Saturday 4 October 2008

The fine art of the political surprise

It might not be the most eloquent use of the English language, but I have always felt that Don Rumsfeld was on to something important with his famous known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns comment. Rumsfeld was talking about military intelligence, but his definitions could equally be applied to political news reporting. There is a huge difference between things that are known (as in people are aware of them) and those things that are publicly acknowledged (as in published). There are a whole host of pieces of information we could call "known unknowns". A good recent example from the US of this was John Edwards' infidelity, which many professional media pundits were wholly aware of but did not file copy on (for an explanation as to why, see this comment piece written by Washington Post journalist Chris Cizzilla). Parallel examples in Britain can be found in the personal lives of Peter Mandelson and Charles Kennedy, where members of press had long known far more than they wrote or said. In short, they were open secrets.   

But, in this context, a different category is the "unknown unknown" - the proper political surprise. This occurs when everyone, be they the press, the public, opponents and even colleagues, are in the dark and only become aware of a revelation when it breaks. Three points need to be made about such events. First, they require a great deal of skill and discipline to manage. Second, if correctly deployed they can be powerful political weapons. Third, and even if the first and second criteria are met, they are inherently unpredictable and impact they have may vary over a prolonged period of time.

If you want to see evidence of this, look no further than John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate in late August. As it happens, I was in Washington the week before, when Obama had announced his Veep pick, Joe Biden, and I was in Boston when McCain made his pick. Over the course of the primary season, Obama's campaign team had rightly got a reputation for being formidably professional, tightly organised and very loyal (this, we now know, compares very favourably with the Clinton operation). But something went very wrong with the VP announcement - half the people in Washington seemed to know the afternoon before the official release. And it broke on CNN just after midnight, before the Obama camp had a chance to text and email their supporters to make the announcement as they promised. What went wrong? I don't know the mechanics of it, but I would suggest human nature played a significant role: when you know something cool, there is always a strong desire to tell someone about it.

Compare this with McCain's announcement. It really was a bolt from the blue. No one even knew he was going to tell the world his running mate. Certainly no one in the press corp saw the pick coming and they were genuinely surprised when it was announced. For them, this was certainly an "unknown unknown". What was impressive though was how the McCain team had managed to keep it completely hushed up. Because of this, they reaped the benefits. Democrats didn't know what to do, so wheeled out under-prepared commentators on the cable news channels, who quickly looked as if they were just being nasty Palin. When she gave her speech to the GOP convention and came across as being reasonably articulate, very personable and charismatic, the McCain-Palin ticket gained a significant bounce.

Of course, such surprises tend to have a short term impact. It now looks like the Palin bounce has burnt itself out, or at least become a neutral for the campaign. But as Danny Finkelstein has blogged over at the Times, the best - and possibly only - strategy open to the McCain campaign to offset the partisan disadvantage it suffers from is to keep pulling rabbits out of their hat. These surprises also allow them to capture the news agenda for a bit and talk about some of their policy ideas or McCain's compelling biography. All these small victories matter.

Gordon Brown might have been watching. Yesterday's announcement that Peter Mandelson was returning to the Cabinet was a political surprise scoring very high on the Richter Scale. Once again, this was an "unknown unknown" - the news media were as surprised as most of the general public (and, I imagine, significant proportions of the Cabinet, parliamentary party and, for sure, the Trade Union movement). Like Palin's selection, Mandelson's return will bolster Brown's standing with constituencies key to his success. In the case of McCain, it massively energies the Christian right of the Republican Party. For Brown, it will offer him protection against Blairites, both inside and outside the Cabinet. Mandelson's expertise in trade and commerce, gained during his time in Brussels, also boosts the government's credibility with business leaders at a time when it is really needed.

What was especially impressive about yesterday's events though was the professionalism of it. In recent times, the Brown administration has not been noted for its efficiency in such matters. Indeed, if one wanted to find pretty much the worst attempt at subterfuge in British political history, a good starting point would be the "election that never was" last year. This was certainly a "known unknown", with senior members of the Labour Party seemingly forgetting the major element of a surprise election was that it should be... well... a surprise. More recently, the accidental leaking of Ruth Kelly's resignation from the cabinet (and all kinds of hints and rumours as to how it happened) showed a pretty amateurish approach to news management. But yesterday was different. It was, like the Palin announcement, a proper hit job, carried out with diligence and efficiency. Brown supporters must hope that it is the starting point of a new era in political management for the administration.

What happens now? Once again, the Palin example is instructive. Her level of success and failure has wavered as she has continually been reassessed. This too is in the nature of the political surprise. Because it is unexpected, there is little or no established political wisdom on whether it is a wise or foolish decision. Comment thus tends to be divided and prone to sudden fluctuation as new information is introduced. This rule is now even more true, given the huge diversification of the media and the rise of the blogosphere. If Labour continues to do well in polls and get closer to the Conservatives, doubtless Brown will be lauded for his decision to bring back Mandelson. If on, the other hand, Labour fall back, the move might be cast as desperate rather than inspired.

But one thing is for sure: yesterday was, in technical political management terms, one of the best of Brown's premiership.

[First published on the Fabian Society Next Left blog]

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