Saturday, July 23, 2011

Why Cameron is not out of the woods yet

Ever since the start of the crisis over phone hacking that has engulfed the worlds of politics, journalism and the police over the past three weeks, Prime Minister David Cameron had appeared to be stuck on the back foot.

Much as he himself once managed to make Gordon Brown seem leaden-footed in his response to the MPs' expenses crisis two years ago, Labour leader Ed Miliband had seemed to be making the political weather as the public backlash against News International intensified.

Fortunately for Mr Cameron, he is far too skilled a politician for it to have lasted forever and sure enough, this week saw him finally come out fighting.

Prime Ministers always have an inbuilt advantage in the game of politics in that, while opposition leaders can just talk, they can actually do – and this week it was an advantage Mr Cameron exploited to the full.

Cutting short his trip to Africa, he postponed the parliamentary recess by 24 hours, enabling an extra session of Prime Minister's Questions and an emergency statement on phone hacking to be squeezed in before the MPs' summer break.

But besides raising the morale of the Tory Party by showing a bit of grit and determination in the face of his Labour tormentors, did it actually do him any good?

Well, his admission that he should not have hired the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his press secretary will go part of the way towards defusing the issue which has dogged him since well before the start of the current media firestorm.

But as Mr Miliband was swift to point out, having regrets about the appointment does not get away from the fact that it was, as he put it "a catastrophic error of judgment."

Mr Cameron has still yet to satisfactorily explain why he chose to ignore so many warnings about the dangers of making Mr Coulson Downing Street communications director.

The suspicion persists that he adopted something of a wise monkey stance in relation to his trusted press adviser - 'see no evil, hear no evil, think no evil.'

The disclosure that his chief of staff Ed Llewellyn had refused a detailed briefing on phone-hacking from the police could be interpreted as wanting to protect the Prime Minister from any suggestion that he could influence the investigation.

But it could equally be the case that aides like Mr Llewellyn simply did not want to tell the Prime Minister what they knew he did not want to hear.

Wednesday's debate also provided a convenient platform for Labour MPs to raise some additional issues which have further muddied the waters in relation to Mr Coulson.

First, Labour MP Chris Bryant claimed that the Royal Family had raised concerns with Downing Street about Mr Coulson's appointment – which would be hardly surprising since most of them had had their phones hacked.

Then the highly-respected former local government minister Nick Raynsford suggested that Mr Coulson might actually have practised phone-hacking while in the role of Downing Street press secretary, with a senior government official as the victim.

The Cabinet Secretary denied it, but if this allegation were to turn out to be true, the situation would look very grave indeed for Mr Cameron.

But the biggest reason why the Prime Minister is not out of the woods yet on phone hacking is because the question of his longer-term political survival is not really about that.

It is, rather, about his relationship with his Liberal Democrat coalition partners.

Nick Clegg and his party had no option but to go into the coalition in May 2011. The arithmetic of going with Labour didn't stack up, and standing on the sidelines and inflicting another election on the public would not have been forgiven.

But having entered it, they have found over the past 14 months just what a rock and a hard place they were put in as a result of the inconclusive election outcome.

As I wrote at the start of this year, a team is only as strong as its weakest member, and such has been the slump in the Lib Dems' political fortunes since joining the coalition that they currently constitute a pretty broken reed.

It remains my view that, in order to stand a chance of holding onto its Southern power base in which the Tories are its main challengers, the party has to find a way to break up the coalition at a point of maximum advantage to itself and maximum disadvantage to Mr Cameron.

As the political season draws to a close, that essential dynamic that makes this such a potentially unstable alliance between the two partners remains unaltered.

Mr Cameron may think he is safe for now. But as Lloyd George found, in a coalition, you are only ever as safe as your partners allow you to be.

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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Murdoch's power has been broken. Could Cameron's be next?

For the past thirty years, the British political establishment has been in thrall to Rupert Murdoch - the 24th member of Tony Blair's Cabinet as he was once dubbed.

In the course of that period, his media empire has variously decided the outcome of elections, dictated the membership of Cabinets, shaped policies on a wide range of issues and even influenced whether or not the country went to war.

But this Wednesday, the worm finally turned as the Australian media tycoon's bid to buy 100pc of BSkyB was swept away in the storm that has engulfed him in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal.

It was as if three decades of pent-up resentment had suddenly been unleashed in a torrent , as the politicians who have been forced to kow-tow to Murdoch all that time finally broke free of his yoke.

There is a certain historical irony in the fact that it was the dear old House of Commons which finally delivered the coup-de-grace to Murdoch's dreams of further media expansion.

For those of us with long memories, it seemed a fitting reward for the way in which he conned Parliament into agreeing to his takeover of The Times and the Sunday Times in 1981 by giving 'editorial guarantees' he had no intention of keeping.

These undertakings enabled the then Trade and Industry Secretary John Biffen to sidestep a reference to the then Monopolies Commission.

Within a year, Murdoch had broken every single one of them, including sacking the Times' editor and transferring the two titles into a different part of his business.

I will give two small examples from the recent past of how the influence of his empire has distorted the political life of the nation.

In 2009, the now former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks let it be known that David Cameron's Tories would not get their support at the ensuing general election unless Dominic Grieve was replaced as Shadow Home Secretary. He duly was.

Then, last year, James Murdoch made it clear he wanted the Labour government's plans for regional news consortia scrapped. When the Coalition came in, they duly were.

These, however, are relatively trivial examples compared with, for instance, his papers' routine character assassination of certain party leaders and consultations with Tony Blair in the days prior to the invasion of Iraq.

But if Murdoch was undoubtedly the biggest loser of the week, it's not been a great seven days for Mr Cameron either.

Because it was not the Prime Minister who finally led the fightback against the Murdoch empire, but the man who wants his job - Labour leader Ed Miliband.

Mr Miliband undoubtedly took a gamble by calling a vote on the BSKyB bid – but within 48 hours every other party had followed his lead.

His reading of the public mood in this crisis has been consistently ahead of the curve and, for now at any rate, he has drawn a line under the troubles that had beset his leadership earlier in the summer.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, too, ends the week with his position enhanced, again at Mr Cameron's expense.

It was his threat to vote with Labour on Wednesday that forced the Prime Minister into his U-turn on the BSkyB deal, potentially altering the balance of power within the Coalition in the process.

Mr Clegg has also pointedly disassociated himself with the shadow of Andy Coulson's appointment as Downing Street's director of communications that continues to hang over Mr Cameron.

"It was his appointment and his appointment alone. We did discuss it... it was something that we didn’t see eye to eye on," he said.

This is where the phone-hacking scandal starts to play into the much bigger and wider issue of the Coalition's ultimate survival.

Some Lib Dems have started to speculate that Mr Cameron may emerge from the scandal so badly damaged that they could actually bring him down.

I have argued from the start of this Coalition that the Lib Dems somehow have to find a way of getting out of it alive, and this might just be their best opportunity.

We would then not just be looking at the downfall of a media empire, but the downfall of a government.

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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Me, this blog, and Dale and Co

I started this blog in 2005 with no great ambitions for it other than to provide an outlet for my political writing which, at that time, was not afforded to me by my 'day job.'

I had left the parliamentary lobby the year before in order to pursue a different line of work and enjoy a better quality of life, and although I did not miss the lobby as such, I did miss being able to sound-off about the political events of the day.

To my surprise, the blog "took off" in a small way and for the first few years of its existence was regularly voted among the top 20 political blogs in the UK in Iain Dale's annual guide.

For a while, I thought it might even fill that much-talked-about left-of-centre "void" in a political blogosphere which, at the time, was dominated by three giant Conservative blogs - Iain Dale's Diary, Guido Fawkes and Conservative Home.

As it turned out, a number of factors militated against that, the biggest of which was that the mainstream media with their hugely superior resources swiftly got in on the blogging phenomenon.

Why bother reading what Paul Linford had to say about the latest Labour leadership crisis when you could read the views of people much closer to the action, such as Benedict Brogan or Paul Waugh?

Like many other 'lone' bloggers at the time, I also found the readers' appetites for constant updates - 'feeding the blog monster' as it became known - impossible to sustain.

And there were internal pressures within my then workplace too, something about which I will say more some day.

I kept the blog going, mainly because it still retained a small core of loyal readers and commenters (thanks, guys), and also to provide an online presence for my weekly column in The Journal, which otherwise only appeared in print.

But I had long since come to the view that the best outlet for my blogging in future would be to join a group blog where the burden of providing a constant stream of entertaining and informative new material could be shared with others.

For a while I contributed to Liberal Conspiracy, but although I am an economic leftist, I have always been a small-c conservative on social issues and it soon became clear to me that my views on such matters as abortion were not appreciated by my fellow group bloggers there.

Fortunately Iain Dale has now offered me another opportunity through his new, non-partisan megablog Dale and Co, and this is where my main political blogging will be done from now on.

My contributions at Dale and Co will be accessible at this page or via this RSS feed

So far I have contributed two pieces on Rupert Murdoch and the phone-hacking scandal - the latest one focusing why yesterday's House of Commons vote to curb his expansion plans was 30 years overdue - and another more reflective historical piece on whether a British Prime Minister will ever again serve two non-consecutive terms.

As for this blog, it will continue, with the strictly limited purposes of providing the following:

  • An online presence for my Saturday column.

  • A central reference point for my output across a variety of print and online platforms, including Dale and Co, Total Politics and The Journalism Hub.

  • An outlet for some occasional personal blogging which will not be of great interest to readers of those other platforms.

  • A readily accessible archive of my blogging output over the past six years, including my 'Political Top 10s' which continue to get pretty high Google rankings.

  • A series of links to sites which interest me and which may interest others of a like mind who drop by here.

  • To those who are interested in that sort of stuff, please continue to visit. To the rest of you, see you over at Dale and Co.

    Monday, July 11, 2011

    The day Mandy was 'rude' to Rebekah Brooks

    I thought this epic clip from the 2009 Labour Party Conference perhaps deserved another outing in the light of current events....

    The encounter happened the morning after the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sun newspaper announced it was switching its support to the Tories on the night of Gordon Brown's pre-election conference speech.

    In what was surely one of Cathy Newman's finest TV moments, Mandelson denied using a four-letter word to the News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks.

    I bet he wishes he had now....

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    Saturday, July 09, 2011

    Phone-hacking casualties pile up - but spare a thought for Gordon

    First it was the News of the World, scrapped by its owner Rupert Murdoch in an attempted damage-limitation exercise amid allegations that it hacked into the voicemail messages of, among others, schoolgirl murder victim Milly Dowler, relatives of the 7/7 victims, the families of soldiers killed in Iraq, and - she had to get dragged in somewhere - Princess Diana's lawyer.

    Then it was the turn of the Press Complaints Commission, facing the axe after a rare outbreak of consensus between Prime Minister David Cameron, who branded it "ineffective" and Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose favoured adjective was "toothless."

    The casualties of the phone-hacking affair continue to mount up, with those still at risk including News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks, and the company's increasingly forlorn hopes of taking over 100pc ownership of BSkyB.

    But the big question at Westminster this weekend is whether those casualties will stay confined to the world of journalism and the media - or whether the scandal will eventually claim political scalps.

    Phone-hacking has been branded rather too simplistically this week as journalism's equivalent of the MPs' expenses scandal, or even as the politicians' revenge on the trade for having uncovered their duck-island antics two summers ago.

    It is nothing of the sort. This is far more than a crisis in British journalism, it is rather a crisis in British public life that goes right to the top of the tree.

    No less a commentator than Peter Oborne this week described Mr Cameron as a "profoundly damaged figure" for having hired Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor arrested by police yesterday, and for his friendship with Ms Brooks.

    "The series of disgusting revelations concerning his friends and associates from Rupert Murdoch’s News International has permanently and irrevocably damaged his reputation....He has made not one, but a long succession of chronic personal misjudgments," he wrote.

    Is this overstating the case? Well, possibly - but if one thing is clear from the past week's events it is that this is a fast-changing story in which assumptions can be very quickly overturned.

    Nobody would have predicted a week ago that the country's biggest selling newspaper, an iconic title with 168 years of history behind it, would be abruptly closed. But it has happened.

    The most damning aspect of the affair for Mr Cameron is the fact that he was given details about Mr Coulson's possible involvement in phone-hacking before making him Downing Street director of communications after last year's election win.

