The Murdoch-Cameron deal

What Murdoch can expect in return for the Sun's support of the Tory leader

How did David Cameron, a man until recently regarded by Rupert Murdoch as a "lightweight", convince one of the media mogul's most cherished papers, the Sun, to support him?

Initially the News Corporation head, fond of the days when Margaret Thatcher's cabinet contained "more old Estonians than Old Etonians", was highly sceptical of the upper-class Cameron.

Appearing on The Charlie Rose Show in July 2006, Murdoch was asked, "What do you think of David Cameron?" His contemptuous reply was: "Not much." Conversely, he was highly impressed by Gordon Brown and admired his intellect, his work ethic and his Presbyterian conscience.

As Michael Wolff, the author of the Murdoch biography The Man Who Owns the News, noted during this period: "Murdoch continues to like Gordon Brown -- he might be the Labour Prime Minister, but he's conservative, particularly in the Murdoch sense of no pretence, no frills."

So what changed? The most obvious answer is Cameron's poll ratings. Murdoch may present himself as a contrarian who relishes every opportunity to defy "the establishment" but politically he has always followed rather than led public opinion.

Then there's the BBC. As I first noted in the aftermath of James Murdoch's broadside against the corporation, the family has become increasingly obsessed with curtailing the BBC's "chilling" expansion.

Under Cameron's leadership, the Tories have already demonstrated their willingness to challenge the successive licence-fee increases the world's largest broadcaster has enjoyed under Labour. In May, parliament voted on a Tory proposal to freeze the licence fee, with Cameron arguing that during the recession the BBC needed to do "more with less".

The proposal made little political impact and was easily defeated by 334-156 votes, but it set an important precedent.

Even more significant is Cameron's pledge to abolish Ofcom. On 26 July the media regulator announced that it would force the Murdoch-owned BSkyB to cap the cost of its premium sports and film channels, potentially making them available on new platforms such as BT Vision. Sky retaliated by promising to use all legal avenues available to challenge the ruling.

Just ten days later, in a surprise speech, Cameron promised that, under a Conservative government, "Ofcom as we know it will cease to exist".

Finally, it is clear that it was James Murdoch, who oversees the European and Asian corners of his father's empire, who pushed hardest for the declaration in favour of Cameron. Lord Mandelson may not have been far from the truth when he claimed last night that Murdoch Sr "was a little surprised and disappointed" by the decision.

As Wolff wrote in 2008: "[T]hen there is James's infatuation with David Cameron, the Tories' cool, glam former PR guy, whom Murdoch knew he was, however begrudgingly, going to have to accept."

It's no coincidence that the Sun's endorsement of Cameron was notably more qualified than its declaration for Blair. The Conservative leader is likely to have to offer further guarantees to keep the paper onside.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.