Why the Tories’ knives are out for Chris Patten

There's quite a lot of settling old scores going on, says Tristram Hunt.

Chris Patten, Chairman of the BBC Trust.
Chris Patten, Chairman of the BBC Trust. Photograph: Getty Images

Here’s something the Tory party certainly has not learned from this month’s American elections. George Osborne might have thought it was all about gay marriage, modernity and minority votes, but any decent psephologist will tell you it was Big Bird wot won it.

Mitt Romney’s determination to close down the public service broadcaster PBS and cancel Sesame Street must have cost him those swing states. And now the Tories want to do the same. The ongoing implosion of BBC News has given the Conservative right another opportunity to urge the elimination of the licence fee. Romney hoped to finish off Big Bird; today’s Tory party wants to immolate Igglepiggle.

Of course, there are other agendas at play. If the media industry is, as Tony Blair infamously put it, a “feral beast”, it is one with an unhealthy predilection for cannibalism. Its favourite dish is itself and it is impossible to understate the cynical and macabre flavour that pre-Leveson report realpolitiking is giving to much that passes for commentary.

With 425,320 hours of TV and radio output last year, the BBC’s encroachment on the market is an important debate, as is its eternally bloated management structure. But with those managerially responsible having departed or, in Reithian terms, “stood aside”, that debate bears only passing relevance to a scandal that is ultimately about shoddy standards of journalism at one current affairs programme.

Yet for the Tory party it is a golden opportunity to eliminate a state-funded broadcaster. Enoch Powell once said that “for a politician to complain about the press is like a ship’s captain complaining about the sea”. However, his advice is little heeded by his descendants when it comes to the Beeb. For Conservatives, BBC-bashing is every bit as populist as Murdoch-taunting on the left, arguably more so. No ConservativeHome blog post is complete without a comment decrying its perceived left-wing bias.

Indeed, at times the level of paranoia is not so far removed from the “mainstream media” conspiracy theories propagated by Fox News and the Tea Party movement in the US. So, it was no surprise to see renowned gallery pleasers such as John Redwood and (naturally) Boris Johnson wade in to level implicit accusations of an anti-Tory plot at the BBC.

In the chamber, the backbench minions followed their lead. One after another, they rose to demand the disbandment of the BBC. David Nuttall, the MP for Bury North, hoped the Newsnight debacle would “bring forward the day when the British public will have the freedom to decide whether to pay to watch the BBC, rather than being forced to pay for it by the criminal law”. Swindon’s Justin Tomlinson wanted to know why his constituents had to pay the licence fee. “When will that change?” What was so disturbing was the manner in which the ineffectual and insubstantial new Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, refused to slap them down. Instead, she seemed to give implicit licence to this Beeb-bashing.

But besides the CBBC all-stars of In the Night Garden, the Tory right has an equally symbolic target in its sights. “Tristram, what you have to realise is that the 20th anniversary of the Maastricht rebellion is upon us,” one troublemaking MP informed me. The moon is out and the Eurosceptics are after a blood sacrifice. And the man they really want is the lead regicist of 1990.

Many Tories still blame Chris Patten for the fall of the blessed Margaret, and not without reason; he had deep reservations about her increasingly strident Euroscepticism and outright rejection of Britain entering the single currency. Thatcher herself was in no doubt about the role of Patten, then her environment secretary. As Alan Clark’s diary records: “Her sense of betrayal is absolute, overrides everything. Lamont had been scheming; Patten plotted the whole thing; Kenneth Clarke had led the rout from the Cabinet Room. [Malcolm] Rifkind was a weasel. Even John Major is by no means cloud-free.”

On the anniversary of the Maastricht rebellion, the Tories are after Patten’s scalp. “Has not the problem at the BBC been going on for a long time, and has not the wrong person been forced out? Should it not have been the chairman of the trust?” thundered the right-winger Peter Bone. Philip Davies wanted the secretary of state, like a Soviet commissar, to move the chairman of the state broadcaster aside. And Philip Hollobone wanted Patten – “a clearly unsuitable person” – sacked as soon as possible.

Revenge is what the Tory party is after, as the festering sore of Europe reopens with pleasing regularity. Everything, but everything, can be framed through the prism of the Tory Wars on Europe, and this squall is no different.

The modernisers must be in despair. Bashing the Beeb, screaming about Europe, fretting over gay marriage: this is not the election-winning cultural politics that George Osborne is urging on his party. We, in the meantime, must do all we can to save Chris Patten, a decent public servant, and Igglepiggle – the saviour of many prebathtime toddler meltdowns.

Tristram Hunt is MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Labour)

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