Blair refuses to distance himself from Murdoch

The former PM avoided any criticism of the Murdochs at a press conference in Australia.

Tony Blair has been talking at length about the phone hacking scandal and the Murdochs for the first time since the Milly Dowler story broke. Appearing at a joint press conference with Australian prime minister Julia Gillard in Murdoch's homeland, Blair was asked if he thought "the Murdochs themselves should be held responsible."

He replied:

Look, I think there's going to be several inquiries that are underway in the UK now. I think all of these issues are going to be gone into in depth, which they should. Obviously what happened in relation to the hacking was pretty despicable, what happened there, but as I think both the Murdochs said when they went to the select committee in the House of Commons, you know, they take responsibility for that [emphasis mine] and it's important that we now get to the bottom of what has happened and work out a right way of trying to get these relationships on a sound footing for the future.

In fact, contrary to Blair, Rupert Murdoch did not take responsibility for the hacking scandal at the select committee hearing last week. He told MPs: "I do not accept ultimate responsibility. I hold responsible the people that I trusted to run it and the people they trusted."

It was that startling complacency that prompted Sir Hugh Orde, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, to attack Murdoch's "complete denial of any responsibility of his organisation".

Blair was also asked whether he had received any assurances that his phone wasn't hacked, he replied:

I actually, well when I was Prime Minister of the UK I never had a mobile phone, which nowadays I think was a real advantage for me, so I've never thought that it's possible that I would be but I honestly have no idea.

But perhaps the most notable thing about the press conference was Blair's refusal to distance himself from the Murdoch empire. He would not comment on the failed BSkyB bid and when asked if Rupert Murdoch should step aside, replied:

Look, I think everyone agrees the hacking of that poor girl's phone was despicable, I don't think there's anybody who would dispute that - including the Murdochs, by the way - but what happens to News International is a matter for them.

Note the way that he inserts, "including the Murdochs, by the way", as if to legitimise his criticism of the Dowler hacking. He feels comfortable describing it as "despicable" because the Murdochs have used similar language themselves.

Finally, here's how Blair responded when asked if Murdoch entered Downing Street by the front door or the back door: "I can't honestly remember."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Stella Creasy targeted for deselection

Organisers on the left believe the Walthamstow MP is the ideal target for political, personal and geographical reasons.

Stella Creasy, the high-profile MP for Walthamstow and defeated deputy Labour leadership candidate, is the first serious target of an attempt to deselect a sitting Labour MP, the New Statesman has learnt.

Creasy, who is on the right of the party, is believed to be particularly vulnerable to an attempt to replace her with an MP closer to the Labour party’s left. Her constituency, and the surrounding borough of Waltham Forest, as well as the neighbouring borough of Leyton and Wanstead, has a large number both of new members, inspired either to join or return to Labour by Jeremy Corbyn, plus a strong existing network of leftwing groupings and minor parties.

An anti-bombing demonstration outside of Creasy’s constituency offices in Walthamstow – the MP is one of around 80 members of Parliament who have yet to decide how to vote on today’s motion on airstrikes in Syria – is the latest in a series of clashes between supporters of Creasy and a series of organized leftwing campaigns.

Allies of Creasy were perturbed when Momentum, the grassroots body that represents the continuation of Corbyn’s leadership campaign, held a rally in her constituency the night of the Autumn Statement, without inviting the MP. They point out that Momentum is supposedly an outward-facing campaign supporting Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party towards the 2020 general election and the forthcoming local and European elections. Labour holds 27 out of 27 council seats in Creasy’s constituency, while Creasy herself has a majority of 23,195 votes.

“If you look at the seat, there is nothing to win here,” said one Labour member, who believes that Momentum and other groups are planning to depose Creasy. Momentum has denied any plot to remove Creasy as the MP.

However, Creasy has come under pressure from within her local party in recent weeks over the coming vote on bombing Syria. Asim Mahmood, a Labour councilor in Creasy’s constituency, has called for any MP who votes for bombing to face a trigger ballot and reselection. Creasy hit back at Mahmood on Facebook, saying that while she remained uncertain of how to vote: “the one thing I will not do is be bullied by a sitting Walthamstow Labour councilor with the threat of deselection if I don’t do what he wants”.

Local members believe that Mahmood may be acting as the stalking horse for his sister, the current mayor of Waltham Forest, Saima Mahmud, who may be a candidate in the event of a trigger ballot against Creasy. Another possible candidate in a selection battle is Steven Saxby, a local vicar. Unite, the recognized trade union of the Anglican Communion, is a power player in internal Labour politics.

Although Creasy has kept her own counsel about the direction of the party under Corbyn, she is believed to be more vulnerable to deselection than some of the leader’s vocal critics, as her personal style has led to her being isolated in her constituency party. Creasy is believed to be no longer on speaking terms with Chris Robbins, the leader of the council, also from the right of the party.

Others fear that the moves are an attempt by Creasy’s local opponents to prepare the ground for a challenge to Creasy should the seat be redrawn following boundary changes. The mood in the local party is increasingly febrile.  The chair of the parliamentary Labour party, John Cryer, whose Leyton and Wanstead seat is next to Creasy’s constituency, is said to fear that a fundraiser featuring the shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, will take an acrimonious turn. Cryer was one of just four shadow cabinet ministers to speak against airstrikes in Syria.

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