Political sketch: Cash-for-croutons

Dave's battering from the wrong side of Fleet Street.

When Harold Wilson came up with adage "a week is a long time in politics," he could not have imagined that a successor would reduce it to just three hours. Stand up David Cameron.

With the cash-for-croutons scandal leading the news for the second day in a row, the hapless, inaptly named, Paymaster General Francis Maude was trundled out onto the Today Programme at 8am this morning to try to draw a line under it.

He was to make it quite clear that the Prime Minister was standing firm and would not be naming who he had invited round to his place for dinner with him and Sam Cam, as this was a totally private matter.

But as what remained of Francis escaped into the street following disemboweling by Evan Davis. By then, it was already obvious this would not stand and so at 11am, a sweaty faced PM took advantage of a pre-booking at the Alzheimer's Society to cave in.

It would be wrong, however, to lay the real credit for this volte-face with Mr Davis -- or indeed Mr Maude. Instead, the final realization in Downing Street was that they had managed to fall out spectacularly with their traditional backers the Tory Press. It was only after they had digested the full severity of the attacks on their man this morning in the Mail, the Telegraph and the Sun that Cameron Camp accepted the game was up.

The Prime Minister has never been a family favourite among the more recidivist members of Fleet Street who much prefer the nouveau riche to the simply-riche like Dave. And their distrust has only grown over the eagerness with which he has embraced the link-up with the Lib Dems which he and they both know has helped keep the "hang 'em and flog 'em" approach to politics -- so beloved of their readers -- in check.

But even he was stung by the severity of the attacks this morning.

The Daily Mail, which ran a headline asking "Just why is Cameron such a terrible judge of character," questioned the appointment of Treasurer Cruddas and asked about his lack of judgement when it come to "spivs" with money.

It was the Mail which led the campaign to oust previous Tory Treasurer David Rowlands, who forked out £2.7m for the Party at the General Election, having said his appointment was being "viewed with alarm" following allegations about his business affairs. Editor Paul Dacre will have noted that Mr Rowlands was one of the "high value" guests now admitted by the Prime Minister to have sat at the Cameron table.

The Telegraph, up in arms since the Osborne cock-up over pensioners last week infuriated thousands of its readers, said the cumulative impression was "toxic" for the Tories.

Equally scathing was the Sun, who only a year ago was solidly pro-Cameron as he partied away with James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks. But that was before he was forced into the Leveson inquiry to head off the trouble cause by another of his character calls, making Andy Coulson his chief mouthpiece. The Sun asked if millions of voters will be wondering if the 50p tax rate was scrapped after "a few cosy lunches with millionaire backers".

Cameron will no doubt find a way out of this latest disaster as he has the rest, but the mistakes keep adding up.

He gambles on short memories and long traditions to bring the faithful -- and that includes his side of Fleet Street -- back on side come the election. But that assumes he will still be there and, as Margaret Thatcher found out, it isn't always a given.

Who's for dinner? Photograph: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

Photo: Getty
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On the important issues, Louise Casey all too often has little to say

Far from moving the debate on, this new report on integration adds little to the report I commissioned in 2001. 

For 15 years, “numerous government reports on community cohesion and integration have not been implemented with enough force or consistency” concludes Louise Casey’s review of  integration.  The government’s lukewarm response suggests their effort will be as “diluted and muddled” as all the rest.

There’s a deeper reason why governments shy away from the measures that are needed. The report's wealth of data sets out a stark if sometimes contestable picture of a divided society.  But no amount of data can really bring the lives of our fellow citizens to life. As the Brexit vote underlined, this is now a nation divided by class, geography, education, wealth, opportunity and race. Those divisions colour the way we live our lives, the way we see problems in society, the relations we have with others, and our political choices. The report, like many before it, stops short of setting out that reality. It’s easier to pretend that most of us pretty much agree on most things; but just few people don’t agree and they must be the problem. Predictably, much of the early coverage has focussed on the Muslim community and new migrants. If only it were so easy.

According to Casey “in this country, we take poverty, social exclusion, social justice and social mobility seriously” and we do it “across political divides”. Apparently “creating a fair, just society where everyone can prosper and get on” is a cornerstone of British values. Yet for page after page the report chronicles the serial failure of this benign consensus to tackle educational under-performance, and economic and racial disadvantage. If we all agree, how come we haven't done anything about it?

These problems are not certainly easy to solve, but more lip service is paid to tackling them than effort. The practical material issues documented here need addressing, but punches are pulled when hard answers are needed. Given the dramatic impact of mass migration on cohesion, is integration possible while current rates of immigration persist? Can we find the political will to tackle poverty and disadvantage when those who might benefit from the effort are divided against each other by suspicion, race, geography and values? After all, rather than progressive policies producing a cohesive society, social unity is the precondition for the introduction of progressive policies.

We don't actually actually agree on what our “fundamental values” mean in practice. We can all sign up to democracy and the rule of law, but as soon as those are put into practice – see the court case on Article 50 – we are divided. When judges are popularly seen as “enemies of the people” and a vote in an elected parliament as a threat to democracy, in what sense are law and democracy fundamental?

Casey usefully highlights how treating homeless families equally, irrespective of ethnicity and length of residence can create the perception that minorities are being favoured over long standing residents. Our differing views on what is “just” and how “fairness” are defined can tear us apart. Is it fair to favour the newcomer over the indigenous? Is it just to put length of time on the waiting list above housing need? We often don't even acknowledge the legitimacy of other points of view, let alone try to find common ground.

The continual invocation of Britain and British values lends an air of unreality to the report.  Most people in England include British in their identity, but Englishness and English interests are of growing importance. In a worrying development, some areas of England  may be polarising between a white Englishness and an ethnic minority Britishness. Integration won't happen without a shared national story that combines a unifying national identity with the acceptance that we all have more than one identity that matters to us. Ignoring the reality of complex and multiple identities closes off one essential way forward.

None of this means that the criticism of some reactionary and occasionally dangerous ideas and practices in the Muslim community should be ignored and not confronted. But in a country where the established church opposes homosexual relationships and praise for Vladimir Putin's Russia is now mainstream politics it is hard to believe that all our problems can be reduced to the behaviour of a minority of a minority community.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University