    In his article this week, Mr Oborne disclosed that Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, who was in possession of many of the facts long before they could be published, delivered the warning to Mr Cameron's adviser Steve Hilton prior to the election.

    It is inconceivable that Mr Hilton would not have passed on these concerns to Mr Cameron, but evidently the Prime Minister chose to ignore them.

    Knowing what we now know of the allegations made against Mr Coulson, that does not just call into question the Prime Minister's judgement, it calls into question his commonsense.

    Meanwhile, spare a thought this weekend for Gordon Brown, who wanted to hold the same kind of judicial inquiry into phone hacking that Mr Cameron has announced this week, but was blocked from doing so by the cabinet secretary, on the grounds that it would be too sensitive before the election.

    Had he got his way, and the grisly facts tumbled out ahead of polling day, it is very likely that Mr Brown would still be Prime Minister today.

    Mr Coulson, who was then Mr Cameron's chief spin doctor, would have had to resign, and the public's doubts about the Tory leader would have been dramatically reinforced.

    It's been said plenty of times before, but in politics, as in journalism, timing really is everything.

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    Saturday, July 02, 2011

    The battle David Cameron dare not lose

    More than a quarter of a century ago, a young, recently-elected Labour leader found himself caught on the horns of an excruciating political dilemma as he sought to drag his party into the post-industrial era.

    The National Union of Mineworkers under its leader Arthur Scargill had just gone on strike in protest at Margaret Thatcher's pit closure programme without calling a national ballot of its members.

    Did Neil Kinnock condemn the strike and put himself at odds with the union which, more than any other, defined the Labour movement, or support it and leave his modernisation agenda holed below the waterline?

    In the end, he did neither, choosing to sit on the fence until the battle was effectively over, although with the benefit of hindsight, he now says he regrets not having called for a ballot at the outset.

    Was it possibly this example that the current Labour leader, Ed Miliband, had in mind, when he came down firmly against this week's one-day stoppage by the public sector unions over pensions?

    It certainly represented a gamble for a man who owes his entire position to the trade union barons whose votes swung last year's knife-edge Labour leadership election in his favour.

    Predictably, one of them has already branded him a "disgrace" for failing to support Thursday's action but, to give him his due, Mr Miliband is at least trying to show some leadership over the issue.

    Whether he is proved right or wrong in his judgement depends of course on how the battle for public opinion already under way over the pensions issue ultimately pans out.

    The argument on this score is currently pretty finely balanced. While some will invariably blame the unions for Thursday's disruptions, many are instinctively sympathetic to their cause.

    Attempts by ministers to frame the debate in terms of a comparison between "generous" public sector pensions and those in the private sector risk being seen as advocating a "race to the bottom."

    Mr Miliband's calculation, at the moment, is that the strikes will harm the union's cause and by implication the Labour Party's if it is seen to be supporting them.

    But by focusing his arguments this week on the timing of the action – at a point when negotiations with the government are still ongoing – he has at least left himself a way out if there is a shift in the public mood.

    For Prime Minister David Cameron, too, the stakes are high, partly because of the sheer amount of taxpayers' money involved, and partly because of the government's recent series of U-turns.

    First it was the forestry sell-off, then the plan to reduce sentences for offenders who plead guilty early, and finally and most damagingly of all the proposed shake-up of the National Health Service.

    Any more climbdowns – particularly in the face of pressure from the unions – and his government's credibility would surely be permanently shot to pieces.

    The fact that Mr Cameron was prepared to put his personal authority on the line over the pensions issue in a series of interventions last week suggests he is well aware of this danger.

    I began this column by alluding to the Thatcher-Scargill prize-fight of 1984-85 and, for both of the two main parties, its legacy continues to hang heavily over the politics of industrial relations in the UK.

    If the strike hampered Mr Kinnock's attempts to modernise his party, it also helped cement Mrs Thatcher's reputation as the woman who transformed Britain from the economic basket-case of the 70s to the self-confident nation it became in the course of the ensuing decade.

    All subsequent Tory leaders bar none have since struggled to escape her shadow, and for all his efforts to fashion a more compassionate brand of Conservatism, the current one is no exception.

    Just as Ed Miliband hopes to be compared favourably with the Welsh Windbag, David Cameron cannot afford to be compared unfavourably with the Iron Lady.

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