Political sketch: committee round two and beyond

Four dull, suited men take to the stage; eyes now turn to Leveson.

Those who had seen Murdoch the Movie were always going to be disappointed by the sequel. No Capo di tutti capi, no Consiglieri, and certainly no Momma with Attitude. Just a box, and someone called Pandora.

The House of Commons has played host to a number of memorable women in recent years: Maggie's friend Tina, Gordon's inamorata Prudence; but Pandora may turn out to be the best remembered of all. She comes in many guises and chose yesterday to be portrayed as four rather dull men in suits who share one thing in common: they all used to work for Rupert, his boy James, and a close friend called Rebekah.

The venue was Portcullis House and the same room where but a few short weeks ago the Murdochs and Co. appeared in front of MPs from the Culture, Media and Sport committee to deny all knowledge of the industrial scale phone-hacking going on at the News of the World; not to mention confusing facts like News International paying convicted criminal and former reporter Clive Goodman £240,000 to go away after his sentence, and continuing to pick up the legal bills of equally convicted non-employee Glenn Mulcaire.

It was these matters and others which brought former senior execs, ranging from the Head of HR to the Legal Manager of NI, in front of the committee to cast light on the darkness and end the confusion.

Basically, the MPs wanted one questioned answered: Was James Murdoch right when he said he had no knowledge that the scandal which has so far led to 15 arrests involved only Goodman. After three and a half hours of forensic questioning, MP Louise Mensch (chick-lit novelist Louise Bagshawe, as was) summed it up thus: "It's a clear as mud".

To be fair to the not-so-famous four, they seemed willing to give the right answers but you were never sure all the members of the committee were going to ask the right questions.

The first two out of the traps were the HR man, Daniel Cloke, and ex-Director of Legal Affairs, Jon Chapman, who both had obviously decided on the "no recollection" defence. Mr Chapman got a laugh out of admitting he came to be News International's legal man after cutting his teeth at Enron.

No one asked them why they had so recently quit the employment of the Murdochs, and when they left after an hour Pandora wondered why she had bothered to turn up.

But the one that the MPs wanted to let loose on was still to come. The wonderfully named Tom Crone was the News of the World's legal backstop for 20 years until he, too, found himself at home permanently, as the hacking and bribery scandal reached out to the highest echelons of the empire.

Mr Crone was accompanied by the only ex-Murdoch employee happy to be there: the last editor of the News of the World, Colin Myler, who enjoys the pleasure of having been working abroad when his predecessors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson were at the helm. Myler also had the pleasure of ten minutes notice when Brooks told News of the World employees the paper was closing, but she was staying.

Mr Crone was clearly not popular with the committee and spent most of the next two hours staring down at the table in front of him, as if praying it might morph into the Tardis and whip him off.

Instead, he sweated his way through 120 minutes revealing little gems such as Andy Coulson wanting to give Clive Goodman a job back at the News of the World after his prison sentence, and that he got his quarter of a million pound pay off out of "compassion"; a word clearly much bandied about at the News of the World. He admitted that giving £450,000 to Professional Football Association Chief Gordon Taylor was "large", but that it wasn't to buy his silence.

But had James Murdoch been right when he told the committee in July that he had never been told there was anyone other than Goodman involved in phonehacking? Not so, said Tom Crone. There was "clear evidence" that hacking went further, and that was why the Taylor case had to be settled:

We had to explain the case to Mr Murdoch and get his authority to settle, so clearly it was discussed.

An hour later, James Murdoch said he stood by his original testimony, which is "an accurate account of events". Meanwhile, down the road Lord Leveson made the first moves in his inquiry into just how bad things were in the Street of Shame. He invited interested parties to apply to be "core participants"; willing to provide evidence.

A host of newspapers immediately said they would; apart for the Mail and the Mirror. The Mail can't yet, because editor-in-chief Paul Dacre is still on holiday.The Daily Mirror said it would not be seeking to testify before the inquiry.

Pandora just smiled.

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

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

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As long as the Tories fail to solve the housing crisis, they will struggle to win

The fall in the number of homeowners leaves the Conservatives unable to sell capitalism to those with no capital. 

For the Conservatives, rising home ownership was once a reliable route to government. Former Labour voters still speak of their gratitude to Margaret Thatcher for the Right to Buy scheme. But as home ownership has plummeted, the Tories have struggled to sell capitalism to a generation without capital. 

In Britain, ownership has fallen to 63.5 per cent, the lowest rate since 1987 and the fourth-worst in the EU. The number of private renters now exceeds 11 million (a larger number than in the social sector). The same policies that initially promoted ownership acted to reverse it. A third of Right to Buy properties fell into the hands of private landlords. High rents left tenants unable to save for a deposit.

Rather than expanding supply, the Tories have focused on subsidising demand (since 2010, housebuilding has fallen to its lowest level since 1923). At a cabinet meeting in 2013, shortly after the launch of the government’s Help to Buy scheme, George Osborne declared: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. The then-chancellor’s remark epitomised his focus on homeowners. Conservative policy was consciously designed to enrich the propertied.

A new report from the Resolution Foundation, Home Affront: housing across the generations, shows the consequences of such short-termism. Based on recent trends, less than half of millennials will buy a home before the age of 45 compared to over 70 per cent of baby boomers. Four out of every ten 30-year-olds now live in private rented accommodation (often of substandard quality) in contrast to one in ten 50 years ago. And while the average family spent just 6 per cent of their income on housing costs in the early 1960s, this has trebled to 18 per cent. 

When Theresa May launched her Conservative leadership campaign, she vowed to break with David Cameron’s approach. "Unless we deal with the housing deficit, we will see house prices keep on rising," she warned. "The divide between those who inherit wealth and those who don’t will become more pronounced. And more and more of the country’s money will go into expensive housing instead of more productive investments that generate more economic growth."

The government has since banned letting agent fees and announced an additional £1.4bn for affordable housing – a sector entirely neglected by Cameron and Osborne (see graph below). Social housing, they believed, merely created more Labour voters. "They genuinely saw housing as a petri dish for voters," Nick Clegg later recalled. "It was unbelievable." 

But though housebuilding has risen to its highest levels since 2008, with 164,960 new homes started in the year to June 2017 and 153,000 completed, this remains far short of the 250,000 required merely to meet existing demand (let alone make up the deficit). In 2016/17, the government funded just 944 homes for social rent (down from 36,000 in 2010). 

In a little-noticed speech yesterday, Sajid Javid promised a "top-to-bottom" review of social housing following the Grenfell fire. But unless this includes a substantial increase in public funding, the housing crisis will endure. 

For the Conservatives, this would pose a great enough challenge in normal times. But the political energy absorbed by Brexit, and the £15bn a year it is forecast to cost the UK, makes it still greater.

At the 2017 general election, homeowners voted for the Tories over Labour by 55 per cent to 30 per cent (mortgage holders by 43-40). By contrast, private renters backed Labour by 54 per cent to 31 per cent. As long as the latter multiply in number, while the former fall, the Tories will struggle to build a majority-winning coalition. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.