Cameron's friendships are the problem, says Mehdi Hasan

When will the PM distance himself from the toxic trio of Murdoch, Coulson and Brooks?

One particular line stood out to me in Cameron's remarks on phone-hacking this morning, when the Prime Minister was asked whether he was still friends with his former communications director, and the ex-News of the World (NoW) editor, Andy Coulson:

He became a friend and is a friend

For me, this goes to the heart of the issue. This isn't just about the pernicious influence that the Murdoch-owned media have long exercised over British politics; nor is it just the latest example of another British prime minister - after Messrs Blair and Brown - bowing and scraping before the Sun King. Cameron's relationship with those around Murdoch was a close and personal one; it was one of friendship. And it is this friendship that has clouded his judgement and put him on the backfoot this week.

As Peter Oborne, the pro-Cameron commentator, pointed out in his brilliant Telegraph piece earlier this week:

Mr Cameron allowed himself to be drawn into a social coterie in which no respectable person, let alone a British prime minister, should be seen dead.

It was called the Chipping Norton set, an incestuous collection of louche, affluent, power-hungry and amoral Londoners, located in and around the Prime Minister's Oxfordshire constituency. Brooks and her husband, the former racing trainer Charlie Brooks, live in a house scarcely a mile from David and Samantha Cameron's constituency home. The two couples meet frequently, and have continued to do so long after the phone hacking scandal became well known.

Is it any wonder then that the Prime Minister would only say that he "would have taken" Rebekah Brooks's resignation while refusing to join the explicit calls for her to go? Most newspapers, commentators and the Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, have recognized that her position is untenable and that the NoW staff have been sacrificed by the Murdochs in a desperate and outrageous attempt to save Brooks.

I'm surprised that more hasn't been made of Cameron's dinner with Brooks, at the latter's Oxfordshire home (half a mile away from the PM's!), over the Christmas holidays. When Ian Katz, deputy editor of the Guardian, tried to get hold of more details about the dinner and what was discussed, he was rebuffed at every turn by Downing Street officials.

Katz wrote, back in February:

For more than two weeks the Guardian has been trying to establish a few details about an evening Cameron spent at the Oxfordshire home of Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International, during the Christmas holidays. Here's what the most open government in the world told us: first, No 10 categorically denied the PM had visited Brooks on Christmas day itself; then, when we asked instead if the PM had been entertained chez Brooks over the Christmas period it declined to confirm or deny.

Later Downing Street elaborated on its position, pointing out that Brooks was a constituent of Cameron's and, in any case, "the prime minister regularly meets newspaper executives from lots of different companies". But still No 10 refused to provide a date, or even confirm whether the dinner took place.

When it emerged that James Murdoch was at the dinner too, Downing Street became fractionally more transparent: an unattributable source reassured lobby reporters that neither Rupert Murdoch's controversial takeover bid for Sky nor the phone-hacking scandal had been discussed. So that's all right then.

I love this line from Cameron's spinners that he visited her at home because she happens to be a constituent of his. Hilarious. There are 78,220 voters in Witney - is the Prime Minister planning on visiting each and every one of them for dinner? Over Christmas?

It seems clear that the reason Cameron can't seem to cut Brooks or Coulson or News International loose is as personal as it is political.

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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