Ed Miliband might have read too much into phone-hacking

The Labour leader's stance against the Murdochs was a turning point of sorts, but it didn't change t

Earlier this year, when the phone-hacking scandal was monopolising the news, quite a few MPs seemed baffled - not by the anger itself (no one could doubt that appalling behaviour had been exposed at the News of the World), but by the apparent scale and momentum of events. Plainly it was a huge news story and journalists like few things more than writing collectively about themselves. But the question being asked inside the Westminster village was "how big could this get?" There were some stunning personnel changes. The Met top brass resigned; a mass-circulation Sunday newspaper closed its doors. But when the dust had settled, how different would the landscape really look?

MPs weren't hearing about hacking from their constituents. The two issues most often raised on the doorstep and in surgeries continued to be the economy and immigration. That made a marked contrast with expenses scandal, which ate the political agenda much as hacking did but which also turned into a huge issue for individual MPs on their home turf. People still talk about it. Pollsters say it is one of the few things that those voters who are generally uninterested in politics can recall about Westminster goings on. That is not the case with hacking. For parliament and the media and the Murdoch family, it is big news. For everyone else, it is part of a background blur of shabbiness and name-calling - the relentless and inchoate hum that tells people politicians and journalists are generally scummy, but not much else.

One senior shadow cabinet minister I spoke to at the time expressed it in interesting terms, I think, when he considered the possibility that it was a "Diana moment - where everything seems to change and in fact nothing changes." There was a short burst of hysteria - a particular national mood - and then it dispersed. The monarchy changed a bit; the paparazzi didn't change at all. Business continued mostly as usual.

James Murdoch's appearance before a parliamentary committee today was important, revealing and necessary. But it is not a national event. It doesn't stoke up wider feelings of anger and rage about hacking. There was a fire there once, but it has gone out.

This is something to which Labour and Ed Miliband should be paying careful attention. The phone-hacking scandal was his moment. He made a difficult and brave judgement call - took a risk - and got it right. It was a turning point in his leadership. But Miliband and his team read more into it than that. They tend to interpret the success over phone-hacking as a sign that there are untapped reserves of political capital available for the candidate who takes on powerful vested interests and wins. If Labour could reverse the orthodoxy that said you have suck up to the Murdoch empire, what other orthodoxies of recent political memory might be ripe for reversal? It was an episode that emboldened Miliband and encouraged him to develop more broadly the language of "vested interests" and"ripping up the rule book" and "predatory capitalism" as expressed in his party conference speech and in last week's article in the Observer praising the St Paul's protest.

I don't doubt that this is an intriguing line of thinking and that it might prove fertile political terrain for the leader of the opposition. Maybe it is, as Labour must hope, the kernel of a winning strategy. And I know, of course, that it is premised on more than just the buzz that came from banging in some political goals during the phone-hacking saga. But that was certainly part of it and it is instructive how unmoved most people (outside Labour circles and the Guardian) really are by the issue. Maybe they should care more. The accrual of power and its abuse in the Murdoch empire -not to mention allegations of criminal behaviour - are serious matters. But I'm not persuaded that many voters are ready to read across from that to anything like the conclusions that the Labour leadership has drawn.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.