PMQs sketch: Decibels replace debate

Drama at the Royal Courts spreads to the Commons.

Anyone short of a granddad could have picked one up at the Royal Courts of Justice yesterday where an appearance by Vlad the Impaler had been cancelled to let a nice 81-year-old talk about his friends in high places.

Hellfire and damnation had been forecast for the first appearance in a British court of the man accused of dominating political life in this country for 45 years but it was almost all sweetness - if not much light - as Rupert Murdoch arrived and swore to tell the truth and nothing but to the Leveson inquiry.

In the same seat where less than 24 hours earlier his son James had put the sword to the Tory government’s Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, the octagenarian-head of the £60 billion Murdoch empire said he was just here to put a few myths to rest, and in a polished performance which lasted four hours the mask hardly ever slipped.

It was a day of drama throughout the West End befitting the home of the capital’s theatres.

Down at the Palace of Varieties MPs gathered for Prime Ministers Questions as David Cameron prepared to cope with another worst-day-ever in his political life so far this week.

And what a day it was to be with the news the UK had slipped back into recession and Jeremy’s spokesman had quit even before Rupert got into his stride.

It was hard to imagine the most powerful man in the country as he sat there in a suit slightly too big for him watched over by wife Wendi - she of the left hook - and son Lachlan, the one not called James.

As it was, Robert Jay, who had so successfully parted meat from bone when examining Murdoch Jr. yesterday, took a slightly easier tone with the media mogul who only bared his teeth occasionally to remind us how he had got his fingers into so many pies.

Jay led him on a merry romp through 40 years of political history as we learned he loved Thatcher, really liked Tony Blair, got on well with Gordon Brown until he became “unbalanced” about News International, regretted banning Chris Patten’s memoirs as Governor of Hong Kong and really hated the Sun, claiming “It was we wot won it” when Neil Kinnock was defeated.

Alex Salmond, in trouble North of the border following James’s revelations about him yesterday, will have been delighted to hear that his dad is quite a fan and enjoys the "warm” company of the SNP leader. 

The only time he almost lost it was when Jay made the apparently outrageous suggestion he was pally with politicians to help his business interests. Having had a few trips down this particular path, Jay finally got a rise out of Murdoch Sr. when he questioned his closeness of contact with Tony Blair, who would go on to be godfather to the godfather’s son.

Rupert banged the desk in punctuation as he lost patience and declared that during Tony’s ten years in power he never asked nor received any favours.

Indeed, the belief that he put his papers' influence behind politicians to better his business seemed as shocking to him as it had to son James yesterday.

But if it was shock you were looking for then the Government front bench down at the Commons during PMQs was the place to be.

The naughty step, occupied so expertly by Health Secretary Andrew Lansley and his Home Office counterpart Theresa May in recent weeks, had obviously been extended overnight to make way for the Chancellor and the Culture Secretary.

George Osborne looked as if he had his veins opened as he sat waiting for Labour’s onslaught on his economic plans, but that was nothing compared to Jeremy Hunt’s pallor as the Labour benches strained to get at him.

David Cameron, of whom Rupert had been asked did he think a “lightweight”?, had only relaunched his government’s message on Monday following the second-longest suicide note in history that was the budget.

Now here he was trying to defend not only George for the fifth week in a row, but now Jeremy too, who until yesterday was one of the few “safe” pairs of hands left in his Cabinet.

With a goalmouth even more open that for Fernando Torres last night, Ed Miliband was spoilt for choice so he produced the sleaze card fir one, the too-far too-fast card fir the other, and threw both at David Cameron.

If only Rupert could have seen the battered PM from his pole position at Leveson set up by the same man, he may well have smiled.

As it was he may well have heard him as Dave tried and failed to shout his way out of the double disaster. 

Roared on by Tory backbenchers only too aware of the Party’s disastrous showing in the polls, decibels replaced debate as Ed M accused the “arrogant posh boys” of not knowing what was going on.

Back at Leveson the real Rupert told his advisors on his way to the lunch break: ”Lets get him to get this f****** thing over with today”. But clearly not loud enough for Lord Leveson to hear, as he announced a break until tomorrow.

David Cameron should make no plans.

Tugging at Dave's strings. Photo: 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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The Home Office made Theresa May. But it could still destroy her

Even politicians who leave the Home Office a success may find themselves dogged by it. 

Good morning. When Theresa May left the Home Office for the last time, she told civil servants that there would always be a little bit of the Home Office inside her.

She meant in terms of its enduring effect on her, but today is a reminder of its enduring ability to do damage on her reputation in the present day.

The case of Jamal al-Harith, released from Guantanamo Bay under David Blunkett but handed a £1m compensation payout under Theresa May, who last week died in a suicide bomb attack on Iraqi forces in Mosul, where he was fighting on behalf of Isis. 

For all Blunkett left in the wake of a scandal, his handling of the department was seen to be effective and his reputation was enhanced, rather than diminished, by his tenure. May's reputation as a "safe pair of hands" in the country, as "one of us" on immigration as far as the Conservative right is concerned and her credibility as not just another headbanger on stop and search all come from her long tenure at the Home Office. 

The event was the cue for the Mail to engage in its preferred sport of Blair-bashing. It’s all his fault for the payout – which in addition to buying al-Harith a house may also have fattened the pockets of IS – and the release. Not so fast, replied Blair in a punchy statement: didn’t you campaign for him to be released, and wasn’t the payout approved by your old pal Theresa May? (I paraphrase slightly.)

That resulted in a difficult Q&A for Downing Street’s spokesman yesterday, which HuffPo’s Paul Waugh has posted in full here. As it was May’s old department which has the job of keeping tabs on domestic terror threats the row rebounds onto her. 

Blair is right to say that every government has to “balance proper concern for civil liberties with desire to protect our security”. And it would be an act of spectacular revisionism to declare that Blair’s government was overly concerned with civil liberty rather than internal security.

Whether al-Harith should never have been freed or, as his family believe, was picked up by mistake before being radicalised in prison is an open question. Certainly the journey from wrongly-incarcerated fellow traveller to hardened terrorist is one that we’ve seen before in Northern Ireland and may have occurred here.

Regardless, the presumption of innocence is an important one but it means that occasionally, that means that someone goes on to commit crimes again. (The case of Ian Stewart, convicted of murdering the author Helen Bailey yesterday, and who may have murdered his first wife Diane Stewart as well, is another example of this.)

Nonetheless, May won’t have got that right every time. Her tenure at the Home Office, so crucial to her reputation as a “safe pair of hands”, may yet be weaponised by a clever rival, whether from inside or outside the Conservative Party. 

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