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by Louise Wilson
07 May 2023
Sketch: Rishi Sunak attempts to hide from the press pack

Credit: Iain Green

Sketch: Rishi Sunak attempts to hide from the press pack

The mood lighting in the room was blue. Blue for the Tories, of course, but you couldn’t help but feel it reflected the mood.

The Scottish Conservative Conference was all a bit like a late-night underground jazz bar, entrance round the back. You could almost hear the downbeat piano chords as person after person got up on stage to lament: “Woe is me, woe is me, living under that ghastly SNP”.

That’s not to say there wasn’t some joy. Practically every speaker made a joke about campervans or burner phones, and the audience lapped it up. It must be joyous times when, for once, the word ‘sleaze’ in politics isn’t directed towards their own party.

And the man behind that recovery, the main event, was Rishi Sunak. Support act Craig Hoy MSP tried to get the room excited about the main man.

Sunak was a prime minister who had protected millions of jobs during the pandemic, Hoy said, and a prime minister who was getting the economy back on track. He was also a prime minister who the Tory membership rejected just last summer. That fact didn’t feature in Hoy’s speech, for some reason.

Losing leadership elections aside, Sunak had some amends to make from a serious faux pas. Instead of delivering a speech last year, he sent a two minute video message of 322 words to conference. It did not go down well.

This year he bothered to turn up – briefly, before jetting off the Newport to do the same for the Welsh Tories in the afternoon. He beat his previous record by speaking for a whopping eight minutes and uttering more than three times as many words. All of them vacuous nonsense about standing up to the SNP, naturally, but you have to give the people what they want.

Still, the membership slowly got to their feet to applaud. It’s the right and proper thing to do, and what would the British Conservatives be without manners? “Thank you, thank you,” replied the prime minister, delighted with his standing ovation.

They may take our news lines, but they’ll never take our press freeeedooom

Next came a sit-down chat with the Scottish leader Douglas Ross, who began by making some joke about getting the chance to question a party leader on a weekly basis but usually not getting any answers. Ross seemed to expect more from his boss…

A question from one member, Ross said, was this: What can we do to win the next general election? Nervous laughter filters through the room. Most of them know the game’s a bogey.

“We’ve got to have belief,” replied Sunak confidently. Much like fairies, every time someone says they don’t believe in the Conservatives, a leadership dream dies. You have to clap to revive them. Sunak is the boy who never grew up, who believes he can fly high in the polls.

Meanwhile, the press pack were waiting behind the scenes to see if they could wrangle five minutes with the PM. Seven journalists had received Golden Tickets to speak to him and the rest weren’t happy. Nothing binds the Scottish Parliamentary Journalists’ Association like the hint of a story about avoiding scrutiny.

After blocking one of the corridors in the SEC, round one went to the SPJA. “Ok, do you know what? Let ‘em all in,” a No 10 aide said. About 20 journalists flooded into the room where Sunak was meant to be. But this was merely the battle, not the war.

Ten minutes went by and another aide came in to argue. No 10 had arranged for six journalists to ask one question each – that is all he had time for. The rest of the press shouldn’t be here, he said.

But the journalists had set up for a siege. And they had already tasted victory. “The entire huddle may be cancelled,” warned the aide. “Ha! Let them try,” replied the press. Out came the phones – truly the reporters’ greatest weapon – and a flurry of tweets about secrecy and restricting access.

Another emissary from No 10 entered the room after 20 minutes. The prime minister was already running late, and the press were making him later with this debacle. But they were willing to offer a compromise: one question, filmed on camera. That’s it.

The SPJA had a stronger whip than any political party could ever dream of, and so the reply was unanimous: No. More tweets were sent.

Another ten minutes went by and another diplomat strolled into the room. No 10 is now prepared to offer three clips for TV, plus the six questions for the print huddle. They framed it as though they were driving a hard bargain, but it was actually more than the journalists were originally asking for. Cheers all round, to the victors the spoils.

“You can all delete your tweets about us restricting access,” the aide added – to the guffaws of journalists.

Echoing William Wallace/Mel Gibson, the SPJA screamed: “They may take our news lines, but they’ll never take our press freeeedooom!”

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