Ten minutes after I started this feature I picked up my phone, and looked at WhatsApp. An MP had sent me a message about the Budget, so I sent a reply, then got back on my laptop. I typed an intro and realised I wasn’t pleased with it, so deleted it.
Instead of starting again, I switched tabs to Twitter, where I read a thread about the fact that government ministers are no longer allowed to have TikTok on their phones. It led me to an unrepentant video from Grant Shapps, which took a minute to absorb.
I switched tabs again, and here we are. Hang on, what was I meant to be writing about again?
“Twitter now shapes all of our behaviour,” Alice Lilly of the Institute for Government told me. “When I wake up in the morning and I check Twitter, everybody will be tweeting about what’s on the Today programme, so I don’t need to listen to the Today programme. On a Saturday night, I’ll go on to Twitter because I want to know what’s in the Sunday papers the next day.”
“I don’t think about going on Twitter in the mornings ‘to see what’s there’. It’s like having a window open”, a newspaper lobby journalist told me. “It’s a really organic thing. I can’t think off the top of my head of any stories that I could say for certain were found on Twitter, but it’s always part of the process.”
Point is: if you work in Westminster, Twitter is now part of your DNA. Crucially, if you have been an SW1 dweller for less than about a dozen years, you have never known anything else. This applies to a majority of MPs, and probably just as many journalists, think tank wonks and assorted anoraks.
Debates about policy happen on Twitter and so do undignified spats between politicians. Stories turn into scandal, journalists find sources, and MPs spin themselves into rising stars. Though Elon Musk’s dream to turn the platform into the world’s digital town square feels unrealistic, it is the role it now plays in British politics.
“Twitter undoubtedly has been a massive, massive part of my political career. You know, it’s the first thing people say to me when I meet them, they’re like: ‘Oh, I follow you on Twitter!’,” Jess Phillips says. Still, the Labour MP believes it may quietly be on its way out.
“It’s a massive engagement tool but I think that’s waning. I just use it much less. It’s not purposefully in my mind an Elon Musk thing, but it just isn’t as usable as it used to be. I just don’t believe that I’m actually talking to anyone I want to talk to as much as I used to.”
This isn’t a minority view. Whenever discussion turns to the souring of British political discourse, fingers are usually pointed at Twitter. Politicians receive endless abuse on the app – especially if they are women and/or from ethnic minority backgrounds – and the format encourages endless vacuous arguments.
Though it has been exhausting to both witness and live through, Musk’s controversial ownership may manage to slowly wean our political class off Twitter. Would it be a good thing? Well, that’s where it gets complicated. At its heart, Twitter feels like the digital equivalent of the Red Lion pub, or of party conferences. Everyone in Westminster claims to loathe them, yet they keep returning. Sometimes the line between hypocrisy and addiction is finer than it seems.
There is also an argument to be made on Twitter having acted as a great leveller. As the lobby journalist puts it, “the bigger worry I have is for people trying to break into Westminster. I started writing about politics when I was in Sheffield, I was nowhere near Parliament. It was a really good way in for someone who isn’t traditionally part of that world.”
Twitter has, for good or ill, made the “bubble” less hermetic than it once was. If it were to go tomorrow, we would risk returning to a world where only the well-heeled and connected could find their way in. That’s the problem with letting a private company become such an important part of your world: at the end of the day, no one can control where it goes next.
This is probably something that MPs ought to remember when checking their WhatsApp for the seventieth time of the day. Like frogs in gently warming water, Westminster denizens have come to let the messaging app dominate their lives.
“When I came in [in 2015], it was mostly funny memes or “can someone come to this meeting because we haven’t got a quorum”, whereas now it does really feel like a lot of political organising is done on WhatsApp, in an almost formalised way”, Phillips explained. “It is absolutely true that so much conversation does go on on WhatsApp between ministers and members of parliament. That definitely is happening.”
As the Matt Hancock scandal has shown, much of government is now being run on WhatsApp. It is, at risk of stating the obvious, a worry.
“It’s problematic in terms of transparency and accountability, not least when politicians are starting to automatically delete their messages after a certain number of days”, said Chris Stokel-Walker, a tech journalist and author. “It’s also just enormously chaotic – WhatsApp is a cacophony of noise that keeps bombarding you with messages and it’s very, very difficult to categorise.”
Still, it is now so embedded in Westminster that it would be impossible for the bubble to go cold turkey. This is what the Institute for Government had to reckon with when it published a report on the topic last year. “You do sometimes hear calls for officials and ministers to never be using WhatsApp, and that’s just not realistic”, Lilly said.
Instead, the think-tank called on the Prime Minister to “uphold guidance stating ministers, special advisers and officials should not use personal phones for substantive government business. This would reduce the risk of important information being lost and help prevent the blurring of boundaries between personal and government business that can – and has – raised questions about propriety and ethics.”
As should have been expected, not much came out of it. Sunak may be forgiven for having too much on his plate as it is, but what if the problems were more structural?
When asked why WhatsApp had gained such a foothold among MPs, Jess Phillips barely hesitated before answering, blaming her inbox being “a bin fire”. MPs and their staffers have to deal with such an overwhelming number of emails every single day that things can often get lost, and it can be hard to prioritise. In this scenario, a quick line on WhatsApp will often be more efficient than yet another email.
It feels ironic; MPs were given public email addresses some time ago because it was believed that technological advances would make communication better. Not enough thought was put into what that would look like in practice, especially over time, so emails have now been supplanted by another technological advance. Was enough thought put into what the ramifications would be this time round, especially regarding transparency and accountability? You can probably guess.
Another theory is that the WhatsApp era is merely the logical conclusion of centuries of British politics. “It’s a very new manifestation of an old problem”, Lilly said. “There’s always been informal decision-making and informal chats. It’s just that ten years ago, those chats might have happened in the division lobbies, or in the tea rooms or in a corridor somewhere, and there would have been absolutely no record of them at all because they would have just been quiet spoken conversation.”
Westminster has long run on informal conversations – on friendly and not-so-friendly chats had around official meetings, over pints in parliamentary bars and dinners in private members’ clubs. Assuming that WhatsApp came in and changed the way people did their job means missing the bigger picture.
It also means that attempts to ban or heavily curtail its use in Westminster would only appear to fix the problem, instead of actually solving it. In short: WhatsApp is probably more symptom than illness.
Some reasonable questions to ask at this stage would be: what next? Will British politics remain tethered to apps it cannot and does not control? Is there a way to change behavioural patterns when they have become so deeply ingrained that people don’t even notice them anymore? What will happen when the next generation of journalists and parliamentarians come in, having never experienced SW1 without Twitter or WhatsApp? Is there a way to turn back the clock, or change structures to such an extent that these platforms become redundant?
No one seems to have found satisfactory answers to any of those yet, which is why the debate keeps raging on. Perhaps it is because, at heart, they do not want to. Twitter’s takeover by Musk and the continuing embarrassment of Matt Hancock could have acted as wake-up calls, but they didn’t.
Recent reports that Simon Case has now set up auto-disappearing WhatsApp messages tell us everything we need to know about Westminster’s eagerness to learn from its mistakes.