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

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May's "clean Brexit" is hard Brexit with better PR

The Prime Minister's objectives point to the hardest of exits from the European Union. 

Theresa May will outline her approach to Britain’s Brexit deal in a much-hyped speech later today, with a 12-point plan for Brexit.

The headlines: her vow that Britain will not be “half in, half out” and border control will come before our membership of the single market.

And the PM will unveil a new flavour of Brexit: not hard, not soft, but “clean” aka hard but with better PR.

“Britain's clean break from EU” is the i’s splash, “My 12-point plan for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s, “We Will Get Clean Break From EU” cheers the Express, “Theresa’s New Free Britain” roars the Mail, “May: We’ll Go It Alone With CLEAN Brexit” is the Metro’s take. The Guardian goes for the somewhat more subdued “May rules out UK staying in single market” as their splash while the Sun opts for “Great Brexpectations”.

You might, at this point, be grappling with a sense of déjà vu. May’s new approach to the Brexit talks is pretty much what you’d expect from what she’s said since getting the keys to Downing Street, as I wrote back in October. Neither of her stated red lines, on border control or freeing British law from the European Court of Justice, can be met without taking Britain out of the single market aka a hard Brexit in old money.

What is new is the language on the customs union, the only area where May has actually been sparing on detail. The speech will make it clear that after Brexit, Britain will want to strike its own trade deals, which means that either an unlikely exemption will be carved out, or, more likely, that the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union, the single market and the customs union.

(As an aside, another good steer about the customs union can be found in today’s row between Boris Johnson and the other foreign ministers of the EU27. He is under fire for vetoing an EU statement in support of a two-state solution, reputedly to curry favour with Donald Trump. It would be strange if Downing Street was shredding decades of British policy on the Middle East to appease the President-Elect if we weren’t going to leave the customs union in order at the end of it.)

But what really matters isn’t what May says today but what happens around Europe over the next few months. Donald Trump’s attacks on the EU and Nato yesterday will increase the incentive on the part of the EU27 to put securing the political project front-and-centre in the Brexit talks, making a good deal for Britain significantly less likely.

Add that to the unforced errors on the part of the British government, like Amber Rudd’s wheeze to compile lists of foreign workers, and the diplomatic situation is not what you would wish to secure the best Brexit deal, to put it mildly.

Clean Brexit? Nah. It’s going to get messy. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.