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No one can quite agree who got there first, although Nadhim Zahawi is cited as an early and consistent adopter. But one thing is certain: for a UK government minister in the age of Covid, the current must-have media accessory is a union flag.
Zahawi, the vaccines minister, is universally seen during TV interviews with a large union flag hung just behind his left shoulder, the tasteful curtained backdrop adding to a near-ambassadorial – some might even say presidential – ambience.
Liz Truss is another keen advocate, being pictured in her office with two flags, one on either side of her desk, even having one positioned behind her during Zoom-based virtual cabinet meetings.
The craze for patriotic backdrops became a brief adjunct to the rumbling culture wars this week after BBC Breakfast presenter Charlie Stayt gently mocked Robert Jenrick at the end of an early morning interview.
“I think your flag is not up to standard-size government interview measurements,” Stayt told the communities secretary about the red-white-and-blue cloth hanging from a pole in the far corner of Jenrick’s office.
Jenrick chuckled along at the time, but felt compelled later to tweet a photo of the flag – and of a portrait of the Queen on his office wall – saying he was “always proud” to fly it.
There was, inevitably, a minor casualty of the joke, in this case Stayt’s co-host, Naga Munchetty, who apologised on Friday for pressing “like” on some tweets that had mocked the flag-backdrop mania.
It is, government insiders say, very much a matter of choice – for all Stayt’s playful mockery about official edicts there has not been a No 10 memo ordering ministers to buy a flag.
But the phenomenon does highlight a series of interlinked issues, not least the scope for improvisation – but then also for frenzied copying – in a period when coronavirus means ministers have to select their own televisual backdrops, rather than sitting in a studio.
Additionally, officials say, the focus on flags shows up the UK’s continued ambiguous attitude towards overt emblem-brandishing. Finally, they note, it illustrates the never-ceasing importance of presentation in modern politics.
One former aide likened the rush for flags to the need in autumn to make sure no minister is seen without a British Legion poppy. “At Conservative HQ there’s a massive bowl of poppies, and I always used to carry several with me. You’d also have to bring spare pins, and I was always stabbing myself when I put my hands in my pockets.”
The parallel is not exact, however. While the annual scrutiny of poppy-wearing is notably domestic, the increased prevalence of flags, the aide argued, is at least in part a product of seeing how ministers elsewhere present themselves.
“Flags are completely normal in other countries. On video calls even a junior minister somewhere else would be sitting at a huge oak desk, the national flag behind them. Sometimes with us it would look like we were in a room on an industrial estate. As much as anything it’s about basic professionalism. You’re a government minister – you should look like it.”
One still-serving official said more regular video calls with foreign counterparts amid coronavirus had shown up this difference all the more. “We don’t have a flag in our office,” the official said. “I did recently think about trying to get one, but I’m actually not sure where you’d buy one from.”
Some ministers choose show their patriotism in other ways. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, who is, admittedly, a regular presence in front of the union flags at Downing Street press conferences, is often photographed in his office in front of a Damien Hirst picture of the Queen, one Hancock was at pains to keep when he moved from the culture department.
Oliver Dowden, the current culture secretary, has a photograph of the monarch by David Bailey in his office, while Jenrick takes the belt-and-braces approach of having both the Queen and a flag.
Such works inside ministers’ offices come from the government art collection. One aide said those anxious to also have a portrait of the monarch need not worry about a rush of orders: “I think it’s fair to say if there’s one place where you can find plenty of pictures of the Queen, it’s the government art collection.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Flag of convenience: why ministers can’t get enough of the union jack | Conservatives