Will Maria Miller be stripped of her Leveson role?

Culture Secretary's special adviser warned Telegraph reporter of her boss's involvement in press regulation.

Like her predecessor as Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, Maria Miller is under fire this morning for the actions of one of her special advisers. Today's Telegraph reveals that Joanna Hindley highlighted her boss's role in press regulation after the paper told Miller's office it was planning to run a story on her expenses.

"Maria has obviously been having quite a lot of editors’ meetings around Leveson at the moment. So I am just going to kind of flag up that connection for you to think about," Hindley told the Telegraph's reporter.

The threat was almost certainly an empty one and there is no suggestion that Hindley acted with Miller's blessing. But it does demonstrate how greater regulation of the press could make it easier (indeed, is making it easier) for politicians to intimidate troublesome hacks. The Telegraph took the unusual step of publishing the details of private conversations in view of the "widespread concern about the potential dangers of politicians being given a role in overseeing the regulation of the press".

Hindley is also said to have told the reporter to discuss the issue with "people a little higher up your organisation" before contacting the Telegraph’s head of public affairs to raise concerns about the story. Miller has been accused of abusing the expenses system by claiming £90,000 for a second home where her parents lived.

The culture department has issued a robust response, stating that "Her [Miller's] adviser noted Mrs Miller was in regular contact with the paper’s editor and would raise her concerns directly with him. However, this is a separate issue to ongoing discussions about press regulation. Mrs Miller has made the Government’s position on this clear."

But it is notable that some are already calling for Miller to be stripped of her responsibility for press regulation. Former Lib Dem MP Evan Harris, an associate director of the pro-regulation campaign group Hacked Off, has said Miller must "recuse herself" from Leveson matters. If David Cameron wants to prove his commitment to press freedom in practice as well as in theory, it is an option he may encourage Miller to take.

Maria Miller, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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