Political sketch: Grown ups at Leveson

Vince Cable and Ken Clarke face Leveson and Jay

Fresh from kipping at the cricket it took the Lord Chancellor Ken Clarke just a few minutes to reduce the Leveson inquiry into the press into an irrelevance: "My advice is stop reading them".

And if further proof were needed: "Margaret Thatcher never read a newspaper from one week to the next," he said before settling his ample frame into his seat for his post-lunch appearance.

Ken, who also doubles as Justice Secretary, was the undoubted master of chillaxing when it was still chilling and his contempt for those politicians who succumb to fear of the press was on display for all, including his Cabinet colleagues, to see.

"The present incestuous relationship between the two is quite peculiar and all based on the belief that daily headlines really matter, and I don't think they really do", said the man whose head is demanded on a daily basis by the more recidivist end of the Street of Shame.

O for the good old days, he reminisced, when journalists knew scandal they did not write about.

When Ken first got into politics Harold MacMillan was Prime Minister and his wife Dorothy was having an affair with a Tory MP which went on for 30 years and nobody wrote about it. Try that today, he said, and you would be out on your ear in three days. But be not afraid was his message to his Cabinet chums. Terror of the tabloids does not work because they turn on you eventually anyway, he said, before settling down to a Q and A with Lord Leveson clearly relieved to have somebody grown up to talk to at last.

It was not meant to be Ken's day but that of his coalition colleague Vince Cable without whom one could say, much of the fun to be discovered in this previously undistinguished room in the Royal Courts of Justice would never have been found.

Vince had turned up for his go in the morning and observers expected him to bask, at least internally, in the knowledge that he had been right when he raised doubts over the now-abandoned Murdoch plan to own all of BSkyB.

But first we had to get to how the Business Secretary, charged with taking an independent and quasi-judicial (the phrase which has kept his bid successor Jeremy Hunt slim since Christmas) view of the plan, managed to blurt that he was "out to get Murdoch."

And would interrogator Robert Jay get to throw more light on why Vince, at the time split between this and practicing for his entry into Celebrity Strictly Come Dancing, chose two comely strangers to cough up on his Murdoch views only to discover later they were from the less than Lib Dem Daily Telegraph?

Vince, who has an unfortunate habit of looking like something found just above the door at York Minster' blinked his way through a succession of stories as he found ground on which to stand whilst justifying his actions.

He quickly dismissed the independence argument by revealing that "an independent mind did not mean a blank mind". Indeed, until the unfortunate meeting with two people he had never met before in his life in his constituency office just before Christmas 2010, he had talked to no-one of his views.

Why then choose to, as he put it, "offload all" to two young women who had popped in claiming to be constituents?

Vince explained that first there had been a near-riot outside his office that evening as constituents apparently unhappy with his stance on everything from the Government's spending plans to tuition fees had tried to impress their views on parts of his body.

He had also heard that "veiled threats" had been issued against the Lib-Dems who he had been told would be "done over" by the Murdoch press if he failed to pass their bid.

These threats he said had allegedly been made by Fred Michel, the corporate political fixer employed by Murdoch companies.

Mr Michel came to fame himself at the inquiry as the man who knows everybody who is somebody and who spends every waking hour sending them texts - particularly if they know or are Jeremy Hunt.

And, said Vince, it was the juxtapositioning of these two events which led to his self-discipline to break down "momentarily " and give the two Telegraph journalists an unexpected scoop.

Had he kept is mouth shut who knows what would have happened. What wouldn't have happened will happen tomorrow. Step forward Jeremy Hunt.

Photograph: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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Not since the Thatcher years have so many Tory MPs been so motivated by self-interest

Assured of an election win, backbenchers are thinking either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. 

One hears despair from Labour not just about probable defeat, but from MPs who felt they had three years to improve the party’s fortunes, or to prepare for personal oblivion. In the Conservative Party, matters seem quite the opposite. Veterans of the 1983 election recall something similar: a campaign fought in the absolute certainty of winning. Theresa May talked of putting the interests of the country first when she engineered the poll, and one must believe she was sincere. However, for those expecting to be Tory MPs after 8 June there are other priorities. Theirs is not a fight for the national interest, because that for them is a foregone conclusion. It is about their self-interest: either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. They contemplate years ahead in which to consolidate their position and, eventually, to shape the tone and direction of the party.

