David Cameron and Ed Miliband both struggle to keep News Corporation’s entanglement with British politics in perspective. It is a bigger scandal than the Prime Minister thinks but smaller than the leader of the opposition would like. Which of them is less wrong?
The next general election will not be decided by the two leaders’ attitudes to Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. But those attitudes express old assumptions about the way power has been wielded in Britain, and the election might well hinge on the question of how drastically voters want the whole system changed. A Labour victory relies on Miliband persuading people he is the man to change it.
Cameron’s casual fluency in the ways of the establishment is a political blind spot. He can grasp, when prompted by hostile headlines, that there is something unsavoury about his horse-riding with Rebekah Brooks, the employment of Andy Coulson in Downing Street and the alleged traffic in sensitive information from Jeremy Hunt’s ministerial office to James Murdoch’s BlackBerry. But he instinctively sees those episodes as public relations mishaps. He does not recognise any constitutional offence in blurring the boundaries between a multinational business and the executive branch of government.
That complacency is the residue of a lifetime’s immersion in elite circles, where money and power have always socialised without inhibition. It is the attitude that sees Westminster as a club whose rules are bred into members. From Cameron’s point of view, the idea that a man of his background could breach protocol is inherently unlikely. Questions from Labour MPs about his integrity are vulgar.
That feature of the Tory leader’s character was provoking resentment among his own MPs long before he took charge in Downing Street. It only becomes a significant problem against the backdrop of economic stagnation.
If the Murdoch saga has any impact with voters it will be by reinforcing the perception that ordinary people enduring financial hardship must get to the back of the queue for prime ministerial attention, behind the millionaires.
The financial crisis appears to have resulted in a transfer of wealth from the middle to the top of society. Seething rage at the unfairness of it all is changing the terms of political trade. Huge electoral rewards are available for a party that can speak on behalf of “the many, not the few”. Labour claims historical ownership of that rubric but the old crusades for social justice hardly resonate beyond tribal loyalists. Economic negligence culminating in the crash is a fresher public memory. (Incontinent welfare spending also dominates surveys of ex-Labour voter grievances.) “We are still deep in the shadow of 13 years of government,” says one senior frontbencher.
A second problem is Miliband’s lack of ordinary-bloke credentials. True, he is not a millionaire Old Etonian with family connections to the Queen. His parents were refugees and he went to a comprehensive school. He has more grit in his biography than Cameron, but no more dirt under his nails. Birth and schooling aside, the PM and the Labour leader have similar CVs: PPE at Oxford, special adviser to ministers, a dabble in media, parachuted into a safe seat, fast-tracked on to the front bench.
Embarrassment at this political pedigree is what makes the anti-Murdoch stance so important to Miliband. When the most explosive phone-hacking revelations were published last July, the Labour leader took a risk in promptly attacking News International. Received wisdom stipulated caution, lest the media giant should survive and seek vengeance. The gamble paid off. Miliband revelled in the iconoclasm, which temporarily silenced grumbling in the ranks about ineffectual leadership.
The episode has theological significance in Miliband’s office. The act of Standing Up To Murdoch, severing the ties that bound Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to News Corp, was the baptism from which the Labour leader was born again as an anti-establishment hero. It is the lonely proof of Miliband’s credentials as a taker-on of “vested interests” and a ripper-up of “the rule book”.
The intellectual basis for the Miliband project is that the financial crisis heralded a shift away from the “old orthodoxies” of unregulated markets and towards a new model of “responsible” capitalism. The political centre ground is shifting and Miliband, so his allies insist, is poised to occupy it. Cameron and Osborne, meanwhile, are painted as doltish remnants of the ancien régime, unfit to govern in a crisis whose causes they misdiagnose and whose social consequences they ignore. In recent weeks, the Prime Minister and his Chancellor have all but endorsed that analysis, leading a parade of governance bungles under a banner of bad economic news. The dilettante toff label is sticking.
Not a good look
The brittleness of coalition and the possibility that parliament will stay hung after the next election guarantee Miliband an audience. Even diehard sceptics are throwing curious glances at the Labour leader in case he ends up in Downing Street by default. Awkwardly, the test Miliband most consistently fails is that cursory inspection for signs of readiness as a prime minister-in-waiting. He neither looks nor sounds the part. His own media handlers know he cannot replicate the stagy charm of Blair or match Cameron’s Blairesque tribute act. The hope is that the new political era might feature a more generous view of candidates lacking conventional media showmanship.
Faith in the triumph of substance is the perennial fantasy of the unstylish. Miliband’s problem is that he hasn’t yet demonstrated that he is all that substantial either. He is persuaded that Britain is undergoing a political upheaval that will leave Cameron and Osborne marooned on the wrong side of history, along with Rupert Murdoch, the Liberal Democrats and unnamed Irresponsible Capitalists. Given the scale of the crisis, he might well be proved right. What is missing from the story is an explanation as to why Ed Miliband, loyal lieutenant aboard the last Labour government, scion of the Westminster establishment, shouldn’t be swept away by the very same tide.