The BBC walks into another political row as it hands Entwistle £450,000

The corporation has exposed itself to the charge of "rewarding failure".

Update: Downing Street has now responded, saying that Entwistle's payoff is "hard to justify" but is a matter for his "conscience". As I said below, it is hard to see Entwistle prevailing at a time when the BBC's reputation has already been so damaged.

If the BBC wants to restore public confidence, it's hard to think of a worse move than handing George Entwistle, who resigned as director general after just 53 days in the job, a payoff of £450,000, the equivalent of a year's salary and double the contractually required amount. In her capacity as shadow media secretary, Harriet Harman has criticised the payout as "a reward for failure" and has urged Entwistle to "decline to accept any more than is required under his contract".

The government, wary of being seen to compromise the BBC's independence, has not commented, but Conservative MP John Whittingdale, who chairs the commons media committee, said that "people would be very surprised that somebody who was in the job for such a short period of time and then had to leave in these circumstances should be walking away with £450,000 of licence fee-payers' money." He also rejected the BBC's argument that the payout was justified since Entwistle would "continue to help on BBC business, most specifically the two ongoing inquiries." He said: "I wouldn't have thought that just because you have to help any inquiry into the Savile allegations you necessarily need to be paid such a large amount of money."

Some have defended the payout on the grounds that Entwistle did not bear primary responsibility for the scandal (and so deserves our sympathy) and that the frequency with which director generals are forced to resign - half of those appointed since 1982 have had to resign over BBC output - means the corporation must offer generous terms to its managers. But whether or not the payout is justified in principle, as a tactical move it's disastrous, a gift to the BBC's many enemies. Having previously forced RBS chief executive Stephen Hester to renounce his bonus, the politicians will fancy their chances of success. In the current climate, it is hard to see Entwistle prevailing.

A journalist is seen presenting in front of camera, outside the BBC's new Broadcasting House in central London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

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