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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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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