Political sketch: Digesting the culture secretary

Helicopters were scrambled - but Hunt survives.

You could tell it was really serious when they scrambled the SkyCopter to make sure he got to court without doing a runner; by the time he climbed into the dock he looked as if it had been circling his house, if not his bed, all night.

And so Jeremy Hunt, fourth cousin once removed (for the moment) from the Queen, enthusiastic Lambada dancer and presently Secretary of State of Culture Media and Sport, finally got to meet his fate - or at least its presence on earth, Robert Jay.

As befitted the auspiciousness of the day, Jay, chief interrogator of the Leveson inquiry, had made his own special effort, matching tie with trademark yellow framed spectacles, as he prepared to embark on the long-trailed evisceration of the hapless Hunt.

The victim, whose face looked as if it had been rubbed down with a chamois leather, swore to tell all truthfully and sat down quickly as befits someone whose legs weren't getting all the usual messages.

And his nerves immediately transferred to his arms as he windmilled his way through answers to the joy of any body language expert employed to comment on his behaviour.

Mr Jay, whose method of questioning is to quietly encourage his target to make a mistake, established that the Culture Secretary had been an early cheerleader for the Murdoch bid to take full control of BSkyB. Indeed he was so keen on it that he dropped a note to the Prime Minister backing the deal.

As his Coalition colleague Vince Cable, charged with judging the bid, went about his business Jeremy happily stayed in contact with the Murdoch camp who alerted him that all was not necessarily going well.

Having heard that Hunt texted Chancellor George Osborne, who also moonlights as the Tories chief strategist (a vacancy expected to occur soon), to say he thought Vince Cable might be screwing the deal up.

But then suddenly Vince was outed as a Murdoch enemy in the Telegraph sting operation and PM Dave gave him the job of sorting it out.

Arms, hands and eyes were all on the move when Jay asked what was the difference between Vince's anti-Murdoch stance which got him the sack from the judging job and his pro-Murdoch stance which got him it.

That was dead easy, said Jeremy, because obviously, unlike Vince, he had a place in his brain where he could lock away all his personal views and never let them affect his judgement.

"I wasn't biased because I set aside my sympathies," he said.

As the inquiry digested this, gifted Mr Jay then moved on to the hundreds of emails and texts between Mr Hunt's office and the Murdoch empire which have led some people to take a less charitable view of what then happened.

It was all these contacts which led Jeremy's special advisor Adam Smith to fall on his (or somebody's) sword and depart the scene.

Adam Smith, "the most decent, straight, honourable person," according to his one-time boss, had become just too text friendly with News Corp's chief corporate greaser Fred Michel who "sucked" him into inappropriate language.

Yes, said Jeremy, he did consider his own position, but decided the right thing was to stay.

Mr Hunt, who looked as if he was losing weight by the hour, even provoked the sympathy of Lord Leveson himself who gently warned his rottweiler to back off from biting him too much.

The Culture Secretary did provoke his own slight pause in proceedings when he announced that having got the job of deciding on the BSkyB bid, "I had to make sure that our democracy was safe."

But it was an unnerved democracy-saviour who stumbled his way through the rest of the afternoon as Jay mercilessly worked his way through message after message leaving Jeremy making desperate attempts to hang on to his job and keep his patron the PM (due up himself on June 14) out of the firing line.

It was nice of Robert Jay to remind Jeremy Hunt that he is one of the sponsoring Ministers for the very inquiry that had just spent six hours examining his entrails.

As the Culture Secretary was finally allowed his freedom, his hold on the job seemed no stronger than it had been when he arrived.

Earlier, the inquiry heard that when Rebekah Brooks resigned Mr Hunt texted: "About bloody time."

Lets hope Dave's not taking notes.

Photograph: Getty Images

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

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide