Thursday, 8 November 2012

News International – the gift to Labour that just keeps on giving


As David Cameron ponders the deeper strategic meaning of Romney’s defeat for his fractious party, in the back of his mind I suspect there is something a little more prosaic distracting him disproportionately from this and the everyday great affairs of state.

So, this weekend has revealed a few silly texts between the Prime Minister and a newspaper editor – so what? Is it anything more than that staple of good, old-fashioned tabloid reporting, to spread innuendo about impropriety (preferably sexual, if possible), for the titillation of the Great British Public?

Quite possibly not. And, first of all, let’s stop talking about phone-hacking, Leveson or Rupert Murdoch as issues which Labour are in a position to come out winning from. Leveson may well have some good recommendations about future press and government behaviour with respect to it but, in general, it will arguably affect left and right in comparable measure. It’s now clear that the Mirror was phone-hacking too, which further takes the heat off NewsCorp.

And, frankly, if Rupert Murdoch’s head on a silver platter were to be the ultimate objective for Labour of all this, it could still happen. But a more realistic reading may be that the wily old fox will live to fight another day. In fact, even his son, who seemed much more in line for a career-limiting outcome, is back on the BSkyB board.

However, all the while, there is also clearly ongoing damage to the Tories of the slow drip-drip-drip of stories coming from a very specific area: their relationship with News International and the same figures’ involvement in Newscorp’s bid for BSkyB.

A recap: when Jeremy Hunt was involved in highly compromising revelations earlier this year about the BSkyB bid – not to mention the exquisite Thick Of It moment of hiding under a tree – it was unclear why he was left still in post. There was no referral on the Ministerial Code, because the person who decides on referrals is, er, the Prime Minister. Cameron saved his bacon. Yes, there was the issue of Cameron not appearing weak by sacking on the whim of the press pack or the Opposition benches. But the easy, and least damaging, thing would therefore have been to sack him quietly in the summer reshuffle, as some suggested he would. He did not. Why?

Secondly, we are by now used to seeing Cameron lose his cool at PMQs. But his extraordinary response in avoiding the questions of Chris Bryant MP on his texts to Rebekah Brooks is not only probably breaking with parliamentary protocol, but downright odd. Why is he so riled by Bryant?

Thirdly, there is his almost incomprehensible reluctance to release said texts to Leveson (a decision has been made that they are all "not relevant" by, er, the Prime Minister himself). If, as seems highly likely, they will leak out anyway, why would you not simply hand them all over yourself? You are otherwise merely making it look as if you have something to hide, even if you do not. Poor judgement.

Then there is still to come, next year, the trial of Rebekah Brooks herself. From what we know about her, a reasonable guess might be that, were she to be convicted, this would not happen without her taking a few of them with her. And, whether or not she is found guilty, how is Cameron going to deal with his close association to someone whose name is likely to be, at the very least, dragged through the mud over a period of months?

And that is before we even start on Andy Coulson’s trial. Without getting into the trial itself, let us not forget Cameron’s abysmal judgement in employing someone who had, astonishingly, already openly admitted to paying police officers for confidential information.

And then there’s George Osborne, the man who lobbied for Coulson’s hiring. As the Telegraph’s Damian Thompson reported earlier this year:

“News International contacted Rupert Harrison, George Osborne’s special adviser, to discuss Vince Cable’s attitude towards the BSkyB bid.”
How exactly is it proper behaviour to use one member of the government to influence the quasi-judicial decision of another in a department he has nothing to do with?

And so we start to arrive at an alternative hypothesis. That, perhaps, the Prime Minister might just not have sacked Hunt because there might later come out something else, directly connected to him, which might beg the reasonable question of why he did not also sack himself?

That is not to say necessarily illegal, or even improper behaviour but, at least, embarrassing and highly questionable, in the case that the perpetrator is the country’s most senior politician? That the reason Hunt is still in post is simply that “we stand or fall together”?

It is far, far too early to say with any confidence what will come out of the next few months. But it is suddenly at least possible, faintly possible, that the revelations which Bryant calls “the tip of an iceberg” might even be the end of Cameron. When such things finally gather critical mass in the age of internet and rolling media, resignations can come in days, not months.

We shall see. In the meantime, what is certain is that this story is not going away any time soon and, as Alastair Cambpell observed:

“…if the same story ran for ten to twelve days you knew you had a real crisis management issue not a frenzy.”
When it has been there for more than a year, and in all probability rolling on for another one or two years, then that is pretty terrible news for the Tories.

And there is a delicious irony to all this which no-one seems to have noticed: for the party which turned a blind eye to phone-hacking for so long, their leader is now being damaged by someone, er, hacking his own.

But finally, lest we crow too much, we should not forget that even then, the most important story is largely wrapped up in the person of one man – Cameron. We should not forget that, should he ever become a true liability to his party, his defenestration would be quick and merciless, rather like that of the party’s longest-serving post-war prime minister.

The Tories are down, but they are certainly not out.


This post first published at LabourList

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