How to use political gossip to your advantage
4 min read
What matters more in politics – policy or relationships? Marie Le Conte explains how to navigate the murky world of political gossip for The House magazine’s 2020 MP Toolkit
Being elected as an MP for the first time involves having to figure out a lot of concrete things very quickly. Who should you hire? Where should you live? How should you structure your time?
These would be stressful enough on their own, but there are also a number of more informal questions to consider. Which journalists should you befriend? Should you befriend any journalists to start with? Who should your mates be? How do you even make those friends? What should your social life in SW1 be like?
It may be tempting to see this second set of concerns as less important than the first, but it would be a mistake. Politics in Westminster isn’t simply about what you want, do or believe in; it is also about the sort of person you are, the sort of people you know, and the sort of things you talk about with those people.
This is because people in Westminster mostly do one thing: they talk. MPs talk with each other and with the press, who talk to each other too. Staffers chat among themselves and to political advisers and some of it makes it back to MPs and ministers but some of it doesn’t. At any given point there are multiple scurrilous stories making their way around WhatsApp.
There are a number of reasons for this, but the most important one is this: there is too much formal information. MPs are invited to too many events, receive too many emails, are expected to read too many briefings and be an expert on too many policies, and so on. What quick chats on the side can do is provide a shortcut to most of these; by grabbing someone friendly and trustworthy to ask them about X or Y, you can save a lot of time and achieve similar results.
Politics is also about power, and those human relationships can help, whatever it is that MPs aim to achieve; banging on about a policy from the backbenches will usually only work if you can find people to support you, for example. If you want to climb the ministerial ladder, having benevolent friends going around telling everyone how promising and sharp you are can only help.
“Don’t expect someone to spill their secrets to you if you have no secrets to offer in return”
On the other hand, knowing which journalist to avoid if you don’t want your private thoughts leaked, or which MP is actually a nightmare to work alongside can be hugely helpful, and not found out via the official channels.
As a result, who you surround yourself with as an MP is vital. Because everyone does it differently, there are no straightforward rules on how to engage with others. Still, everyone can probably agree on some ground rules:
As an MP, it is usually in your interest to cultivate a good relationship with at least a few journalists - and yes, sometimes that will include having a gossip about things you shouldn’t really tell them. Be careful though: not all hacks are equal, so bide your time before sharing anything explosive but confidential with someone.
Start small and see if you can trust them, and remember that at the end of the day, they are doing their job just as you are doing yours. That being said, information can flow two ways, so once you have befriended a reporter, you can get away with trying to get some intel out of them.
Similarly, being close enough to a handful of MPs from different parties can be good for all involved; having the occasional chinwag about the problems in your respective parties can be beneficial to everyone involved.
More generally, being friendly with a wide range of people across the Houses will mean that you will have access to a wide range of information on what goes on around the building. Be sure to remember though that tittle-tattle is a trading game: don’t expect someone to spill their secrets to you if you have no secrets to offer in return.
Oh, and last but not least: reputations can be made and broken very quickly around here. Sometimes the situation can call for the sharing of information that you are not sure is correct (or are definitely sure you shouldn’t be passing on), but once someone is marked as a leak or a bad gossip, it will stick to them for the rest of their career.
Political gossip is fun and, if done correctly, can be used as a weapon; just be sure not to accidentally turn it on yourself.
Marie Le Conte is a freelance journalist. Her book, Haven't You Heard?: Gossip, power, and how politics really works, is out now.
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