Cracks are beginning to appear at the heart of the Downing Street comms operation, with the Liberal Democrats accused of riding roughshod over the Number 10 media grid.
Advisers to Prime Minister David Cameron are becoming increasingly frustrated with Lib Dem media tactics, as Nick Clegg’s party attempts to distance itself from the Conservatives ahead of the local elections on 5 May.
The Deputy PM and his aides are accused of briefing out their own stories, rather than sticking to the news grid, which aims to maximise the impact of major Government announcements.
‘There has been much annoyance recently about Clegg’s off-grid activities,’ said one well-placed insider.
Coalition comms sources said there was acute frustration inside Number 10 last week when Clegg gave a surprise media interview fuelling speculation about a possible ‘mansion tax’. The story overshadowed StartUp Britain, Cameron’s initiative to support entrepreneurs, which had occupied a central slot in the news grid.
Two days later, Downing Street comms chiefs were again annoyed by Lib Dem media activity, when Clegg’s aides briefed out key details of the Government’s social mobility strategy – a week before it was due to be launched.
The Lib Dems are said to be keen to ‘open distance with the Tories’ to avoid a drubbing in the local elections on May 5. But the off-grid briefings have caused consternation in Downing Street given that Clegg’s top aides attend regular Number 10 grid meetings. ‘They have plenty of opportunity to join up,’ noted one source.
In addition, Cameron and Clegg have a weekly Monday morning meeting which includes a standing item where they look at the grid for the week ahead.
Coalition sources also spoke of concern in Number 10 that ‘someone on the Lib Dem side has been consistently briefing against the health reforms’. In particular, the Lib Dems are suspected of being behind a number of stories in recent weeks suggesting that the Government is putting the brake on Health Secretary Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms.
The cracks in the Number 10 media operation have come to light just weeks after PRWeek revealed the departure of Paul Brown, the highly regarded civil servant who set up the news grid in 1998 with Alastair Campbell.
Brown retired last month after 12 years running the grid – working for three different prime ministers. He has been replaced by Robin Gordon-Farleigh who previously performed a similar job at the Department for Health.
The Downing Street comms operation has also been shaken up in recent weeks by the arrival of BBC journalist Craig Oliver as comms director and pollster Andrew Cooper as strategy director.
A Number 10 spokeswoman said she was not aware of such tensions in the comms operation.
‘I really don’t recognise the assertion,’ she said. ‘We work very closely with the DPM’s office, as we do with all government departments, when it comes to planning news about government business.’
News from Number 10
- BBC journalist Craig Oliver recently took over from Andy Coulson as No 10 comms director. Around the same time, pollster Andrew Cooper joined as strategy director
- The No 10 news grid is now run by Robin Gordon-Farleigh. He has moved across from the Department of Health to fill the shoes of long-serving grid chief Paul Brown
- The Deputy PM's media advisers include Lena Pietsch and Sean Kemp. Civil servant James Sorene was recently appointed as the DPM's head of comms, having been head of news at the Department of Health. The DPM's 'grid planner' Tim Snowball left his post late last year.