Media Watch: Sunak will sleep a little easier with his top team in place

Tooled up: Rishi Sunak with chief of staff Liam Booth-Smith, far left.(Photo by Ben Cawthra/REX/Shutterstock)  (Ben Cawthra/REX/Shutterstock)
Tooled up: Rishi Sunak with chief of staff Liam Booth-Smith, far left.(Photo by Ben Cawthra/REX/Shutterstock) (Ben Cawthra/REX/Shutterstock)

Musical differences: that’s what bands used to say to explain painful break-ups and gloss over irreconcilable conflict.

The political equivalent was expressed modestly last week when the top comms chief at No 10 said it was “the right time to move on”.

But only 10 months into the job, loved by her team, presiding over a calm and professional operation, and having brought real polish to the broadcast coverage, it was actually an odd time for Amber de Botton to “move on”.

So what happened? The counter — of course — is that the Conservatives are 20 points behind in the polls, it’s been a chaotic summer of strikes, stubbornly high inflation, a seemingly endless stream of small boats and crumbling concrete in schools.

With only a year until the next election is over or very imminent, it’s make or break time for the party. Internal polling shows clearly that Rishi Sunak can still win next year.

Man-to-man he polls well against a Labour leader who is seen as a “chameleon … standard institutional politician … all platitudes and no substance”.

Strikes surely won’t go on forever, inflation will fall, the economy will grow and it’s hard to believe that next year will feel as hard as last for most households.

But the grim reality of current setbacks causes tensions, and Downing Street is more intense and brutal than almost any boardroom.

Clashes of personality, policy, ideology and outlook means that a prime minister sits on a cauldron of conflicting advice, and if they fail to assert their leadership, the tensions boil over.

The temptation in such circumstances is to get tight — revert to the people you know best and trust instinctively, marginalise anyone who doesn’t share your strong sense of what needs to happen next, and empower your most loyal lieutenants to take charge on your behalf. If all goes well, you feel more resilient, it’s easier to agree a plan and you can take the fight to your opponents.

That in a nutshell, is what we saw last week. Some would argue that Grant Shapps’s promotion to Defence is about taking the political fight to the Labour enemy, though I see it more as creating space to bring Claire Coutinho into the Cabinet.

Hugely able, charming and on brand as a young minister with a Treasury, City, Oxford and ethnic Indian backgrounshe’s  the perfect reminder of what we have in the PM himself. And, above all, she’s loyal.

Sunak will miss De Botton but he’ll sleep a little better knowing that his press secretary, Nerissa Chesterfield, is now in the top comms job. Meanwhile Liam Booth-Smith is more powerful and tooled up than ever as his chief of staff, having hired a former flatmate — among others — to work for him.

They are all able, but more importantly at this stage in the electoral cycle they are personally reassuring for Sunak.

Like a band they all know their respective roles in re-producing the classics, pleasing the audience and getting each other through the tough times. And their shared associations are mostly positive. The PM now has the line-up that created “brand Rishi” — easily mocked but much admired. It’s back to the people who promoted “Dishy-Rishi” before the focus on his family’s tax affairs and the police fine for “partygate”.

They were there when he was bailing out businesses, covering family fuel bills, driving us all to eat out and ensuring he looked his best on Instagram.

I’m not aware of anyone seeking to drive Amber de Botton out, but a journalist of her calibre can read the room.

I joined a political team that had been forged in the blast furnace of the Vote Leave campaign. Some were pretty good because of that, some in spite of that, and some were useless and only made it in politics because loyalty to that cause trumped professional competence.

I managed to slot in because Brexit was pretty much parked by then and I had deeper roots with the boss.

But leaving a newsroom that helped bring down one Conservative leader to take up a role promoting a successor was always going to be hard.

And most courts have a destructive dynamic that people outside the political fray would find incomprehensible and infuriating. The comms chief has considerable power and influence at the heart of government but it derives almost entirely from being your master’s voice.

When your lips are moving, people should feel they are listening to the PM. If they don’t, it’s a different job.

Again, I don’t know if this is true for Amber de Botton but I’ve seen key aides locked out of meetings, denied critical data, kept out of important WhatsApp groups and briefed against in the press. The Tory capacity for self harm runs deep.

A latecomer to tribal politics, De Botton may have felt uncomfortable in the electoral engine room. Interestingly the director of communications sits with his or her team in the back of No 12. The other key aides tend to sit together — just outside the PM’s study.

That physical reality shouldn’t matter, but in a tough environment every advantage is deployed.

The danger for the PM is that the outer office — which feels like a bunker — can easily become one.

The comms team, by definition, is more rooted in the world outside. It’s the front line for the press, media and ultimately the public.

So if the director of comms feels there’s nothing for them in the engine room, there’s a real danger that voters will come to the same conclusion.