A rival to any boxset: Why Westminster keeps making front page news

Partygate is just the latest dramatic development to engulf Westminster — and ensure national politics forces its way to the top of the news agenda with ease. Dan O’Donoghue, Westminster editor for Reach’s Northern titles, as well as the Northern Agenda email and podcast, takes us inside Westminster through the eyes of a journalist trying to make sense of it all for readers far beyond SW1.

A London landmark, and rarely off the top of the news agenda. Politics has achieved an unrivalled cut-through in recent times

Westminster has dominated the national conversation for the last five years. We’ve had Brexit turmoil, two prime ministers ousted (perhaps soon a third), two general elections and a global pandemic to boot.

Throughout, I’ve been lucky enough to have a front row seat, filing news, analysis and the occasional column from the House of Commons press gallery for news agencies and newspapers, most recently as Westminster Editor for Reach’s northern portfolio of titles in Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Yorkshire and Teesside.

Whether political plotting and party mutinies, late night votes or dramatic Downing Street resignations — it has been a ride to rival any TV box set.

The latest episode in this never ending drama — ‘Partygate’ — has set the British public alight with anger.

A slew of stories about boozy bashes held in the Number 10 garden and basement — complete with DJ, party food and a suitcase full of wine — during the height of lockdown has seen the Tories take a hammering at the polls and Mr Johnson’s personal ratings hit rock bottom.

Dan O’Donoghue

Not since the chaotic Brexit days of Theresa May has there been so much speculation over the future of a Prime Minister, with reports varying wildly from 12 to 35 MPs said to have sent letters of no confidence to the powerful Tory backbench 1922 Committee.

Conservative Party rules dictate that a leadership contest is triggered only if 15% of sitting MPs write no-confidence letters. As it stands, 54 letters would need to be sent.

But the drip, drip, drip of accusations and less than convincing media appearances by Mr Johnson and his senior ministers has done little to steady the ship.

Indeed the daily Downing Street briefing with the Prime Minister’s spokesman has become somewhat of a gladiatorial affair, with awkward questions raining down every morning and afternoon on Mr Johnson’s aides.

Prior to the pandemic, I would be filing all the chaos from a small room on the ‘Burma Road’ — a corridor in the Commons named in memory of POW journalists who died building the Burma Railway for the Japanese during the Second World War.

It sits on the third floor above the Commons chamber and accommodates the majority of the Westminster lobby — the collective noun for journalists who cover Parliament.

To reach it, you either have to walk up a rather bleak, stale-smelling, winding staircase or take a small, wood-panelled lift. From Room Two there are views of Big Ben and Parliament Square — very useful during those heady Brexit days as if there was a protest, you’d often get first eyes on it.

But, like so much else in our Covid world, covering politics over the last two years has been extremely challenging.

Online video calls have been a poor substitute. The usual daily briefings with the Prime Minister’s spokesman, which pre-pandemic have either taken place in a small room in one of the Palace’s towers or in No 9 Downing Street, have also had to adapt.

Briefings have been moved onto a mass conference call, which has often been somewhat of a challenge. But thankfully the process has been streamlined and nowadays, technical issues aside, the press gallery chairman is supplied with a steady ammunition of questions on WhatsApp to fire at Mr Johnson’s spokespeople.

The linguistic gymnastics performed by Mr Johnson’s aides truly have to be heard to be believed at times and I’ve tried to shine a light on the rhythm of the briefings with reports in the Liverpool Echo and Newcastle Chronicle this week.

The ‘pork pie plot’ by a number of northern Tory MPs to oust Mr Johnson and the defection of Bury South MP Christian Wakeford made the Red Wall a key element in this story and our coverage in the Northern Agenda newsletter and podcast has sought to highlight this.

Blackpool South MP Scott Benton shared his views with me on this week’s episode and he was less than impressed with some of his northern colleagues.

Mr Benton told the podcast it was time to draw a line under the matter, but with publication of civil servant Sue Gray’s report into the affair expected any day now — this is a story that will continue to run and run.

  • In 2022, Behind Local News aims to celebrate local journalism in all its forms through our 365 Acts of Local Journalism Project. Lets us know what you think should be included. You can email us here or contact us via Twitter on BehindLocalNews or on Facebook here.

>> See the series so far, here

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The stories behind the stories, from the regional press in the UK

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