Labour steps up the pressure on Cameron

Yvette Cooper: relationship with Coulson raises "serious questions" about the Prime Minister's judge

Labour is stepping up the pressure on David Cameron following the resignation of Britain's top police officer, Sir Paul Stephenson.

The head of the Metropolitan Police stood down yesterday, citing speculation about the relationship between News International and the police force. The pressure on him grew with the revelation that he had employed the News of the World deputy editor, Neil Wallis. Notably, Stephenson directly referred to Cameron's relationship with the former News of the World editor, Andy Coulson:

Once Mr Wallis's name did become associated with Operation Weeting, I did not want to compromise the Prime Minister in any way by revealing or discussing a potential suspect who clearly had a close relationship with Mr Coulson. I am aware of the many political exchanges in relation to Mr Coulson's previous employment -- I believe it would have been extraordinarily clumsy of me to have exposed the Prime Minister, or by association the Home Secretary, to any accusation, however unfair, as a consequence of them being in possession of operational information in this regard. Similarly, the Mayor. Because of the individuals involved, their positions and relationships, these were I believe unique circumstances.

On the Today programme this morning, the shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said that this raised questions about Cameron's "continued silence" on the matter. Here's the key section of the interview:

Cooper: It was interesting what Sir Paul said yesterday -- that one of the reasons he clearly felt he could not tell the Home Secretary, the mayor, Downing Street about that contract that he had with Neil Wallis, the former deputy editor of News of the World --- he couldn't tell them because of the relationship between the Prime minister and Andy Coulson. That seems to me to be unprecedented. I cannot think of any case where the commissioner could not tell the Home Secretary because he was worried about the Prime Minister's relationship with somebody involved in the criminal investigation.

Interviewer: To be clear, this resignation statement, he says "I did not want to compromise the Prime Minister in any way by revealing or discussing a potential suspect who clearly had a close relationship with Mr Coulson. But why would that have compromised the Prime Minister?

Cooper: Well, this is obviously Sir Paul's judgement --

Interviewer: Can you explain to us how that could be? It's difficult to know why it would compromise the Prime Minister. What are the options?

Cooper: I don't know the details of what it is Sir Paul knows about the ongoing investigation, what the role of Andy Coulson is. But as you'll know, the Prime Minister is obviously continuing to see Coulson, he invited him to Chequers some time after his resignation, so he has obviously continued to be in touch with Andy Coulson. So there are clearly questions I think about Andy Coulson's role in all of this and about the Prime Minister's judgement in appointing him and in continuing to keep that relationship up. So it does raise concerns. If the Met commissioner himself thought that relationship -- that compromised relationship -- prevented him from telling the Home Secretary what was happening, talking to her about operational things, but also maintaining the Home Secretary and the mayor's confidence in the on-going work of the Met and how they were handling a difficult situation -- that puts the Met commissioner in an extremely difficult situation.

Cameron is currently on a trade visit to Africa, a trip which he has cut from four days to two. However, his absence at this critical time looks strange to say the least. He has so far ignored the serious questions that his relationship with Coulson raises, except to say that if he was misled by Coulson, then so were police and parliament. Stephenson's comments -- while certainly not notable for their clarity -- seem designed to put the pressure back on Downing Street. This is potentially very damaging for Cameron: he will not be able to delay providing answers for much longer.

UPDATE: Cameron has rejected Stephenson's comparison between his hiring of Wallis and Cameron's hiring of Coulson. Speaking at a press conference in South Africa, he said:

I think the situation in Metropolitan Police service is really quite different to the situation in government, not least because the issues that the Metropolitan police service are looking at and the issues around them have had a direct bearing on public confidence into the police inquiry into the News of the World and indeed the police themselves.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle