Saturday, June 16, 2012

A tale of three Prime Ministers

Shortly after Rupert Murdoch sacked him as editor of The Times in 1982, the great newspaperman Harold Evans wrote a book about his experiences which he both hoped and believed would devastate the Australian media mogul.

‘Good Times, Bad Times’ remains a classic of its kind and is still pretty much essential reading for anyone wanting to enter our profession, but if the truth be told, its political impact was far more limited than its author had envisaged.

Over the ensuing decades, Murdoch’s continuing accretion of power over the UK media became by and large a subject of interest only to a few left-wing mavericks, with governments of both colours content to indulge the News International chief in the hope of winning his papers’ backing.

Then came the phone hacking affair, propelling the ‘Murdoch question’ to the centre of national debate to the point where it now threatens to eviscerate the entire UK political and media establishment.

This week’s hearings of the Leveson Inquiry into press standards might be termed a tale of three Prime Ministers, each one giving a subtly differing account of his dealings with the Murdoch empire.

Of the three, Sir John Major - who once promised to create a nation at ease with itself - was the only one who looked remotely close to being at ease with himself.

Actually his most intriguing revelation was not about Mr Murdoch at all but the man who defeated him in that 1997 election landslide.

Sir John’s estimation that Tony Blair was “in many ways to the right” of him seems to confirm my long-held suspicion that Tory governments seeking to reach out to the centre-left end up being more progressive than Labour ones which seek to appease the right.

Unlike Sir John, who admitted he cared too much about what the papers wrote about him, Gordon Brown claimed he barely even looked at them during his two and a half years in 10 Downing Street.

This was one of many scarcely believable claims which, taken together, served to undermine the credibility of what otherwise might have constituted a powerful body of evidence.

Mr Brown effectively accused Mr Murdoch of having lied to the inquiry about a 2009 conversation in which the former PM was alleged to have threatened to “declare war” on News International.

Cabinet office records appear to bear out Mr Brown’s version of events, but claiming he had nothing to do with the plot to force Mr Blair out of office might lead some to conclude he is a less than reliable witness.

The contributions from Messrs Major and Brown contained much that will be of interest to future historians, and may yet have a significant bearing on Lord Justice Leveson’s eventual recommendations.

But in terms of the impact on present-day politics, the key session of the week came on Thursday as David Cameron took the stand.

For such a renowned PR man he seemed very ill at ease, perhaps unsurprisingly given the excruciating contents of the text messages which he exchanged with News International boss Rebekah Brooks.

To his credit, though, Mr Cameron did not attempt to shy away from the responsibility for some of his more controversial actions, admitting that he was “haunted” by the decision to make former News of the World editor Andy Coulson his communications chief.

For me, the party leader who emerged with the least credit from the week was not Mr Cameron but Nick Clegg, whose decision to abstain in the vote over Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s future looked like the worst kind of gesture politics.

If they really wanted to see an independent investigation carried out into Mr Hunt’s role in handling the BSKyB bid, they would have voted with Labour, but this was no more than a cynical exercise in political positioning.

In Journal political editor Will Green’s excellent analysis of the state of the Liberal Democrats in the North-East published earlier this week, Gateshead Lib Dem councillor Ron Beadle was quoted as saying that Mr Clegg would not lead his party into the next election.

Party loyalists aside, it is becoming harder and harder to find anyone prepared to dispute that assertion.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

The woman who saved us from President Blair

free web site hit counterIf there is a single word that has come to define David Cameron's premiership over the past two years - and one that is likely to continue to define it long into the future - it is almost certainly the word ‘austerity.’

But although circumstances have decreed that the administration which he leads is overwhelmingly focused on economic matters, this almost certainly wasn’t the way the Prime Minister originally planned it.

A few years back, the then opposition leader could be heard opining somewhat heretically that perhaps the role of policy-making should be more focused on making people happy than on making them rich.

Alas, after a couple of outings, the so-called ‘happiness agenda’ sank without trace in the face of the financial crisis that gripped the nation from 2008 onwards and which has continued to set the parameters of current day political debate.

Perhaps this week's Diamond Jubilee celebrations, however, have shown that Mr Cameron remains at heart much more of a social cavalier than the economic roundhead his opponents would sometimes like to depict.

Asked on Thursday whether other European countries would benefit from having Jubilee days off like Britain's, Mr Cameron replied with disarming honesty: ''It is not good for the economy, but it was good for the soul.''

The first point is pretty much unarguable, with the £700m boost from overseas tourism barely registering against the estimated £6bn in lost economic productivity over the course of the long bank holiday weekend.

But what the heck, we have all had a damned good party, and after what already seems like years of economic doom and gloom, perhaps that's just what we needed.

Mr Cameron is a not entirely disinterested observer, of course. Historically the ‘King’s Party,’ the Tories invariably enjoy a boost whenever the red, white and blue bunting comes out.

Furthermore, as I noted in last week’s column, the government was pretty much relying on this Jubilee weekend to draw a line under the post-Budget ‘omnishambles’ that has seen it stagger from crisis to crisis in recent weeks.

