From Boris to the Murdochs

What can Guto Harri do for News International?

“He never struck me as that remarkable,” a former colleague of Guto Harri's told me as rumours spread that he was set to leave City Hall for News International. “But I guess he must have something going for him.”
 
The key thing that Harri has going for him is his close relationship with Boris Johnson, who Private Eye recently described as the man “fast becoming the Digger’s favourite politician”. Under Harri’s guidance, Johnson has remained consistently and vocally loyal to the Murdochs, despite most other political allies remaining quiet or deserting them altogether.
 
When the Guardian first reported on phone hacking at News International, the Mayor publicly dismissed the story as “a load of codswallop cooked up by the Labour party.” And as the Met began their investigations, his policing deputy repeatedly tried to persuade them to scale back their inquiries.
 
“The caravan should move on,” insisted Boris as yet more revelations emerged. “Real people are so apathetic about the Leveson business,” he repeated again in the Telegraph last week. “In all its lavish coverage of Murdoch, hacking and BSkyB, the BBC never properly explains the reasons why other media organisations – including the BBC – want to shaft a free-market competitor.”
 
As the election approached you might have expected Boris to keep his distance from NI. But just one day after Rebekah Brooks was arrested in a dawn raid, Boris met with the Sun's editors for lunch. Following their meeting, the paper lavished extensive coverage on the Mayor, describing him as fighting hard for “White Van Man”, a claim based on his policy of extending free parking on some London roads by ten minutes. His opponent Ken Livingstone meanwhile was described simply as a “villain”.
 
Harri too has remained loyal to his old contacts. “He is known to be in constant contact with Andy Coulson,” explains one biography (now outdated). Such constant contact seems to have paid off with Harri freely admitting that his new appointment will be seen as "part of an irresistible geometrical pattern" between the Conservatives and News International. But what does Harri have to offer the company, aside from his loyalty?
 
His time as Director of Communications at City Hall will chiefly be remembered for his policy of limiting access to the mayor to all but the most unquestioning members of the media. Shortly after Boris’s election, Guto cancelled the regular City Hall press conferences. Out went the dry reports and question and answer sessions of the Livingstone years and in came an endless series of celebrity-backed ribbon-cutting events where the likes of Kelly Brook, Barbara Windsor and Peter Andre all posed grinning with the Mayor.

Questions from journalists were strictly limited at these events and Harri has consistently kept Boris away from any interviewer who cannot be relied upon to play nice. Chief among the “awkward squad” is BBC London’s political editor Tim Donovan who has repeatedly been refused interviews with the Mayor on the channel's weekend politics show. When Donovan dared to report on Boris’s links with News International, he earned a sweary on-air rant from the mayor. Boris has since gone on to attack BBC London as his “chief opponent" during the election campaign.

Other journalists have been submitted to more underhand attacks. When Boris’s former colleague Sonia Purnell set out to write his biography, “sources close to the Mayor” privately briefed that Purnell was a spurned and embittered admirer of Johnson, a smear that was hinted at in much of the coverage of her excellent book.
 
Along the way Harri has gathered a number of critics on the right. Rather than being a straightforward Murdoch appeaser, they accuse him of actually spending far too much time trying to win over people who will not support the mayor no matter what happens. Despite Boris’s public grumbles about the left-wing media, Harri invited over a hundred journalists from the BBC and the Guardian to the Mayor’s media reception at City Hall last year. The Sun, by contrast, received just six invites.
 
What Harri understands is that in a left-leaning city, Boris needs to appeal well beyond his own party. Under his guidance, Johnson has fought against Labour’s stereotype of him as a swivel-eyed Tory, backing measures such as the Living Wage and an immigrant amnesty.
 
Harri yesterday accused Boris’s campaign manager Lynton Crosby of nearly wrecking his re-election by only appealing to core voters: “That was almost the danger of the campaign, that he became more Tory at a time when being Tory seemed to be more of a liability than an asset.”
 
Despite his unassuming and amiable exterior, Harri is an effective and formidable operator. In four years he has transformed Boris Johnson’s image from national joke to a serious contender for the Tory leadership and Number Ten. This is a remarkable feat.

Transforming the image of News International and the Murdochs will be a far harder task, but if anyone can do it, then perhaps Guto Harri can.

Photograph: Getty Images

Adam Bienkov is a blogger and journalist covering London politics and the Mayoralty. He blogs mostly at AdamBienkov.com

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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