Sometimes, a spokesperson has to go on camera for a live interview, even if they know it’s not going to be easy.
This week, the person who picked the short straw was Health Secretary, Matt Hancock.
Cast your mind back to Tuesday and the record-breaking vote against the Government’s proposed Brexit deal – record-breaking because of the number of MPs voting against the Prime Minister’s proposed Brexit plan. More than seven weeks after the PM agreed the deal with the European Union, Parliament rejected it, with unprecedented force. A majority of 230 MPs against the deal. 118 Conservative rebels. Simply unheard of. In any other situation, the PM would have to resign, but just minutes after the vote, it was already obvious that Theresa May intended to cling on.
So who will carry the can, stay loyal to the PM, and give the Government’s side of the story, so soon after such a humiliating and destabilising defeat? Step forward Matt Hancock.
Just before the interview starts, BBC politics presenter Andrew Neil gives us a history lesson, pointing out the unprecedented nature of such a huge parliamentary loss. Matt Hancock will have heard all this as he waited to do the interview. And he probably knew what was coming next.
“Why didn’t the Prime Minister announce her resignation tonight?”
Not ‘surely she must go’ or ‘when will she go’. Instead, it’s a sort of double-question that is technically impossible to answer truthfully without in some way admitting that the PM will resign at some point. But the question is being asked of an experienced politician, so he is ready to show his support; “Because she is the best person to lead us through this…”
In this answer, Hancock’s strategy is to separate the politician from the policy (despite this whole deal being very much the Prime Minister’s). So far, so good – he’s trying to make the best of an incredibly difficult moment for the Government.
So Andrew Neil tries a different strategy – frame his question in a way that is virtually impossible to answer, without losing face;
“Can you give any historical precedent when a Prime Minster has lost by this magnitude, and then not resigned..?”
Hancock responds by seizing on the word ‘unprecedented’, saying that there have been a lot of unprecedented events recently – a ‘bridging’ technique. But Andrew Neil does not let him get away with that, and repeats the question.
Another piece of bridging follows; “That’s not the question in front of us. The question in front of us is ‘What is the best thing to do in the national interest?’” Yes, on balance it sounded a bit politics-speak, but his point is said with conviction, in accessible, jargon-free language.
So far, still so good. But then the question everyone in the UK has been waiting for – what happens now? This is where it gets extremely tough for Matt Hancock. All he really says, and all he can say, is ‘we will listen, to try to find a parliamentary consensus’. He can’t announce a shift in policy that will convince 230 MPs to change their minds, or a renegotiation, or a new strategy. He’s left with nowhere to go.
And so, the next few minutes are a painful watch. At one point, Andrew Neil asks the same question – “What policy change would bring round 230 MPs?” – six times. To which, eventually, Hancock uses the well-trodden response of ‘you can ask me the same question as many time as you like, and the answer will be the same’. Worth remembering for those about to take part in a confrontational interview. For me, there was an opportunity missed here, which is that the Health Secretary could have brought this answer round to carrying out the will of the people, doing what was voted for, and so on – in other words, remembering the audience and putting their needs first, which can be a successful strategy in this kind of difficult questioning.
The interview lasts seven minutes. There’s a lot of squirm factor by the end.
What can we learn then, in terms of media training? In difficult circumstances, the Health Secretary didn’t get angry or impatient. He remained calm, and open to discussion. However bad an interview is going, even though you may really want it to stop, sometimes you just have to keep smiling, hold your line, and stick to your guns. Anything else, and you risk becoming the news yourself.