As the Tory blogger Harry Cole put it: “As a big shiny distraction from our economic woes and the political disaster that David Cameron’s government is perilously close to becoming, the Royal Jubilee weekend was pretty good.”

Whether it will work remains to be seen. But if a new ‘feelgood factor’ can emerge from the Jubilee and Olympic celebrations that will book-end this summer, then perhaps the Coalition can look forward to some sunnier times ahead.

What of the monarchy itself? Well, despite being given a frankly puzzling degree of prominence by the BBC, the Republican cause was pretty much routed by this week’s show of public affection for the Queen.

Left-wing commentators who blame the Monarchy for the decline in social mobility in the UK are forgetting that the first two decades of the Queen’s reign saw the biggest upsurge in social mobility in our history.

On a personal level, surely no monarch could be more deserving of the adulation that has been heaped upon her this week than Queen Elizabeth II.

As the historian Dominic Sandbrook put it: "We have had more exciting, more effusive and more colourful monarchs. But we have never had a sovereign who worked harder, served her country with more devotion, or better represented the innate decency of our national character."

For me, though, as has often been said, the importance of the monarchy lies primarily not in the power that it has but in the power that it denies to others.

And as such, my own debt of gratitude to the Queen is not so much for her devoted life of public service, nor even for the way she has held this country together in a period of unprecedented social change.

No, it is for the fact that, by her very presence at the pinnacle of our political system, she saved us from the baleful prospect of President Thatcher or, even worse, President Blair.

And for that, if for nothing else, I gladly join with the rest of the country in wishing Her Majesty a very happy Diamond Jubilee.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Budget shambles bodes ill for Tories' election prospects

It was of course New Labour, in the shape of former North Tyneside MP Stephen Byers' erstwhile spin doctor Jo Moore, who gave the phrase 'burying bad news' to the English language with her infamous email on the afternoon of 9/11.

But to be fair, it was neither her nor even her party which first invented the concept.  Her mistake was simply to be too brutally explicit about a practice that all modern governments have to a greater or lesser extent engaged in.

This current one is no exception, although its methods of news management at times lack the subtlety that, Ms Moore aside, was often the hallmark of New Labour’s.

This week it appeared to decide that the best such method would be to get as much bad news as possible out of the way before the Jubilee weekend, perhaps in the hope that four days of patriotic partying will mean it is all forgotten by Wednesday.

In this sense it reminded me of one of the standard news management techniques employed by governments of right and left throughout my time reporting on Westminster.

Each year, without fail, the last afternoon before the start of the summer recess would see hundreds of parliamentary answers covering all manner of embarrassing subjects dumped in the Press Gallery - just as most of us were preparing to toast the end of the political year over a few jars.

Then again, if you are going to be forced into the embarrassment of conducting no fewer than three U-turns over measures announced in the Budget, you may as well get them out there in the course of the same 48-hour period.

And if in so doing you can also manage to distract attention from the fact that your Culture Secretary sent James Murdoch a congratulatory message on the progress of his takeover bid for BSkyB on the day the said minister was given responsibility for deciding the outcome of it, then so much the better.

Cynical?  Well, it sort of goes with the territory.  But the point is, so is much of the general population when it comes to politics these days, leaving a question mark over whether such obvious news management techniques actually work any more.

Whether it was Chancellor George Osborne who was trying to take the heat off Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt or perhaps even vice-versa, both men have ended the week looking somewhat diminished.

Mr Hunt’s position remains the most precarious of the two.  Although Prime Minister David Cameron continues to insist he has done nothing wrong, Labour is to force a Commons vote on whether he has breached the ministerial code.

He may survive that ordeal, but he surely cannot survive too many more embarrassing revelations about his links with the Murdoch Empire and his obvious cheerleading of the BskyB bid.

But while Mr Hunt’s recent travails have probably put an end to his hopes of one day succeeding Mr Cameron, Mr Osborne’s has undoubtedly been the greater fall from grace.

Okay, so his job is not under any immediate threat, but his reputation as the Tories’ strategic genius - even his opponent Ed Balls once called him the best politician in the Tory Party – is probably damaged beyond repair.

Did no-one tell him it was not such a great idea for a seriously wealthy, Old Etonian Chancellor to slap a tax increase on a product which, rightly or wrongly, is largely associated with the ‘working man?’

Did no-one tell him that cutting off a key source of funding to charities at a time when the Tories are trying to build a ‘Big Society’ was not exactly joined-up government?

For all the sound and fury surrounding phone hacking and the Leveson Inquiry, the Conservatives will not ultimately win or lose the next election over the question of whether Mr Cameron got too close to Mr Murdoch and his lieutenants.

They will win or lose it on Mr Osborne’s handling of the economy, and specifically on whether he has managed to tackle the deficit and get UK plc growing again.

With the current Parliament now approaching its half-way point, this year’s Budget needed to be a success, providing a springboard for the recovery the Tories hope will see them through to victory in 2015.

The fact that it has now turned into a shambles of the highest order does not augur well for the government’s prospects.