Political sketch: No respect for the Murdoch family

James Murdoch's second stint in front of the Culture committee.

His face bore the look of someone who had sat down suddenly on something unexpected and possibly sharp. His voice seemed only to confirm this.

We were to discover later that this was not James Murdoch in front of us but a Mafia boss. Unfortunately he sounded more like Kermit than Michael Corleone. This was going to be it .The unmasking of the man who would be king when Rupert finally moves on to his take-over of the celestial heights.

As befits the next ruler of the universe - and someone who intends to keep his personal contact with Plod of the Yard at some distance - Murdoch minor arrived for his latest confrontation with the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee of the House of Commons with a phalanx of minders and lawyers.

Each of them, including James, had been issued with a poppy, leaving some of the Americans on the team with the slightly nervous look of those who were not sure if they had been asked to pin a target to their lapels.

James was here to answer charges that he had only been adjacent to the truth on his last visit to Westminster, best remembered for his dad getting a pie in the face and his step-mum displaying a formidable left hook.

But he was family-less as he tried yet again to prove he was the Diggers true son and heir, worthy of continuing to run the global enterprise that is News Group/International/Murdoch/Millions. The trouble with the plan to get him was that it depended on the members of the Committee who apparently have a quaint system of never agreeing in advance who is going to ask what.

Their main man was always going to be Labour MP Tom Watson who took on the Empire even when it was still popular and has since carved out a career on the back of his bravery. So you knew it was going to be serious when Tom Watson let it be known he'd had a "late, late night " playing Portal 2 and an "early, early morning" listening to the Clash on full blast.

The tone was set when Tom, having wished his new best friend James a good morning, asked him if he recently been arrested or bailed. When James demurred Tom set off on the long path to prove why either if not both of the above moves should be adopted asap by the authorities.

But the younger Murdoch had clearly not wasted his time since his last appearance and rolled out the answers that made it clear that it was not him but several other people, particularly long-time News of the World legal expert Tom Crone and the last Editor of the NoW Colin Myler whose memories should be further examined.

Indeed James, whose own memory seems to have taken several unplanned holidays in recent years, was happy to rest on his record of frankness and honesty over the whole issue. Not to mention the fact that so far there is no paper trail telling another story.

With Joe Strummer no doubt belting away in the back of his brain, Tom religiously asked all the questions everyone had told him he should and James religiously trotted out the answers he had learned.

Getting nowhere fast Tom then turned the question the minor Murdoch had not prepared an answer to:

"Are you familiar with the term mafia", he asked.

The minders sat forward, the committee sat forward even James sat forward. Was Tom going to reveal some phone-hacking of his own?

Have you heard the term "omerta", he added.

"I am not familiar with such things ", said James in a quote that could be drawn from Godfather 6-had there been one.

"You must be the first mafia boss in history who did not know he was running a criminal enterprise", said Tom.

"Mr Watson, that is inappropriate", said James.

With beds to be checked for horses heads Tom may not have got the chance to read the Sky News strapline running during the clash with a small"c". It said Scotland Yard's hacking squad had 300 million, repeat 300 million, News International emails to look at.

If that is even half true this one will run and run and run and run and run....

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

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.