedly over a row about who would become Johnson’s chief-of-staff. This role has since gone to Dan Rosenfield.
Cain, a former journalist and Vote Leave campaigner, had envisaged that the afternoon televised briefings for lobby journalists would be fronted by a well-known senior broadcaster, but he was reportedly against Stratton taking on the job.
The format used by the White House involves journalists asking the President’s spokesperson questions live on camera, with notable press secretaries during the Trump era including Sean Spicer and Kayleigh McEnany.
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said this evening the money used on the TV set could have gone towards nurses’ pay rises instead.
She said: “Instead of wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on a pointless vanity project the Prime Minister should have used the money to give our NHS heroes a pay rise.”
Stratton, who joined the government initially as Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s director of communications, said in a statement: “I am delighted to be starting this new role. The COP 26 climate conference is a unique opportunity to deliver a cleaner, greener world and I’m looking forward to working with the Prime Minister and Alok Sharma to ensure it is a success.”
In January, when the TV press briefings failed to get off the ground for a second time, Stratton said the government wanted to assess what the best way of communicating with the public was while the coronavirus pandemic continued and how to effectively get across public health messaging.
“We are looking closely at the best communication for the period we now find ourselves in,” she said at the time.
Political journalists currently get the chance to ask the prime minister’s official spokesperson questions, off camera, every day when Parliament is sitting.