Theresa May with Yvette Cooper before the Queen's Speech last Wednesday. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The pressure rises on Theresa May

Home Secretary accused by Labour of breaking the ministerial code and ordered to appear before select committee.

David Cameron's unusually brutal response to Michael Gove and Theresa May's briefing war - forcing Gove to apologise and May's special adviser Fiona Cunningham to resign - was a desperate attempt to limit the damage from one of the most extraordinary episodes of the coalition's time in office. Of the two ministers, it is May who has paid the biggest price. While Gove has had to issue an embarrassing but largely inconsequential apology to Cameron and to Charles Farr, the Home Office security chief he briefed against (who is currently in a relationship with Cunningham), May has suffered the permanent loss of her most loyal and trusted adviser.

This differing treatment reflects No. 10's view of the gravity of their misdemeanours. While Gove was critical of what he regards as the Home Office's lax approach to non-violent Islamist extremism at a Times editorial lunch on Monday (comments reported without attribution by the paper two days later), May took the far more dramatic step of publicly releasing her excoriating letter to the Education Secretary on Islamist infiltration of schools (tweeted at 12:24am on Wednesday morning from the Home Office account), an unprecedented act of hostility.

Reflecting this, it is the Home Secretary whom Labour is concentrating its firepower on. In a joint letter to Cameron, Yvette Cooper and Tristram Hunt have accused both Gove and May of breaking the ministerial code, but they focus on the latter's alleged breaches. They write:

It appears that both the Home Secretary and the Education Secretary have broken the Ministerial Code in the last week. The Education Secretary has now apologised, however the Home Secretary has remained silent.

As Prime Minister it is your responsibility to enforce the Ministerial Code. Can you therefore explain whether the Home Secretary has broken the Ministerial Code or not, and what enforcement action you have taken?

Section 2.1 of the Ministerial Code says: "the privacy of opinions expressed in Cabinet and Ministerial Committees, including in correspondence, should be maintained."

The Home Secretary's letter to the Education Secretary is in response to Cabinet correspondence and circulated to the Extremism Taskforce. It was written and sent by the Home Secretary on June 3, apparently after and in response to the Home Office being made aware of the hostile briefing from the Education Secretary. It was briefed to journalists on the same day and published on the Home Office website in the early hours of 4 June. It remained on the Home Office website for 4 days.

It appears that the Home Secretary wrote this letter intending to publish it. Did she authorise the release of the letter? Is that in breach of the Ministerial Code? Given that the Home Secretary then allowed the letter to remain on the website for 4 days, is that also a breach of the Ministerial Code?

What action have you taken in response to a breach of the Ministerial Code by one of your most senior Cabinet ministers? Will the Home Secretary also be apologising or are some Ministers exempt from enforcement of the Ministerial Code?
 

Alongside this, Keith Vaz, who chairs the home affairs select committee, has written to May demanding "a full explanation of what has happened" and announcing that the committee "will in due course question her about these matters."

But while it is May who is under the greatest pressure, Gove faces the challenge of responding in the Commons tomorrow to Ofsted's 21 inquiries into the alleged infiltration of Birmingham schools by extremists. While the battle-hardened Education Secretary is likely to put in a typically defiant performance, the more difficult task will be reconciling his commitment to fighting Islamism with his commitment to school autonomy.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder