Leveson sketch: Dacre – the sequel

Hugh Grant's "mendacious smear" has got right up the nose of the Daily Mail chief.

It was clear as soon as Paul Dacre came into Court 73 that someone had lit the blue touch paper attached to the editor of the Daily Mail and quickly retired out of harm's way.

To see the boogie man's boogie man in broad daylight once in a week is a rare event but to see him twice was enough to keep the audience in their seats, as the Leveson inquiry meandered through it's 40th day on Fleet Street's malpractices. There had already been some entertainment during the day as Heather Mills-no-longer-McCartney told how the press turned on her post-Macca, and Max Clifford revealed that Simon Cowell and other famous faces pay him £250,000 a year -- first to get them into the papers then to keep them out.

But for the aficionados who had been lucky enough to be present on Monday it was Dacre: the Sequel which got them back early from the pubs which help lubricate the wheels of justice on a daily basis. Those who were there on Monday heard Dacre reveal that the Mail's world view is not his alone but honed by independent thinkers like Simon Heffer and Amanda Platell. He demurred at the suggestion from one of the inquiry advocates (whose particulars will no doubt have been taken down) that the Mail played to the "fears and prejudices" of its readers; preferring the word "anxieties" -- but that was when he was still in what his staff would call a good mood.

All that changed when the name Hugh Grant was mentioned.

Grant, it now appears, has taken the place in the Mail lexicon that used to be occupied in previous decades by Arthur Scargill and Red Robbo. Indeed, he even seems to have supplanted more recent heroes like John Prescott and Bob Crow -- a rare achievement for someone whose road to revolution started with Four Weddings and a Funeral.

But Hugh has done something successfully that the rest never managed by getting right up the nose of the editor-in-chief of the newspaper group
that wants to be closer to the squeezed middle than even Ed Miliband. Dacre's nose is not a place you would want to be. You could see that yesterday as it led his face, still ruddy red from his foreign holidays, glowering into the courtroom.

After 20 years running the Mail, Dacre is not as used to democratic debate as others might be. Indeed, his morning conference is described by attendees as the Vagina Monologues because of his use of certain colourful words to enhance his world view.

But he did his best to keep his temper under check as he tried but failed to submit to questioning from barrister David Shelbourne. Instead he launched into answers to questions he had not been asked, as he took his temper out on a pen he had obviously been given to strangle. His demeanour was not helped by the suave Shelbourne, clearly as keen on Dacre as he was on him.

But back to Grant whose name emerged from between the Mail man's teeth as if drawn by a dentist. The nub of the matter is a claim by the actor on day one of the Leveson inquiry that one of the Mail newspapers Dacre runs may have hacked phone messages between him and friends and used them to run stories.

This led Dacre -- who heard the allegation on another of his bête noires, the BBC -- to fall into a Monologue moment and accuse Grant of a "mendacious smear," thereby suggesting, as Corporal Jones said, that they really don't like it up 'em.

What followed yesterday was one of those courtroom comedy moments when barristers on both sides got up and down, Lord Justice Leveson tried to keep the peace and his temper, and the man with his finger on the nation's fears snorted loud enough to bring traffic to a stop on the Strand. Would Mr Dacre now care to withdraw the "mendacious" charge, said Shelbourne, as he managed to get a word in during one of his rare pauses. No chance, said the editor-in-chief, unless "the poster boy" for the Hacked Off campaign withdrew all allegations of hackery against the group "that I love".

The day had begun with a live link to nighttime Australia where a man with a red and white punk haircut had tried to explain the mysteries of the freelance photo business to "sir," as he described Lord Leveson.

This brought to an end "module one" of the inquiry which seemed to mean something to a courtroom full of people for whom tabloid newspapers were a mystery a month ago and now must be beyond their understanding. A few more people picked up their cheques from Rupert Murdoch for crimes committed by the News of the World and others joined the queue. The hacking, blagging and bribing cases haven't even hit court yet.

As Dacre packed up his temper to take it back to the office for the night conference, Lord Leveson said he might have him back again. Book early, this one will run and run.

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May's U-Turn may have just traded one problem for another

The problems of the policy have been moved, not eradicated. 

That didn’t take long. Theresa May has U-Turned on her plan to make people personally liable for the costs of social care until they have just £100,000 worth of assets, including property, left.

As the average home is valued at £317,000, in practice, that meant that most property owners would have to remortgage their house in order to pay for the cost of their social care. That upwards of 75 per cent of baby boomers – the largest group in the UK, both in terms of raw numbers and their higher tendency to vote – own their homes made the proposal politically toxic.

(The political pain is more acute when you remember that, on the whole, the properties owned by the elderly are worth more than those owned by the young. Why? Because most first-time buyers purchase small flats and most retirees are in large family homes.)

The proposal would have meant that while people who in old age fall foul of long-term degenerative illnesses like Alzheimers would in practice face an inheritance tax threshold of £100,000, people who die suddenly would face one of £1m, ten times higher than that paid by those requiring longer-term care. Small wonder the proposal was swiftly dubbed a “dementia tax”.

The Conservatives are now proposing “an absolute limit on the amount people have to pay for their care costs”. The actual amount is TBD, and will be the subject of a consultation should the Tories win the election. May went further, laying out the following guarantees:

“We are proposing the right funding model for social care.  We will make sure nobody has to sell their family home to pay for care.  We will make sure there’s an absolute limit on what people need to pay. And you will never have to go below £100,000 of your savings, so you will always have something to pass on to your family.”

There are a couple of problems here. The proposed policy already had a cap of sorts –on the amount you were allowed to have left over from meeting your own care costs, ie, under £100,000. Although the system – effectively an inheritance tax by lottery – displeased practically everyone and spooked elderly voters, it was at least progressive, in that the lottery was paid by people with assets above £100,000.

Under the new proposal, the lottery remains in place – if you die quickly or don’t require expensive social care, you get to keep all your assets, large or small – but the losers are the poorest pensioners. (Put simply, if there is a cap on costs at £25,000, then people with assets below that in value will see them swallowed up, but people with assets above that value will have them protected.)  That is compounded still further if home-owners are allowed to retain their homes.

So it’s still a dementia tax – it’s just a regressive dementia tax.

It also means that the Conservatives have traded going into the election’s final weeks facing accusations that they will force people to sell their own homes for going into the election facing questions over what a “reasonable” cap on care costs is, and you don’t have to be very imaginative to see how that could cause them trouble.

They’ve U-Turned alright, but they may simply have swerved away from one collision into another.  

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

0800 7318496