Cameron insists the culture department will survive, but in what form?

Maria Miller refuses to deny that her department will lose some of its responsibilities in the Spending Review.

Will next week's Spending Review see the abolition of the culture department? Last month I reported on speculation in Whitehall that the DCMS, which small-staters have long had in their sights, could be scrapped by the government. Shadow culture minister Dan Jarvis told me that while he was "not convinced" that significant savings could be made by scrapping the department, "the government could go down this road to demonstrate that it is 'leading by example' in these tough times and has found way in which 'to do things more efficiently'."

But in response to a written question from Jarvis on whether "he has any plans to abolish the Department for Culture, Media and Sport", David Cameron has offered an unambiguous "no". That, however, doesn't rule out the distribution of some of its responsibilities to other departments. Asked on The World At One to comment on reports that the DCMS is "at risk of having some of its responsibilities taken away and even abolished altogether", Maria Miller gave a notably equivocal answer:

Our department does a huge amount of work, not just in this area [internet pornography] but across the board with arts, media, sports, equalities and women's issues. These are the issues the government is working hard on, I think as a department we've never been busier, we've never had more to do, so I think actions speak louder than words. 

Asked whether she was "sure" no responsibilites would be taken away, Miller, whose aides have been promoting her status as "the only mother" in the cabinet in a bid to save her job, refused to say that she was:

I know that the work that we're doing, whether it's on the equal marriage bill that's going through the Lords at the moment, whether it's the work we're doing around the internet, or, indeed, the work that we're doing supporting, actively supporting the role of the arts, culture and our museums in this country are of incredible importance and, as I say, I don't think there's even been a busier time in our department and I don't think we've ever had more to do which really matters to the future of this country.

Based on that answer, it seems that the DCMS, at least in its present form, may well cease to exist. 

Maria Miller, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, speaks at last year's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.