Why isn't Osborne appearing at the Leveson inquiry?

The man who first approached Coulson should appear in person.

The current phase of the Leveson inquiry, focusing on the relationship between politicians and the press, will see David Cameron and six senior cabinet ministers (Nick Clegg, Theresa May, Michael Gove, Vince Cable, Ken Clarke and Jeremy Hunt) take to the witness stand. Yet, bizarrely, George Osborne is not one of them. The Chancellor will not appear in person and will merely submit a witness statement. I say bizarrely because, as was confirmed again during Andy Coulson's testimony, it was Osborne who first suggested that Cameron should hire Coulson as the Conservatives' communications director. Here's the key extract from Coulson's witness statement:

The first approach from the Conservatives came from George Osborne, I believe in March 2007 (NB: this was just two months after Coulson resigned as editor of the News of the World over phone-hacking). He contacted me and we met at a London hotel for a drink. In that conversation he told me that the Conservative Party wanted to make changes to its professional operation and asked whether I would be interested in joining the team ... I believe David Cameron called me later that night to say that Mr Osborne hold told him of our conversation and that he would like to meet.

Questioned at length on why the Conservatives had hired him, Coulson replied at one point: "I don't want to be obstructive, but that's a question for Mr Osborne". Indeed it is, which is precisely why the Chancellor should appear himself. As Lib Dem peer Michael Oakeshott has quipped, "Leveson without Osborne would be like Hamlet without the prince".

Before Coulson's appearance yesterday, James Murdoch told the inquiry that he complained to Osborne about the "slow" progress of the BSkyB bid. In his witness statement, he recorded:

I recall one conversation with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, about the bid ... I expressed my concern at the slow progress with the regulatory process, my view that the investment would be good for Britain and also my view that there were no plurality issues raised by our proposal.

Osborne met Murdoch executives 16 times in the period following the general election, including two meetings with Rupert Murdoch and four with James Murdoch. Rebekah Brooks, who will appear at the inquiry from 10am this morning, met Osborne five times in her capacity as chief executive of News International. Should she divulge the details of their conversations, the pressure for Osborne to appear himself could become irresistible.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne leaves Number 11 Downing Street on May 10, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Labour's trajectory points to landslide defeat, but don't bet on a change at the top any time soon

The settled will among Jeremy Corbyn's critics that they need to keep quiet is unlikely to be disrupted by the result. 

Labour were able to tread water against Ukip in Stoke but sank beneath the waves in Copeland, where the Conservatives’ Trudy Harrison won the seat.

In Stoke, a two-point swing away from Labour to the Tories and to Ukip, which if replicated across the country at a general election would mean 15 Conservative gains and would give Theresa May a parliamentary majority of 40.

And in Copeland, a 6.7 per cent swing for Labour to Tory that would see the Conservatives pick up 52 seats from Labour if replicated across the country, giving them a majority of 114.
As the usual trend is for the opposition to decline from its midterm position at a general election, these are not results that indicate Labour will be back in power after the next election.. That holds for Stoke as much as for Copeland.

The last time a governing party won a by-election was 1982 – the overture to a landslide victory. It’s the biggest by-election increase in the vote share of a governing party since 1966 – the prelude to an election in which Harold Wilson increased his majority from 4 to 96.

To put the length of Labour’s dominance in Copeland into perspective: the new Conservative MP was born in 1976. The last Conservative to sit for Copeland, William Nunn, was born in 1879.

It’s a chastening set of results for Ukip, too. The question for them: if they can’t win when Labour is in such difficulties, when will they?

It’s worth noting, too, that whereas in the last parliament, Labour consistently underperformed its poll rating in local elections and by-elections, indicating that the polls were wrong, so far, the results have been in keeping with what the polls suggest. They are understating the Liberal Democrats a little, which is what you’d expect at this stage in the parliament. So anyone looking for comfort in the idea that the polls will be wrong again is going to look a long time. 

Instead, every election and every poll – including the two council elections last night – point in the same direction: the Conservatives have fixed their Ukip problem but acquired a Liberal Democrat one. Labour haven’t fixed their Ukip problem but they’ve acquired a Liberal Democrat one to match.

But that’s just the electoral reality. What about the struggle for political control inside the Labour party?

As I note in my column this week, the settled view of the bulk of Corbyn’s internal critics is that they need to keep quiet and carry on, to let Corbyn fail on its his own terms. That Labour won Stoke but lost Copeland means that consensus is likely to hold.

The group to watch are Labour MPs in what you might call “the 5000 club” – that is, MPs with majorities around the 5000 mark. An outbreak of panic in that group would mean that we were once again on course for a possible leadership bid.

But they will reassure themselves that this result suggests that their interests are better served by keeping quiet at Westminster and pointing at potholes in their constituencies.  After all, Corbyn doesn’t have a long history of opposition to the major employer in their seats.

The other thing to watch from last night: the well-advertised difficulties of the local hospital in West Cumberland were an inadequate defence for Labour in Copeland. Distrust with Labour in the nuclear industry may mean a bigger turnout than we expect from workers in the nuclear industries in the battle to lead Unite, with all the consequences that has for Labour’s future direction.

If you are marking a date in your diary for another eruption of public in-fighting, don’t forget the suggestion from John McDonnell and Diane Abbott that the polls will have turned by the end of the year – because you can be certain that Corbyn’s critics haven’t. But if you are betting on any party leader to lose his job anytime soon, put it on Nuttall, not Corbyn.

 

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