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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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.