The pressure rises on James Murdoch

The conclusion from today's evidence is clear: either Murdoch is lying, or Tom Crone and Colin Myler

James Murdoch, who cancelled a planned trip to Asia to watch today's media select committe hearing on phone hacking, will have had an uncomfortable morning. Colin Myler, the former (and final) editor of the News of the World, and Tom Crone, the paper's former head of legal affairs, have stuck to their story and insisted that Murdoch did know about the infamous "for Neville" email - the document that blew a hole in News International's "rogue reporter" defence.

Crone stumbled at one point and appeared unable to say whether Murdoch was aware that phone hacking extended beyond the paper's royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire [the logical conclusion of the email, which featured a hacking transcript, marked for Neville Thurlbeck, the News of the World's chief reporter]. But Myler came to his rescue and insisted that "everybody understood the significance of the "for Neville" email." In other words, not only did Murdoch know of the existence of the email, he also knew that it destroyed the paper's legal defence.

Yet when he appeared before the select committee in July, the News International chairman denied that he was even made aware of the email. Here's his exchange with Tom Watson:

Watson: "James - sorry, if I may call you James, to differentiate - when you signed off the Taylor payment, did you see or were you made aware of the full Neville email, the transcript of the hacked voicemail messages?"

James Murdoch: "No, I was not aware of that at the time."

When this answer was queried by the Guardian, Murdoch's office provided a written statement repeating his denial: "In June 2008 James Murdoch had given verbal approval to settle the case, following legal advice. He did this without knowledge of the 'for Neville' email."

At one point, Crone said of Murdoch: "I can't tell you whether on his part there was ambiguity." If we assume that Crone and Myler are telling the truth, Murdoch's only plausible defence is that the importance of the "for Neville" email was explained to him in the most opaque fashion. But Myler's declaration that "everybody understood" its significance appears to rule out this possibility.

The conclusion from today's evidence is clear: either Murdoch is lying, or Crone and Myler are. It is now imperative that the committee recalls Murdoch and asks him to resolve this contradiction.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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