Political sketch: BSkyBow out

James Murdoch turned down his Godfather 6 role long ago.

You knew it was serious even with the sound down because Kay Burley had her Huw Edwards face on as she confirmed on Sky News her boss was now attempting to write himself out of the script of The Godfather 6.

His formal resignation as chairman of BSkyB may have leaked out at lunchtime but the game was really up for James Murdoch last November when Labour MP Tom Watson asked him if he was, "familiar with the term Mafia". The sharp silence that followed only matched the shock at an earlier hearing when his step-mother had flattened the lad who had slapped his dad in the face with a pie.

This time it was expensively-educated James who had to sit silent as Tom, who holds the same place in the Murdoch affections as John Mann does for George Osborne, plied his trade as torturer-in-chief.

"You must be the first mafia boss in history who did not know he was running a criminal enterprise," said Watson with all the freedom parliamentary privilege can bestow. As James squeezed out the sentence "Mr Watson, that is inappropriate," he must have known that despite closing  the News of the World, and despite the mea culpas of Murdoch senior, this one was going to run and run.

Even as he fled to the United States and abandoned all formal connections with the British newspaper end of the family business, the spotlight remained.

As contagion spread to the Sun and arrests multiplied, even American investors started to wake up to the damage that could be done to the multi-billion pound BSkyB end of the business just by association. The TV regulator Ofcom revealed they were dusting off their "fit and proper persons" paragraph even as the Culture committee argued between themselves over just how big a boot they would put into Murdoch minor for what they see as "memory lapses" during his time at News International. 

With the Committee’s report due out after Easter - no doubt followed by renewed pressure on Ofcom, do not forget - we are also about to move into charge time following the many arrests which have come out of the police inquiry into hacking.

Meanwhile, the Leveson inquiry provides daily up-dates and reminders that there are still plenty of legs left in the story. And then there are the private investigators and the blagging . . .

Can it only be 16 months since James and his wife sat down to a jolly pre-Christmas dinner with the then-News International chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, and her husband Charlie, and their mutual friends David and Samantha Cameron?

Photo: Getty Images

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

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

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