The luxury of such thoughts during a campaign comes only when victory is assured. In 1983 I worked for a cabinet minister and toured marginal seats with him. Several candidates we met – most of whom won – made it clear privately that however important it was to serve their constituents, and however urgent to save the country from the threats within what the late Gerald Kaufman later called “the longest suicide note in history”, there was another issue: securing their place in the Thatcher revolution. Certain they and their party would be elected in the aftermath of the Falklands War, they wanted their snout in the trough.

These are early days, but some conver­sations with those heading for the next House of Commons echo the sentiments of 1983. The contemporary suicide note has not appeared, but is keenly awaited. Tories profess to take less notice of opinion polls than they once did – and with good reason, given the events of 2015 and 2016 – but ­imagine their party governing with a huge majority, giving them a golden opportunity to advance themselves.

Labour promises to change the country; the Liberal Democrats promise to force a reconsideration of Brexit; Ukip ­promises to ban the burqa; but the Tories believe power is theirs without the need for elaborate promises, or putting any case other than that they are none of the above. Thus each man and woman can think more about what the probability of four or five further years in the Commons means to them. This may seem in poor taste, but that is human nature for you, and it was last seen in the Labour Party in about 2001.

Even though this cabinet has been in place only since last July, some Tory MPs feel it was never more than an interim arrangement, and that some of its incumbents have underperformed. They expect vacancies and chances for ministers of state to move up. Theresa May strove to make her team more diverse, so it is unfortunate that the two ministers most frequently named by fellow Tories as underachievers represent that diversity – Liz Truss, the Lord Chancellor, who colleagues increasingly claim has lost the confidence of the judiciary and of the legal profession along with their own; and Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, whom a formerly sympathetic backbencher recently described to me as having been “a non-event” in his present job.

Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, was lucky to survive his own stint as lord chancellor – a post that must surely revert to a qualified lawyer, with Dominic Grieve spoken of in that context, even though, like all ardent Remainers in the government, he would be expected to follow the Brexit line – and the knives are out for him again, mainly over Southern Rail but also HS2. David Gauke, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and the little-known Ben Gummer, a Cabinet Office minister, are tipped for promotion with Grieve if vacancies arise: that all three are white men may, or may not, be a consideration.

Two other white men are also not held in high regard by colleagues but may be harder to move: Boris Johnson, whose conduct of the Foreign Office is living down to expectations, and Michael Fallon, whose imitation of the Vicar of Bray over Brexit – first he was for it, then he was against it, and now he is for it again – has not impressed his peers, though Mrs May considers him useful as a media performer. There is also the minor point that Fallon, the Defence Secretary, is viewed as a poor advocate for the armed forces and their needs at a time when the world can hardly be called a safe place.

The critical indicator of how far personal ambition now shapes the parliamentary Tory party is how many have “done a Fallon” – ministers, or aspirant ministers, who fervently followed David Cameron in advising of the apocalyptic results of Brexit, but who now support Theresa May (who is also, of course, a reformed Remainer). Yet, paradoxically, the trouble Daniel Hannan, an arch-Brexiteer and MEP, has had in trying to win selection to stand in Aldershot – thanks to a Central Office intervention – is said to be because the party wants no one with a “profile” on Europe to be added to the mix, in an apparent attempt to prevent adding fuel to the fire of intra-party dissent. This may appease a small hard core of pro-Remain MPs – such as Anna Soubry, who has sufficient talent to sit in the cabinet – who stick to their principles; but others are all Brexiteers now.

So if you seek an early flavour of the next Conservative administration, it is right before you: one powering on to Brexit, not only because that is what the country voted for, but because that is the orthodoxy those who wish to be ministers must devotedly follow. And though dissent will grow, few of talent wish to emulate Soubry, sitting out the years ahead as backbenchers while their intellectual and moral inferiors prosper.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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