Whooo boy! Am i a lucky girl! Last night i received a personal email from Boris Johnson!!!
No. Not just Boris: mere fallible mortal Boris. But from the Foreign Secretary himself. Our country is in trouble and he needs my help – MY help!!! – to save it from disaster.
Why, tis an honour sir and, not that it matters, but do you think there could be a gong in this for me when the dust dies down?
Letters from Boris
OK. Reel back the excitement. What i actually received was a rather tawdry election communication explaining how, “as our country prepares to enter talks with the Presidents, Prime Ministers and Chancellors of the European Union, now more than ever we need strong and stable leadership.” Look, you can see the whole of the letter below, together with Boris’ signature.
And despite extreme cynicism on my part, my heart cannot but warm to a man who stays up late into the night, pen in hand, signing off individual emails to humble voters like me.
Oh, alright. Maybe not. But i am sure the point will not be lost on anyone else reading this. For the average punter, it is likely impressive – influential even – to receive emails from the Foreign Secretary who might, it is to be presumed, know a thing or two about politics. OK: this is Boris. But, yanno…
Purdah and propriety
I was a little puzzled by this. After all, civil servants are now officially “in purdah”: so obsessed are they not only to be neutral, but to be seen to be neutral, that the ordinary business of government has pretty much ground to a halt. Yet here is our very own Foreign Secretary endorsing a political party!
Perplexed, i sought guidance on the Foreign Office (FCO) website, where i found not an answer, but at least some helpful “guidance and moderation information for the FCO’s social media channels“. Sadly, this has little to say on the question of signing emails, but it IS very clear on how social media is to be used.
In line with our social media guidance, the FCO encourages all staff to make full use of the opportunities provided by social media to help deliver FCO objectives.
Click on the link to social media guidance, and there is this useful gem:
Staff for whom active engagement and communication will be essential in the delivery of objectives should use an official FCO-branded channel.
Meanwhile, the same page that sets out such guidance lists both the Foreign Office twitter account (@ForeignOffice in case you were wondering) and an account for our Foreign Secretary: @BorisJohnson (Twitter). Sounds pretty official to me!
Curious to discover what one of the highest Ministers in the land was up to on social media, i scurried over to that account and sure enough, that account makes plain for all to see that Boris IS Foreign Secretary.
As to be expected, there are tweets of a Foreign Secretary-ish nature. At the top of the page, on 7 May, are congratulations to Emmanuel Macron. Sweet! Much as to be expected. A little further down – well, April 28 actually – are congratulations to Rex Tillerson, who sounds like he might be a German Shepherd, but is in fact Boris’ US counterpart.
In between, however, are a string of very partisan tweets of the sort that i would not expect from the Foreign Secretary, promoting conservative candidates, announcing Boris’ re-selection by his local constituency party and being ever so slightly rude about an elderly gentleman called Mr Corbyn. This endorsement of Conservative mayoral candidate Andy Street is pretty typical:
In fact, between April 28 and May 7, the tally is 10 tweets in all: two are clearly Ministerial in nature, one is a nod of approval to the Duke of Edinburgh – and seven (that’s 70% for the non-mathematical!) are wholly partisan in nature.
I have to say i was shocked….shocked indeed to find conservatives prepared to twist the system to their advantage in such a way. But then i thought: this is Boris; good old, loveable old maverick Boris; and no serious conservative would abuse their office in this way.
So i clicked over to the twitter page of Prime Minister, Theresa May (@theresa_may) and….would you credit it! She’s up to much the same tricks as Boris, but more so. As the header to her twitter account makes clear in no uncertain terms: Theresa is PM. That’s right: “Prime Minister and @Conservatives Leader”. The very first words identify her as holder of the UK’s highest office.
She has been slightly busier than Boris – 14 tweets since 28 April – and even more partisan: all bar one of these tweets has been promoting her party and/or dissing that same Mr Corbyn, who is also target of Boris’ disdain.
Not only: at least Boris’ Twitter account includes at its head a vaguely tasteful pic of Boris shaking hands with some veterans. Theresa May’s account is headed with a Conservative party logo and a brash and blatant electioneering slogan: “strong and stable leadership/in the national interest”.
This does not feel very Prime Ministerial: is, in fact, significantly less tasteful than the fairly neutral pic (of the Palace of Westminster) that adorns the spoof twitter account of @TheresaMayPM.
Intriguingly, there is also an assertion that “Tweets by Theresa [are] signed TM”. This raises the question of what one is to understand for tweets NOT signed “TM”, given that the preceding sentence indicates that she is Prime Minister. Am i alone in decoding that as suggesting that tweets with the TM added are published in her personal capacity, while tweets without the TM come from her as Prime Minister? In which case, why is the Prime Minister using the Prime Ministerial account for blatant electioneering?
Abuse of office?
Is it just me? Or does this feel wrong? An abuse of power and office?
I have pinged queries about the use of ministerial office for party politics over to the relevant press offices – at the FCO and at No. 10 – but have not yet heard back from either. Maybe they will agree with me: more likely, as has been my experience, will be the spun response: the clever nitpicking reply to the effect that if i read par 27 of this or that rulebook, sub-section B, i will discover that no rule has been broken.
And quite possibly it has not. But still, this feels like abuse – in my opinion, is abuse of Ministerial Office. Because while cynical journalists like myself may not think twice about receiving a personal appeal from the Foreign Secretary (and other holders of office), some ordinary voters may be rather more suggestible.
At the same time, the use of social media that clearly identify individuals as PM and Foreign Secretary to promote a party view feels equally wrong.
Will anything be done? I doubt it… but i am in the process of pitching this forward to various national media, and if you wish to take me up on it, please do.
ETA: The relevant government departments (Cabinet Office and Foreign Office) did get back and their line was reasonably predictable: it is a fact that Boris and Theresa hold the offices they hold, and therefore nothing to see here. They are merely signing off letters using titles that belong to them.
As far as i am concerned that is morally delinquent. I am, of course, well aware that these people hold these offices. Just as press officers and civil servants hold the posts they occupy. These are all facts: yet election rules….principles of decency if nothing else, preclude these people writing to electors using those titles.
As so often, there is nothing unlawful actually going on here….and yet my sense is that something is going on that, in a fair and proper system, would not.
That is all.