‘Extraordinary’ is perhaps the most over-used word in the Westminster lexicon. Days, statements, speeches, developments – all are routinely described as extraordinary, so often that the word is, well, ordinary. But some extraordinary things deserve the term more than others. A statement issued yesterday by the Department for International Development about Priti Patel’s holiday is more than ordinarily extraordinary.
I’ll leave aside the fairly obvious politics of all this: under any other circumstances, Ms Patel would have been sacked, and the fact that she hasn’t been is just another comment on the state of Theresa May’s premiership. Instead, I just want to draw your attention to that statement itself, that artefact, a creation of historical interest.
Consider, for a second, how such a statement comes about. Think about the sheer, gaping horror of the private office, the communications director, the special adviser, the permanent secretary when they all face up to the facts: several days after it was first reported that their secretary of state had unrecorded meetings with a foreign politician, you learn that not only were there a lot more meetings (including one with a foreign PM), but your minister has, on the record, said things about all this to a newspaper (and the Guardian, for God’s sake) that are not, to put too fine a point on it, true.
This, of course, is about as bad as things get in political comms and crisis management – or it used to be, anyway. It means your minister has broken several of the cardinal rules. Rules like ‘when the story breaks, get everything out on Day 1’. Rules like ‘don’t withhold details from your own people’. Rules like ‘never, ever, ever lie on the record’.
Then imagine how all those people felt when they realised that, yes, actually, this could get worse because this story was not going to follow its naturally ordained course and end with a resignation letter. That the secretary of state was actually going to stay in office after all that. And that they were therefore going to have to make some sort of attempt to justify all this. In writing. On the record.
Which brings us to that statement, which I think is one of the most extraordinary bits of official government communication I’ve seen since I first came to Westminster as a reporter in 2001. My memory is doubtless cloudy, but I certainly don’t recall an on-record press release that attempted to ‘clarify the position’ and explain how on-record remarks by a minister ‘may be read as implying’ something that wasn’t true. That the minister’s ‘lack of precision in the wording she used’ may have left people with a false impression of her action.
Now, this isn’t new or unique. Post-hoc clarification, fire-fighting and spin has always happened. But off the record, on the phone, in texts, and done by ‘sources’ and ‘friends of’. There’s something – yes, that word again – about seeing it down in black and white under the HMG letterhead. It’s not the Rubicon, but a small stream has been crossed, I feel.
Where it leaves Ms Patel and the May government, I honestly don’t know. But in these extraordinary times, take a second to reflect on that statement. Think of the people who crafted it: they made the best of a very, very bad job. And think of the fruit of their labour, a text that should probably be considered a work of art.
No, it’s not beautiful or lovely; far from it. But art isn’t just about beauty. It’s about the human condition, about history and the era in which it is made. And that extraordinary statement says something quite profound about the extraordinary politics of our times.