Political sketch: after the hors d'oeuvres, stuffed Murdoch

As theatre of anticipation it was wonderful.

College Green had more tents that a boy scouts jamboree as the world's press gathered for the ritual disemboweling of the Great Dictator .But when Rupert turned up it looked we might be just in time to celebrate his departure.

Floors had no doubt been strengthened and roofs raised in anticipation of the appearance of the ogre who frightened the world for almost half acentury but all that turned up was an 80-year-old man who looked as if he was missing his nap.

He turned up with his boy James and a cast of consiglieri who combined salaries probably make them worth more than the building the meeting was being held in.

It was a day of such excitement that the press was literally beside itself. The BBC, so often the target of Murdoch bile, even cancelled The Weakest Link to bring it to the nations attention.

As it was the best story of the day came in noises off and a right hander from Wendi Murdoch which is just as well as the rest if the performance will only look good in the edited highlights.

As theatre of anticipation it was wonderful. The Murdochs were due in the dock at 2.30 but kindly parliamentary authorities, mindful of their place in history laid on a wonderful hors d'oeuvres of a brace of seared and slightly sautéed policemen.

Not content with giving them a good kicking last week MPs had outgoing Met Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson and John no-longer-of-the-Yard- Yates back in to quiz them further.

This High Noon confrontation allowed them to not answer why giving the former deputy editor of the News of the World Neil "Wolfman"
Wallis £1,000 a day for advice on PR will go down in history as the worst example of bad PR since Dave decided Andy Coulson should get the gig at Number 10.

There was one new revelation but this time not from the cops. Instead chairman Keith Vaz, as unctuous as ever, revealed he had something in common with the Met chief: namely he too was best pals with the health farm owner who provided £12,000 of free care to Sir Paul.

That out of the way the tricoteuse turned their attention to the promised main course, stuffed Murdoch.

It was obvious almost immediately that there wasn't much to nibble on the old scrawny bird but the young one had plenty of flesh on him.

Rupert tried to get in his apologies from the start: "This is the most humble day of my life," said the mogul who clearly had been practicing the unfamiliar "h" word but was quickly cut off by Culture Committee chairman John Whittingdale.

MP Whittingdale knew he had to get in quick since he has previous on Rupert having declared him his media hero.No sign of that here as stern John said statements would come later.

Instead he threw the ball to Labour's Tom Watson whose dogged determination over hacking has more than rescued what was in the past a moribund political career despite fears of waking up and finding a horse's head next to him in bed.

As Tom bared his teeth James valiantly tried to deflect his attention from his dad who was staring absent mindedly at the table. But Tom had been waiting a long time for his chance.

Did you not know what was going on in your own organisation demanded Tom. "Not really," was the less than energetic reply. In fact it became almost sad as the octagenarian seemed lost in thought as he tried to come up with answers.

Both Murdochs had clearly been told to keep their cool and they sat there like two of the wise monkeys (Rebekah, now cast into the outer darkness, was due on stage later.)

As it was squirming James ended up answering or dodging most of the questions from MPs who after this performance must never give up the day job whatever it is.

James, wearing one of those posh tans you don't get from a fortnight in Benidorm, has the posh American accent to go with it and had certainly learned the corporate "It wasn't me guv" mantra off by heart Rupert woke up now and again when the MPs were getting a bit hard on his boy but generally kept his head down and his poking finger flat under the watchful eye of the missus.

Did he accept responsibility for this fiasco. "No" was one of his more fulsome replies.Had he thought of quitting? "No" again as if anyone in Murdoch towers had even thought that idea a starter.

Time crawled by as committee members tried to ask the questions they must have overheard on the tube home but there was neither heat nor light until James was asked if his company had been picking up the legal bills of chief criminal Glen Mulcaire even after his prison sentence. The simple answer seems to be yes although the words uttered bore only a passing relationship to this fact.

James mumbled, his vowels shortened and dad looked alarmed. It was hard to know if this was a double act or a medical condition.

Then, in the best traditions of Fleet Street, the non-story rode to the rescue.

Despite the earlier presence of the nation's ex top coppers and security you felt was impregnable up popped a lad with a plate full of shaving cream. The cameras went off as tomorrow's headlines were written in white foam.

Cynics will say it was a News of the World stunt but that paper, as we know, is no more.

After a short break we resumed and Rupert was roundly thanked for staying around to dodge a few more questions.Then he went home.

Up next lonely and forlorn was the not quite so flame-haired ex-chief executive who only last week Rupert said he would defend to the hilt.

She seemed to be in denial as she talked about "our company" and "our response" The only friend Rebekah had with her was "my learned " there to make sure the hole she is already in gets no bigger.

Meanwhile Dave was in Nigeria.

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

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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