How Allegra Stratton’s struggles kept press briefing project off air

Allegra Stratton was supposed to help revolutionise UK government communications when she was appointed to host a daily White House-style press conference from Downing Street.

In the end, the public will get to see only one instance of Stratton standing on the podium of the purpose-built £2.6m briefing room – in a highly damaging leaked recording featuring her laughing at a question about No 10 holding an illegal Christmas party. The public outcry over the video – which led news bulletins and swiftly attracted tens of millions of views online – led to the 41-year-old’s tearful resignation from government on Wednesday afternoon.

Ironically, her struggle to quickly answer the question about a Christmas party in a private rehearsal in December 2020 was among the issues that led the government to ultimately decide it should not put her on air as host of the daily briefings.

Dozens of established political journalists and press spokespeople had originally shown interest in hosting the proposed daily press conferences, which was a pet project of the former communications director Lee Cain. This has created awkwardness after their names became public and they failed to get the job.

The BBC’s political correspondent, Ellie Price, was considered to be the leading candidate for the role during last summer’s auditions. She was praised for her ability to “take the temperature down” when facing tough questions, an individual who was present at the auditions told the Guardian.

Yet the £125,000-a-year job ultimately went to Stratton, who had quit journalism only a few months earlier to become a press adviser to the chancellor, Rishi Sunak – himself a close friend of Stratton’s husband, the Spectator’s political editor, James Forsyth.

Although she helped coin the “Eat out to help out” slogan to promote subsidised dining to revive the restaurant industry, Stratton had little experience of fielding detailed questions from former journalistic colleagues.

“Every metric said she’s not good enough to do the job,” said a person involved in the hiring process for a spokesperson who was expected to become one of the most prominent political figures in the UK. They claimed Stratton was the personal choice of Boris Johnson, who overruled the wishes of other staff members, possibly because Stratton was at that point close to his then fiancee, now wife, Carrie Johnson.

As dress rehearsals for the press conferences continued throughout the autumn of 2020 – with aides chucking tough questions at Stratton to test her responses – it became clear that something was not working. When the winter wave of Covid-19 came in and Downing Street decided to stick with senior ministers addressing the nation on television, the plans for a daily press conference were continually shunted back before being officially axed in April.

Stratton was moved from being the public face of the government to a role as the spokesperson for the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow. In this role she surfaced occasionally – saying a diesel car suited her current lifestyle, suggesting people should help the environment by rinsing their dishes before putting them in the dishwasher, and recommending that the public join the Green party to fight the climate crisis.

When the climate conference finally took place, she stayed in the background while remaining on the public payroll, maintaining a low profile with an unclear role until the leaked recording surfaced.

After working as a BBC producer, Stratton became a reporter at the Guardian in 2007, before being hired as the political editor of BBC Newsnight five years later. The public broadcaster later had to apologise for one of her reports after it was ruled that Stratton had unfairly portrayed a working single mother as unemployed and dependent on benefits.

In 2015 she jumped ship to ITV in the role of national editor, in addition to co-presenting political editor Robert Peston’s weekly politics show. After five years in this job, she announced she would be joining the government as an adviser to Sunak – who was best man at Stratton’s wedding to Forsyth.

The failed press conference project is one of a number of publicly funded schemes designed to boost the image of the government that has also involved the hiring of multiple official government photographers, who are given access that independent press photographers do not enjoy.

As for the multimillion-pound briefing room, it has been used sparingly – although Johnson and Downing Street staff used it for a viewing of the new James Bond film in November.

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