The New Downing Street Director of Communications
Jamie Lyons – ENGINE MHP’s Joint Head of Public Affairs, and former Deputy Political Editor at the News of the World – profiles James Slack, Downing Street’s new Director of Communications, and assesses the changes we are likely to see in the way Number 10 communicates.
Dom, Lee, Carrie, Allegra.
In the swathes of briefing surrounding the shake-up at Number 10, the one name that rarely appeared was James: James Slack the Prime Minister’s new Director of Communications. To those who have worked with him in government or in the lobby that was no surprise. A colleague who worked with him in Number 10 said: “He just doesn’t have an ego. He doesn’t feel the need to tell people how important he is.
“He is one of the most powerful people in Number 10. Inside the building I cannot think of anyone who wears that power so lightly and outside the building very few people have heard of him. I was watching all the young turks swaggering out of Number 10 just before lockdown. Everyone who works in Number 10 swaggers out. Of course they do. Everyone except Slacky.”
His friends say he will not get involved in the feuding that has characterised the building in recent times. They say others vying for the PM’s ear will try to rattle his cage, but he has “zero interest” in getting into a briefing war. “He just won’t engage, he doesn’t need to. Everyone around Boris knows James gives sound, solid, sensible advice and should be listened to.”
I worked with Slack when we were in the lobby together. He is very highly-rated in Westminster, by ministers, civil servants and by journalists. He works hard, getting up at 4:30am to get from his Enfield home to his desk at Number 10 and is often still there at 10pm. He is regarded as super-professional and all over the detail. Only David Frost, Britain’s chief Brexit negotiator, is thought to trump his understanding of the issue in Downing Street.
“That quiet, calm brilliance has seen him survive two or three chiefs of staff, two PMs and two radically different administrations,” one government friend said.
He has an insider’s understanding of the lobby having worked his way up from local papers to The Daily Mail. There he was one of a select group of “wise men” who had the ear of its imperious editor Paul Dacre. They decided what the Mail thought and what battles it picked. He went on to become the Political Editor, one of the most powerful jobs in Fleet Street. Colleagues at the paper viewed him as a potential editor and were surprised to see him leave journalism. But it was during that time he also won the trust and confidence of Theresa May and her then all powerful gatekeepers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. They poached him when Theresa May moved to No 10 and James became the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson, a role he kept when Boris Johnson took over.
A friend in government comms said: “He was a brilliant lobby journalist. The jump between journalism and comms is not always easy. James is a hack through and through. He has a hack’s brain still. He hasn’t lost any of that. And he really gets the lobby. If you’ve got a better person at handling them, I’d like to see who it is.”
A senior political journalist agrees: “He is rated very highly by the entire lobby because he is such a pro. He gets the detail. Although he is clearly right-wing he never favours the right-wing papers. And he never loses his temper.”
Not that he has always had an easy ride. He wrote The Mail’s infamous “Enemies of the People” splash about the High Court judges who ruled in favour of anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller. A Mail colleague said: “When he was Home Affairs Editor he wrote some of our most strident, reactionary stories. It’s pretty hard to reconcile that with the modest, humble guy I know he is.”
And at No 10 Slack had to tap dance about the whereabouts of then International Development Secretary Priti Patel as she flew 4,000 miles back from a trip in Africa to be sacked by May.
Everyone I spoke to talked about his calmness. A friend from Downing Street said: “He is under huge pressure but he never loses his calm. He is unbelievably patient. He has people coming up to him constantly, wanting things answered, wanting things checked. He is never to busy to deal with them. The team here love him. Number 10 has just become a much more pleasant place to work.”
A colleague from the Mail said: “He is unflappable, incredibly calm, delegates when he needs to. And he is inscrutable. All the qualities you’d want for his new job.”
But what changes will we see in the way Number 10 communicates?
There has been much speculation about a less confrontational approach. Already the ministerial boycott on ITV’s Good Morning Britain has been lifted. Relations with the Today programme, Newsnight and Channel 4 should also improve. Colleagues say the Cain strategy of briefing stories into existence, putting them out there in a bid to make them happen, will end. They say Slack will be more proactive, shaping the news agenda, rather than being buffeted by events. And there should be fewer self-inflicted comms failures, with Slack’s ability to see round corners.
“The free school meals fiasco would never have happened if James had been running the comms,” said one former press aide.
“He will have said we can take five days of pain and then capitulate or we can get ahead of this, close it down straight away and turn it into a good news story.”
But he will not have it all his own way. Another senior political journalist told me: “We all like James. We rate him and government communications are going to get a lot better. But we are not going to stop going for the government on all the areas they still deserve a kicking.”