Life on the road with the PM
HIROSHIMA – International diplomacy is an unavoidable part of every prime minister’s working life – and being followed around by a pack of journalists is an unavoidable part of international diplomacy.
Several times a year the premier trots off to a summit – G7, G20, Nato, UN, Commonwealth – and at least once or twice they will also do a bilateral visit to cement relations with one country in particular.
For the press pack which accompanies the PM whenever he (or, previously, she) goes abroad for more than about 24 hours, these trips offer an unbeatable opportunity to see the leader working up close. But not always as close as you may think.
The jaunts often start in the decidedly unglamorous setting of Stansted Airport, whose private jet centre – decorated in the silver, grey and mirrored surfaces of a football WAG – is now No 10’s favourite departure point.
The Government uses one of two planes. One, the RAF Voyager, is large enough to reach almost any destination in a single hop but does not have Wi-Fi, making it tricky for the prime minister (or reporters) to work on the flight; the other, a much smaller charter plane, must stop for refuelling after around eight hours but does boast internet connectivity. The tech-friendly Rishi Sunak usually insists on using the latter.
Once on board, the food is decidedly superior to standard BA fare – albeit still, ultimately, airline food. Spiced tofu, roast chicken and fruit skewers are among the usual favourites. For the journalists (or, rather, their employers), none of this comes cheap: Downing Street charges a hefty fee, much higher than the rate for a commercial flight, to defray the overall cost of the journey to taxpayers.
It is on this flight that the most idiosyncratic moment of all takes place: the huddle. The prime minister holds what is effectively a press conference, but in the ultra-cramped corridor of a metal tube hurtling through the skies, his voice almost drowned out by the engines, with each reporter getting at least one chance to fire a question about the upcoming trip – or, frankly, about anything else they like.
It is not unknown for leaders to be so flustered by the sheer variety of topics that they accidentally create a new Government policy on the hoof, leaving a tricky job for their spin doctors to undo.
The other tricky job is that of the journalist designated to decide what order their colleagues can ask questions and when the resulting stories can be published, a task that often falls to the chairman of the Lobby organisation representing political reporters (which this year is, alas, me).
The rest of the flight is taken up with desperate attempts to send over our stories and then catch some sleep before the inevitably frenetic schedule of the summit or tour itself.
These can be remarkably short: Mr Sunak’s first big trip, to Bali for the G20, involved just two nights’ stay and his visit to San Diego for a submarines summit was just a single night.
The current tour of Japan is a little longer, at three nights, but that included a breakneck visit to Tokyo which ended up no longer than nine hours before we travelled another 400 miles to Hiroshima.
The journalists, along with their superbly competent No 10 handlers, are usually put up in a separate hotel from the main Government delegation to reduce the chance of awkward encounters or unwanted information leaks – although Boris Johnson had a habit of ending up on an early-morning swim at the same time as the reporters covering his activities.
From this point onwards, things can get strange. Depending on the attitude of the host country, it is not always possible for reporters to access the venue of the summit they are supposed to be covering; even if they get into the complex, they are usually forbidden from witnessing any of the substantial exchanges between leaders.
No 10’s great fear is always that, shut out of the main news, journalists will create mischief – for example by doorstepping foreign delegates and asking what they really think of Britain’s leaders – so they go to great lengths to put on an array of alternative activities that the reporters can opt into if they are not otherwise occupied.
Mountain summits and the tops of tall buildings are a great favourite, as are cultural highlights such as temples, sports grounds or castles. (The great exceptions here are broadcasters, who have to be seen on TV in exotic locations, and the benighted “pool” reporters from the Press Association and other wire services who attend the first three minutes of every official event to provide a description of the pleasantries for the rest of the media.)
This psychological separation can be displayed in highly visible form: at G7 summits in particular it is common for the journalists to be confined to entirely different towns from the world leaders, a tendency taken to its extreme last year when the hacks were sent to a hotel in Austria while Mr Johnson and his colleagues relaxed in Germany, a not-so-short hop over the border.
Ultimately, these trips sometimes end up as long stretches of pleasant tedium in an interesting setting, punctuated by furious flurries of activity when a diplomatic row breaks out or an unexpected deal is struck – and ended, inevitably, with a press conference whose length is squeezed by the need to dash for the final flight home, allowing the PM to take only four or five questions.
While they may dodge full scrutiny, it remains to the credit of successive prime ministers that they have never seriously tried to block journalists from coming along with them or shut out the outlets that give them less favourable coverage.
Sometimes they even come for a strictly off-record natter at the back of the plane on the way home – though that may depend on whether they actually managed to achieve anything while locked away with their fellow leaders.