Leaked Labour email: lay off Murdoch

Opposition leader attempts to turn down the heat on the phone-hacking scandal.

An email, forwarded on behalf of Ed Miliband's director of strategy, Tom Baldwin, to all shadow cabinet teams warns Labour spokespeople to avoid linking hacking with the BSkyB bid, to accept ministerial assurances that meetings with Rupert Murdoch are not influencing that process, and to ensure that complaints about tapping are made in a personal, not shadow ministerial, capacity.

The circular, sent by a Labour press officer on 27 January, states: "Tom Baldwin has requested that any front-bench spokespeople use the following line when questioned on phone-hacking. BSkyB bid and phone-tapping . . . these issues should not be linked. One is a competition issue, the other an allegation of criminal activity."

It goes on: "Downing Street says that Cameron's dinners with Murdoch will not affect Hunt's judgement. We have to take them at their word."

Referring separately to the phone-hacking allegations, the memo states: "We believe the police should thoroughly investigate all allegations. But this is not just an issue about News International. Almost every media organisation in the country may end up becoming embroiled in these allegations."

It adds: "Front-bench spokespeople who want to talk about their personal experiences of being tapped should make it clear they are doing just that – speaking from personal experience."

The guidance concludes with the warning, "We must guard against anything which appears to be attacking a particular newspaper group out of spite."

The memo follows a number of recent high-profile interventions from Ed Miliband in the phone-hacking issue. In the wake of the resignation of Andy Coulson, the Labour leader criticised David Cameron, stating that the affair raised "questions about David Cameron's judgment about hanging on to him as long as he did".

Miliband also raised Coulson's impending departure at last Wednesday's Prime Minister's Questions.

Here's the full text of the email:

From: xxxx | Sent: 27 January 2011 To: xxxx
Subject: Important: Phone hacking

Dear all,

Tom Baldwin has requested that any front bench spokespeople use the following line when questioned on phone hacking.

BSkyB bid and phone tapping
These issues should not be linked. One is a competition issue, the other an allegation of criminal activity.

On BSkyB, we have been consistent in calling for fair play. We believe ministers should conduct themselves properly in what is a quasi-judicial process. We said Vince Cable showed he was incapable of behaving fairly towards News Corp. We have since raised questions about whether Jeremy Hunt can be fully impartial given his record of past statements. We do believe the bid should be referred to the Competition Commission and think Hunt should get on with it. Downing Street says that Cameron's dinners with Murdoch will not affect Hunt's judgement. We have to take them at their word.

On phone hacking, we believe the police should thoroughly investigate all allegations. But this is not just an issue about News International. Almost every media organisation in the country may end up becoming embroiled in these allegations. This goes to the root of a wider problem in public life. MPs are taking a hard look at themselves in the mirror over expenses. It is time the media did so too over the way it conducts itself.

Frontbench spokespeople who want to talk about their personal experiences of being tapped should make it clear they are doing just that – speaking from personal experience.

We must guard against anything which appears to be attacking a particular newspaper group out of spite.

Thanks,

xxxx

Labour Party Press Office

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear