If you want to gauge the health of the government, just take a look at the Boxing Day papers

A Political Life: The holidays are just another opportunity for spin doctor point-scoring

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If you want to gauge the respective health of the government and opposition operations, always keep an eye on the Boxing Day newspapers. With MPs on holiday, and government business suspended, the papers on 26 December offer a huge blank canvas for political stories. That is either an opportunity to be seized by a hungry, vibrant opposition, or a threat to be nullified by a disciplined, active government. And for both, it’s an opportunity to score brownie points with the poor political hacks who have to work on Christmas Day, or – even better – with their bosses, who can bask at home in the glory of a splash written the previous week.

What did we learn from this year’s Boxing Day papers? Well, Labour had one good hit about squaddies caught by the new “bedroom tax”, while Her Majesty’s unofficial opposition also did well, Tory rebel Dominic Raab getting blanket coverage by helpfully exposing the rise in the number of civil servants paid more than £100,000 under the Coalition. Labour also capitalised effectively on the coverage of the Boxing Day hunts, scrambling shadow Defra minister Mary Creagh to the studios, and making the story its own. By contrast, there was little evidence of any pro-active government media operation. Aside from a rather odd briefing to the Daily Mail by the Justice department about its inability to deport foreign prisoners, I couldn’t see any government-sourced story in the papers, not even a few names from the New Year Honours list. Having left a vacuum, it was no wonder the Government instead found itself dealing with stories such as the bedroom tax, fat-cat mandarins and the Daily Mail’s “Middle-class care bill fiasco” splash.

Hyperactive ministers

There was a similar pattern on Twitter. Labour’s press team issued seven tweets between lunchtime on Christmas Day and lunchtime on Boxing Day. The only tweet issued by Downing Street, the Treasury, the Home Office, the Foreign Office or the Conservative Party in that same period was the CCHQ press office informing its followers that it was “remotely operating in the shadow of a cloud draped Pendle Hill”. Thankfully, the irrepressible Tory chairman Grant Shapps, bucked the trend, not only spending his Christmas Day at an old folks’ charity lunch, but taking the time to tweet about it, and getting himself to the studios on Boxing Day to respond to Mary Creagh. No surprise there. It was Shapps who – as shadow housing minister – spent Christmas Eve 2007 sleeping rough at Victoria station to highlight the plight of homeless children. That’s what I call a hungry, vibrant opposition.

Preventing news is a tiring business

But as we used to say in those days, opposition is easy. I remember marvelling that David Cameron could spend one whole Sunday back then showing a journalist round his vegetable garden in Chipping Norton and cooking them lunch, for the sake of a food feature in a Sunday newspaper. By contrast, being in government, especially when low in the polls, constantly saps your time, energy and morale. In my old role, I dreaded the Friday evening call from a Sunday journalist. Just as I thought I’d escaped for the weekend, they’d come armed with a briefing from the Tories about some obscure legislation that was going to mean a ban on roof racks, beer gardens, or the Last Night of the Proms. Similarly, every Christmas in the Treasury, a journalist would ring up about the Inland Revenue telling a business that its annual gifts to staff would be taxed as benefits in kind. Each time, I’d sigh, wave my staff off to the pub, and sit down to ring the Revenue, unpick the problem, and then convince the journalist it was all a misunderstanding, not a new stealth tax from “Scrooge Gordon”.

It wasn’t having to spend hours killing those kind of stories that was so demoralising; it was knowing that no one but me and the disappointed journalist would ever know what I’d done. I was flogging my guts out to ensure nothing happened and no one noticed. As a psychological experience, it’s right up there with controlling the cooling system at a nuclear power plant.

The dangers when you no longer care

Of course, what appeared in the papers over Christmas won’t even affect the next opinion poll, let alone the next election, so you could argue that the Government is right to focus on the long game, and do what any sensible person was doing this week, recharging the batteries, rather than competing for the attention of an addled populace more interested in Fabrice Muamba’s salsa. However, the deeper concern would be if – Shapps aside – any ministers and advisers are genuinely feeling that weary or deflated just two and a half years into their term in office. Because, as the Labour Party found – albeit much later on – the real danger comes once the attitude that says you can’t be bothered to mount a Boxing Day media operation seeps into your approach to late-night calls on a Friday or Revenue attempts to tax turkeys. It’s what makes you careless about whether the PM’s still got his microphone live in the back of the car, or whether that email you’re about to send is very wise. After all, as the Scientologists say, apathy is only one stage removed from death.

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