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

Daily Mail
Show Hide image

Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle