It is rare that I pine for my former life as a journalist, but when Theresa May and Donald Trump step to their respective lecterns in front of the assembled British and American press, I will certainly wish that I were there. I loved press conferences, and this could be a corker.
My first, in Downing Street, was during the final days of Tony Blair. I was filling in for Channel Five’s esteemed political editor, Andy Bell, for a couple of weeks. I told myself that Mr Blair was complacent and was there for the taking. I left nothing to chance. My metaphorical towel was placed on the front row; I asked Mr Blair’s spokesman, Tom Kelly, to let the prime minister know who the steely-eyed newcomer in the shiny suit was, put my hand up and waited. And waited. Mr Blair went down the front row, looked at me, perplexed and started with the row behind. Question after question came and went. The Western Morning News . . . in those days the Mirror got a question . . . foreign journalists, even! Increasingly forlorn, with hand raised more in hope than expectation, I stuck it out. The loneliness of my predicament eventually stung the prime minister into pity. Goodness knows what I stammered out.
It got better with time and experience. On the one occasion I stood in front of a prime minister and a president in the White House rose garden, I had the temerity to suggest to David Cameron and Barack Obama that things were not going swimmingly in Afghanistan. The camera showed Mr Cameron’s chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn, chuntering and rolling his eyes in exasperation behind me. Just a minor victory – in the end my dream of flooring a world leader before the eyes of the world was never realised.
What most people never get to see is the soap opera behind the cameras. Few occasions throw into sharper relief the tension between government and the press, and between rival journalists. In order to win the privilege of asking one of two allocated questions at the White House, I drew lots with Tom Bradby and Nick Robinson. Nick was not best pleased at the result, an affront to licence-fee payers. I would have been just as angry in his shoes.
Washington is also notable for the ritualised tension between the UK and US press packs over whether one should stand when the leaders walk in. You would not believe the dirty looks thrown by American journalists at their British counterparts as the band struck up Hail to the Chief and the lobby remained elegantly slumped, scanning Twitter. How will Donald Trump take to such a slight? Who knows, but then might not one or two of his enemies in the American press also fail to rouse themselves for the president’s arrival?
Before any press conference, the leaders’ spin doctors do a tour. They sidle up: “So what will be you asking?” and then scurry back to help their boss to get up to speed. I am sure that some journalists refuse outright to engage, but not many. Usually it is a bit of a game. “Oh, you know, something about the economy, I guess,” only then to go off-piste when the event gets under way.
Alternatively, they fail to mention that alongside a warm-up about how marvellously the two leaders get on, they have ranged an arsenal of humdingers to deploy with jawdropping fluency and, blizzard-like, all at once. The “portmanteau question”. “And if I may, prime minister, can I also ask…”; “I’m sure you will understand that I must raise…”; “and to the president can I ask…?”; “on another issue…”; “while I’m here…” and so on. The hydra question that has become so prevalent is borne partly out of frustration at the scarcity of opportunities to interrogate our leaders. (In this spirit, James Landale asked more questions in one go than there were journalists in the room last time I was in the States, having been told that none of the rest of us was going to be allowed a turn.) But vanity is also a factor and it is a tired device, giving politicians time to think, allowing them to duck and to choose which bits to confront and which to skate over.
In the end the two things that most often rattle political leaders are surprise and persistence; (and in such a deferential setting, persistence itself can surprise.) I, like any other journalist and former journalist, will be musing this morning about what I might ask were I in the front rank.
This article originally appeared in The Times on Friday, 27th January 2017.