In a recent piece for The Times the columnist Daniel Finkelstein recounted a story of the time he watched a particularly riveting Prime Minister’s Questions and eagerly asked a friend if he had seen it. “Of course not,” the friend replied, “I’m working.” Such is the reality of UK politics – most people do not follow Westminster’s weekly jousting. This encouraged Nouse this week to catch up with Allegra Stratton, one of the most informed columnists in Westminster, and Newsnight’s new political editor, to get a picture of how each leader has fared over the past year.
Stratton offers an intriguing take on the current state of the parties. Cameron, she argues, has had “a pretty good year”. She cites the way he has handled the Coalition, both in terms of making it last as long as it has (“a lot of people didn’t think it would”) and in managing to nevertheless convince his backbenches he is one of them.
When asked how, specifically, the Prime Minister has most impressed her most since being elected, Stratton somewhat unexpectedly points to his heartfelt apology in response to the Bloody Sunday inquiry. “The way he did that still stands out in my mind…[that] will probably be something that in years to come we’ll say that was a big moment for Cameron, because…he caught the moment.”
Stratton’s observations on how coalition has changed the Liberal Democrats are some of her most illuminating. She detects a change in Nick Clegg after his “terrible beginning” over tuition fees. “He felt so rotten about reneging on a promise, as he should. And now actually I think that he’s much more sanguine about it being something that he thinks students will realise over the full course of time was actually not a bad deal.”
With regard to the party as a whole she thinks “they are [now] much more careful about doing, dare I say it, the politically right thing to do rather than the necessarily policy right thing to do.”
As for the man seeking to depose the Coalition, Stratton argues Ed Miliband’s analysis – that there is a squeezed middle and such a thing of the promise of Britain – has actually “driven the agenda”, but “you are not really seeing the dividends”.
The problem is he is “really struggling” to turn that into anything more than “a good essay”. The fact that he is “struggling to personally connect with people”, is something Stratton finds remarkable. “When you meet him individually…[you realise it] is not a problem he has.”
Stratton acknowledges Miliband has the problem all opposition leaders face – how do you offer an alternative without committing to specific policies? “The prerogative of opposition is to spend a couple of years licking your wounds and thinking of new ideas”, but by not announcing policies it is hard to offer an alternative.
“He [Clegg] felt so rotten about reneging on a promise, as he should”
Looking ahead to her new role as Newsnight’s political editor, Stratton is “looking forward to merging the two things I’ve done on and off for the past ten years. The thing about political journalism is when you do it well, and I’m not sure I do do it well yet but I want to try, is you boil something down – you don’t iron out complexity – but the hope is you turn that complexity into quite clear sentences.” It is about “shrinking but not over-simplifying.”
Such talk of succinctly presenting things encourages me to ask what effect she thinks Twitter will have on the role of the political reporter. Will the ability of citizens to break news on their mobiles through social media make political journalism increasingly about commentary rather than reporting?
“I think it looks like it’s more about commentary now, but I don’t think that’s true and I don’t think it will come to pass.” She says that reporting tells you “what’s actually going on in Westminster, and what the actual debates and rows are.” It’s “much more substantially relevant to people’s lives, and I think people do look for that when they pick up the newspaper.”
“What Twitter and social media changes is who are compelling authors. You have people who tweet a lot, or blog a lot, who have an authentic voice, [but] I don’t think it undercuts the classic lobby team.”
Whether one is interested in reporting or commentary, Stratton advises they “read every piece of history and politics they can get their hands on. If you understand political theory and recent history it does make you a better journalist, because all these themes do come up. The periods in my life when I read a lot, I still rely on now.”