Why Westminster needs gossip

‘Gossip is as important as the green benches in the chamber of the House of Commons. Without it, the country would sink’

Westminster
“Politicians in the  Smoking Room of the House of Commons”, 1884. Via Wellcome Collection CC BY 4.0

Every few years, someone will write a column bemoaning the fact that gossip has permeated every sphere of public life. “Isn’t it awful, all this political gossip dominating the headlines?”, they will say, and everyone will agree. “Before social media, in my time . . .”, they’ll add, and a discussion will start, eyebrows will be raised and sighs will be sighed, and nothing will change. Before “before social media” it was “before the internet”, and before that it was “before the tabloids” and before that it was something else.

In 2004, the Independent’s Johann Hari moaned that: “Britain is sliding towards an American style of politics, where we obsess about the ‘character’ of our politicians rather than their policies. This is new.” Four years beforehand, novelist and former Labour backer Ken Follett criticised Tony Blair for making “malicious gossip an every-day tool of modern British government.” For writer A.L. Kennedy in 2014, this dreadful state of affairs started when Michael Foot was brought down by wearing what was rumoured to be a donkey jacket at the Cenotaph in 1981, which “marked the end of politicians as primarily intellectuals, ideas-men, and was a triumph for gossip”.

They are wrong, of course: politicians and those around them spending their days sharing rumours and secrets with each other is nothing new. We like to think of past Westminster dwellers as giants, but very few were; as political philosopher Chester C. Maxey put it in 1954: “So high is the standard of behaviour expected of the politician that we refuse him the benefit of any doubt until after he is dead. Then, if he is sufficiently eminent and not too odious, we exalt him as a statesman and erect a monument to his memory.”

What he (presumably) meant is that politicians are, well, people. People who are flawed, who do not always get angry or feel happy at the right things and who make poor decisions if they are stressed or sleep-deprived. People who want to know what other people are saying even if it is none of their business: people who form friendships, fall in love, get a bit too drunk, and sometimes act like selfish oafs if they think they can get away with it.

And like people, politicians talk: about each other and others not in the room, about what may happen, what should and what hasn’t. Gossip is as important to Westminster as the green benches in the chamber of the House of Commons. Without it, the country would sink. For journalists, it is about finding out what MPs really think, beyond the press releases and TV appearances, as otherwise they will have no idea if political parties are on the way up, down, or headed for an all-out civil war.

For party leaders and those around them, it is about keeping track of which faction may soon become a problem, which MPs are popular and need their ambitions quelled, and which ones behave questionably and risk bringing the party into disrepute. For civil servants, it is about knowing where their minister stands on the political chessboard, and whether there is a point in trying to push policies through, or, when they are persona non grata with No. 10, it is a question of putting their feet up and waiting for the inevitable sacking.

As one civil servant put it (rather bluntly): “There was a minister who wanted a particular policy and was pushing hard for it. We just discounted what he said because it was clear that he was on the outs with No. 10 so we were not really going to prioritise it. You don’t give a shit about them: if you did you wouldn’t really be able to do your job, because you have to be aware of things colliding above your head.”

Focusing on the informal may be frowned upon, but it only really happens when and if formal structures cannot lead to the best possible practice. Journalists, for example, would not be serving their readers to the best of their ability if they didn’t find out what really goes on behind closed doors. To have access to that information they need to develop a relationship with the people who work behind said doors. They know that politicians are considerably more likely to trust you if the information exchange goes both ways. I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours.

Similarly, whips must know what goes on in their MPs’ lives if they are to make sure that those MPs remain happy and docile. While in theory, the behaviour of the men and women on your benches depends entirely on political matters, the reality is somewhat messier.

“Years and years ago when Thatcher was under threat, Mike Brunson, who used to be ITN political editor, and I sat down a whole load of seriously bright people, psephologists, to work out how the voting was going to go,” former Tory MP Jerry Hayes once explained. “They kept saying, ‘Oh well, he’s a wet, he’s a dry, he’s right-wing, he’s left-wing,’ and we said, ‘No, no. It’s not going to work like that.’ What Mike and I did is make up this list of: Who’s she pissed off? Who’s she overlooked? Who hasn’t she promoted?’ And we got it within three votes. That’s the reality: people get upset and vote against leaders for a whole range of reasons, and it’s not always about policy.”

This is not to say that having a democratic system heavily influenced by whispers and mood swings is an ideal scenario; if the personal takes precedence over competence, affable but useless (or cunning yet unhinged) people can rise to the top when they really shouldn’t.

Still, an imperfect system seems well-suited to an imperfect country. A lot of information flows around Westminster, and it rests in the hands of the many, not the few; if information really is power, it does not seem wise to try and restrict its circulation.