Today
Sat 17 April 2021

Exclusive to print for a month, Peter Oborne shares his observations of the political scene, at home and abroad. Here is his February column

Source Uncovered

Jack Doyle, Downing Street’s deputy director of communications, was chief leader writer when I was a political columnist on the Daily Mail. A policeman’s son: straightforward, plain-speaking, a man you’d like alongside you in the trenches. 

That’s why I was a little disappointed to discover, in answer to my appeal for information in this column last month, that Doyle was the “senior Government source” who called Labour Leader Keir Starmer a “shameless opportunist playing political games” in a nakedly partisan attack. 

Doyle is a political appointment, but he is a ‘temporary civil servant’ funded by the taxpayer, earning an annual salary of approximately £110,000. Many people will find it hard to understand why British taxpayers should pay for Doyle’s anti-Starmer diatribe.

To be fair to him, the rules put him in the clear. The Institute for Government guidance says that special advisors are allowed to “represent the views of their minister to the media (including a party viewpoint), where they have been authorised by the minister”.

So we can assume that Doyle was acting with the approval of Boris Johnson.


A Scoopless Scoop

I am more disturbed by the conduct of the lobby journalists – including four political editors – who publicised Jack Doyle’s attack on the Labour leader.  There was no need to name him, but the remarks should have been attributed to the deputy director of communications. 

Instead, the parliamentary lobby presented him as a “senior Government source”, thereby not just protecting his identity but obscuring his role. Political attacks should be out in the open. 

Not for the first time the lobby enabled cowardice, secrecy and deceit.

I used to be a lobby journalist and convention dictated that we withheld the identity of sources (though even that system was controversial and open to abuse). But taxpayer-funded attacks on political opponents are a different matter. This is a fresh example of very senior political journalists acting as the creatures of Boris Johnson’s communications team.

For another example of complicity between journalists and Downing Street, I return to the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg. Three weeks ago, Kuenssberg revealed over Twitter the story that Deputy Cabinet Secretary Helen MacNamara was leaving to work for the Premier League.

Kuenssberg gave a spin to her Twitter commentary, stressing that “bad blood”did not lie behind MacNamara’s departure, which was no more than “Beltway news”. 

However, Kuenssberg did not pass on to her 1.3 million Twitter followers information which placed her little scoop in a very different light. MacNamara was the Cabinet Office civil servant in charge of propriety and ethics. This has been, to put it mildly, a demanding job over the past 12 months during which the Prime Minister has waged war on the Civil Service and its ethical norms. 

Johnson’s team has engineered the departure of a number of permanent secretaries and (as Byline Times has documented) allowed a crony culture to develop among Government contracts given for PPE. 

Dominic Cummings caused MacNamara a series of headaches. Then she found herself caught up in the investigation into allegations of bullying by Home Secretary Priti Patel. McNamara, along with Sir Alex Allan, was given the task of carrying out an investigation into allegations by the Home Office’s Permanent Secretary Sir Philip Rutnam – which got mysteriously held-up in Whitehall. It was reported that she became “particularly unhappy” about the state of the investigation, which was delayed by the Prime Minister. 

Kuenssberg failed to mention these episodes. Nor did she tell her followers that Sir Alex Allan, the Prime Minister’s independent advisor on ministerial interests, announced his own departure from Whitehall just a few weeks earlier. Boris Johnson’s two senior ethical watchdogs left Government one after another.

Nor did Kuenssberg draw attention to the fact that MacNamara quit just eight days before the end of the consultation period for Lord Evans’ landscape review of standards in public life.

There are startling comparisons to be made here with the departure of Walter Shaub, head of the US Office of Government Ethics, from Donald Trump’s administration in July 2017. Not that you learnt this from Kuenssberg. 

When I put questions to the BBC about the episode, a spokesperson told me that “focusing exclusively on a short Twitter thread seems particularly ­misleading and unfair”. The BBC only reported MacNamara’s departure, as far as I can discover, through Twitter to Kuenssburg’s 1.3 million followers. Kuenssberg has reported important stories about ­ministerial ethics in the past ­(including Priti Patel’s breach of the code). But this story was reported devoid of crucial ­context. I cannot urge the BBC ­political editor too strongly to close down her Twitter account.


Blind Eye to Genocide

When Dominic Raab called in the Myanmar Ambassador for a dressing down in the wake of the coup in Yangon, my mind went back to the horrendous weeks in the early autumn of 2017 when Burmese troops swept through Rohingya areas, murdering, raping and burning as they went. Up to 15,000 Rohingya Muslims were systematically killed in what many regard as a genocide.

Boris Johnson was then Foreign Secretary. Johnson’s junior minister responsible for Burma, Mark Field, very nearly blamed the Rohingya themselves for the atrocities. Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi denied that the genocide took place, and could not even bear to utter the name Rohingya.

Given that Britain was at the time the penholder at the United Nations responsible for Myanmar, this counts as one of the most repulsive moments in British history.


French Fabrication

Emmanuel Macron’s emergence as a fabricator and borderline conspiracy theorist in recent remarks about the Astra-Zeneca vaccine came as a surprise to many. But not to those of us who study the French President’s language about Islam.

Last November, the Financial Times published a long letter from Macron which stated that there were French districts where “small girls aged three or four” wear the full veil and are “raised in hatred of France’s values”. 

I contacted the Elysee Palace for it to provide evidence to substantiate this claim. It was unable to do so. I approached the Financial Times. It wouldn’t either. So why did a newspaper which claims to value accuracy allow Macron’s fabrications?

Here’s the answer. 

A few days earlier, the well-regarded FT Brussels correspondent Mehreen Khan wrote an article accusing Macron of choosing to “stoke moral panic about the ‘Muslim Question’”. Macron demanded a right to reply, which the FT published – while taking down Khan’s article from its online platform, ironically enough citing inaccuracies. I’ve been told that this was the first time such humiliation has been visited on an FT journalist.  

This episode stinks. The FT’s Editor Roula Khalaf, new to her post, has got off to an unfortunate start. If she wants to redeem herself, she can start by correcting the errors in President Macron’s FT letter and restoring Mehreen Khan’s article.

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