I was on the radio this morning with David Mellor who accused the Cabinet of being appallingly ill-disciplined because of ‘leaks’ in the weekend press. James Forsyth revealed on Saturday that Philip Hammond had told Cabinet that being a train driver is so easy that ‘even’ a woman could do it. Yesterday, Tim Shipman revealed in the Sunday Times that Hammond had gone on to declare that public sector workers were ‘overpaid’.
But here’s the thing: that meeting took place on Tuesday. If Cabinet members were queuing up to leak to journalists then we’d have read about it in Wednesday’s newspapers. It took several days for the information to become public precisely because it was not being made generally available: Hammond’s indiscretions were exposed by two of the best political journalists in Britain who used their contacts to do what they’re paid to do: tell the public what’s being said behind closed doors. I’ve been in this game for almost 20 years and I can’t remember political journalists as well-connected as Forsyth and Shipman. The two work night and day to make sure their readers get the inside scoop, which means earning the trust of your contacts as well as your readers.
James didn’t reveal his sourcing, although you can bet that he’ll only have run a story like that after getting it stood up by multiple sources. Shipman revealed that his Hammond ‘overpaid’ line was confirmed by five – five! – separate Cabinet members. I suspect he added the detail because HM Treasury had falsely denied the story. The reader might think: what a shower! Five of them briefing against Hammond! But a journalist is more likely to admire the quality of Shipman’s contacts. It’s hard to stand up any story if the government lies and issues false denials. Rather pettily, Hammond blamed the stories on Brexit-supporting MPs. But again, if his Cabinet colleagues were really all conspiring against him, he would not have had to wait for days to read about his idiocies in the newspapers.
George Osborne told me once that David Cameron was so freaked out by the quality of James Forsyth’s information that he admonished his colleagues in Cabinet and told them he didn’t want to read the minutes of their meeting in the James Forsyth column. Osborne agreed, then was amazed to see the Cabinet member next to him text James a few minutes later with an update. Cameron was wrong to think he was up against a deplorably leaky Cabinet; he simply was up against an extraordinary journalist. Another time, I went to a leaving drinks for a No10 aide where Cameron was giving a speech and rather ungracious declared “I don’t know if this is a leaving drinks, or a wake for James Forsyth’s column.” Cameron had, almost touchingly, assumed that the departing aide was James’s only No10 source. I imagine the next week’s Spectator was a bit of a shock to him.
Anyway: journalists at the very top of their game will get the scoop no matter if the Cabinet is leaky or tight. So we’re not looking at a government falling apart, we’re looking at political journalism at its best.