Public faith in politics may be the casualty of this scandal

As with expenses, politicians are tempted down the route of self-flagellation which does not tackle

"It was the Sun wot won it" crowed the front page after the 1992 general election. On the previous day, their front page warned the voters "If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights". Sometime later, a story emerged that in a focus group someone said "I didn't vote for Neil Kinnock because I heard he had a light bulb inside his head". Entirely plausible, because people often have impressions of politicians and rarely -- oh, so rarely -- have the detail.

It would be no great surprise in a focus group today to discover that everyone believes David Cameron's wife held a slumber party for Rebekah Brooks, when it was actually Sarah Brown; that Tony Blair went horse riding with Brooks when it was David Cameron; that Nick Clegg held a séance with James Murdoch, which I know to be untrue in the same way I know that Neil Kinnock never had a light bulb inside his head.

Which is why when it comes to this next step towards truth and reconciliation between the media and politicians, we should all be cautious. People will, at the end of this, believe that all of them are as bad as each other, and be left with an impression of sleaze running through the media, police and politics.

Don't get me wrong -- there most definitely should be a judicial inquiry, which goes wider than News International. As Nick Clegg says in his speech today:

... a fundamentally corrupted relationship between politics, the media, and the police. All these groups are supposed to serve the people. But too often they have been serving only themselves or each other. A light has been shone on the murky underworld of British public life. A world in which confidential information is for sale; in which journalists cross the line from public interest into vulgar voyeurism; and politicians, petrified of the power of the media, fail in their duty to ensure a free, accountable, plural press.

It is an excellent speech with a strong commitment to a free press, that gives everyone an insight into the significant work he has put in on this issue behind the scenes. It raises the opportunity to have a decent debate on what comes next after the flabby and flaccid Press Complaint Commission.

But so far, only a paving slab has been overturned. Observing all the stuff that is coming out is like watching the creepy crawlies under one slab. We now have an inquiry that will pull up the whole pavement. Whilst it will marginally improve things for the Liberal Democrats and for Ed Miliband, for senior politicians in both Labour and the Conservatives, this will be the expenses story all over again. So the loser will be the reputation of politics itself. Therefore, there is a danger even to those who come out of this inquiry squeaky clean.

Like the expenses scandal, politicians will be tempted down the route of some kind of half-cock, self-flagellation style IPSA idea, as a backlash reaction against the massive outcry. IPSA is system of financial scrutiny in Parliament which is almost unworkable and punishes all MPs.

Yesterday Labour's Tom Harris MP who has long campaigned on media issues summed it up perfectly in a tweet:

Journalists illegally tap people's phones. The response? Force MPs to publically record every meeting with media. Utterly. Bloody. Bonkers.

A strong and vibrant belief in politics may be what we sacrifice in the last roll of a dice of a retiring judge. This may end up as a backlash against politicians, triggered by an appalling act by people who should simply be developing a new and entirely different relationship with the police -- one which ends with a conviction.

 

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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