Having argued yesterday that the demise of the grid system explains a lot of the problems the Government has been having, as well as the oddly stoical response of Steve Hilton, I’m going to consider today the possible rationale for that demise.
Let’s remember that, in the early days of this Government, it leaked like an old church roof. Michael Gove was almost destroyed by leaks in his first months at Education, and just 10 days after the Coalition was formed, we saw the unprecedented leaking of the entire Queen’s Speech to the intrepid Sunday pairing of Paddy Hennessy and Vincent Moss.
The leaking of that period was mostly blamed on disgruntled, Labour-friendly civil servants, although – in my experience and the experience of most people with leaky roofs – the more drips there are, the heavier the flow gets and the more diverse the sources.
If you’re a brand new Minister or special adviser, keen to build relationships with the media, nothing is more tempting than leaking the odd titbit that you’ve seen in a Cabinet paper, especially if you’re in Coalition and owe no party loyalty to the Minister concerned, and if you know those ubiquitous ‘Whitehall moles’ are going to get the blame.
Now, in that context - if you’re Steve Hilton or Andy Coulson in May 2010 - do you view the existence of an ‘Upcoming Business’ document detailing every Government announcement for the next fortnight as a helpful tool for good government, or as a massive hole in your defence against leaks?
Do you regard the grid traditionally circulated across Government (minus the accompanying detailed document) as a helpful device to ensure Departments and Ministers know the plan for each day, or as an invitation for untrustworthy colleagues to sit down over a pint with journalists and try and work out what ‘Forest Management Consultation’ might mean (Erm, a posthumous knighthood for Brian Clough?)
And the reality is, for all its success as an organisational tool under New Labour, the grid and the ‘Upcoming Business’ document were the source of many a leak. A whole journalistic phrasebook exists because of it: “busting the grid” or “a bit of gridology”, all code for using the headlines in the grid to decipher an upcoming announcement.
So an enterprising journalist might be told by a friendly adviser that there’s an interesting line in the grid saying: “Trains: Alcohol”. He or she does a bit of Googling to see what the IPPR, the BMA, the Police Federation or others have been recommending. They then call the Home Office late on a Friday and say:
“Hi, I’ve had a briefing about this trains and booze story for next week, which is all fine – we’re probably going to splash it – and I’ve got all the quotes I need, but I’m a bit unclear which of your Ministers is making the statement – is it the boss or one of the juniors? Ah, OK. And the only other thing I’m unclear about is will there be options in the document, or is it just the main proposal? Ah, OK. And what’s the official way you’d like that worded so we don’t set any hares running? Ah, fine. Let me get that down. Thanks very much.”
Now of course it isn’t always as easy as all that. But over the New Labour years, many a story was fleshed out and stood up from a couple of words in the grid, let alone the several paragraphs of detail found in the ‘Upcoming Business’ document.
So, going back to Hilton and Coulson, you can absolutely see why one of the first things they did on entering Downing Street – upon facing a string of damaging leaks – was to reduce the number of people allowed to attend the grid meetings, reduce the copy list for the ‘Upcoming Business’ document, and both restrict and delay the circulation of the grid across Whitehall.
Nevertheless, in an unsuccessful effort to solve one problem (the leaks continued anyway, witness Budget 2012), they created another, far bigger problem, losing the control that the grid offered them over the government machine, perhaps before they’d realised its importance in that respect.
I can imagine why Hilton stopped attending the grid meetings; not just because they were Coulson’s show, but because once you haven’t got all the right people round the table, they cease to be of any value.
Every government faces leaks; they’re annoying, but they’re rarely fatally damaging. What is fatal is the government losing grip over what it’s announcing, how, when, and most importantly why. If the price you pay for that grip is the occasional unscheduled Sunday paper splash, it’s worth every penny.