Lobbyists in the spin crowd, the folly of “the third umpire” and opting out of the royal birth

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

The case of Lynton Crosby, an Australian who has been appointed the Tories’ chief election strategist, suggests that public relations (or spin doctoring), private-sector lobbying and government policymaking have merged into a seamless whole. Crosby’s company has advised private health-care providers, hustling to get their hands on the NHS, and tobacco manufacturers, desperate to see off plain cigarette packaging. This allegedly creates conflicts of interest.
 
David Cameron claims that Crosby “does not advise on government policy”. If so, he is an odd sort of strategist. PRs are no longer just technical assistants who, once policy is agreed by ministers, explain how to present it. They help to create the policy and sometimes have the decisive voice. George W Bush’s spin doctor Karl Rove became the White House deputy chief of staff, with specific responsibility for policy development. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s spin doctor, was described by many (unofficially) as “the real deputy prime minister”. But neither carried Crosby’s baggage. Though Rove briefly advised the tobacco company Philip Morris, he gave up the role precisely because he envisaged conflicts of interest. Campbell, for all his faults, was a passionate socialist who acquired the cynicism necessary for spin doctoring from a career in journalism.
 
Policy and presentation have become two sides of the same coin, so that planning “election strategy” inevitably entails forming policy. Private-sector lobbying, however, remains the most important influence. By employing Crosby, Cameron has brought it further into the heart of government.
 

The son and heir

 
Kate Windsor – like her husband’s late mother, Diana, and his grandmother Elizabeth – managed to produce a live, male heir at the first time of asking, even though this child was not required to be in possession of a Y chromosome. Think of how much Henry VIII’s first two wives, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, suffered for their difficulties in achieving that goal. In the premodern era, the birth of a healthy royal male in direct line of succession promised peace and stability. These were regarded as God’s most precious and elusive favours, making the birth a true cause for celebration.
 
Now, thanks to scientific and medical advances – but not, I think, the grandfather Charles’s homoeopathic remedies –birth and the child’s survival beyond infancy are almost routine. The anxious wait and subsequent celebrations are public rituals like Christmas and Bonfire Night. Nobody spares a thought for our ancestors, just as nobody thinks that, on Bonfire Night, they are burning a member of a persecuted minority driven to terrorism.
 

Push the button

 
As soon as the young Mrs Windsor went into labour, the Guardian website kindly allowed me to screen out its “live coverage” of her progress. But why was I required to “opt out” (using a not-very-prominent button labelled “Republican?”) rather than, as Cameron proposes for internet pornography, “opt in”? And why do the Guardian’s masterminds think anyone who wants regular updates on royalty would visit their website instead of, say, the Mail’s or the Telegraph’s?
 

Unfair play

 
Players and coaches in all sports make an enormous fuss about marginal decisions: whether or not a football crossed the goal line, a rugby ball was grounded behind the try line or a bat touched a cricket ball before it was caught. If the umpire or referee gets it wrong, they imply, a cosmic injustice is done. Sports governing bodies hope to settle matters by using technology as a court of appeal.
 
However, technology – and the interpretation of it – turns out to be as fallible as a human being. Several times during the current England-Australia Ashes series, the “third umpire” was accused of getting a decision wrong even after he had examined slowmotion replays, listened to audio feeds and scrutinised a device called the “Hot Spot”.
 
The cry “We wuz robbed!” is integral to sport and always will be. Cricket should abandon its pompously named “Decision Review System” – which involves tedious delays, compared by one sports writer to a mobile phone ringing repeatedly during Hamlet’s closing soliloquy – and get on with the game. Injustice cannot be eliminated. A batsman who narrowly fails to hit the ball, rather than edging it for a catch, didn’t skilfully contrive to miss it. He was beaten by the bowler. If he misses completely, he is less competent than the batsman who manages a thin contact. In that sense, an incorrect “not out” decision carries more justice than the correct one.
 

Only connect

 
My Apple iMac computer (of a 2005 vintage) recently gave up the ghost – it was “obsolete”, the repair people ruled. So I bought a new one. It came with a battery-powered wireless keyboard.
 
Can anyone explain how this is an improvement? The computer continually tells me the batteries are running out, though they clearly are not, and the keyboard connection is lost if I hit the keys hard, as I am apt to do when writing about Tories.
 
When the batteries do run low, I shall have the trouble and expense of buying new ones. I am reminded of Hutber’s law, named after the late Patrick Hutber, an economics journalist: “Improvement means deterioration.” 
The arrival of the future ruler, as imagined by Legoland. Photograph: Getty Images.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

Getty
Show Hide image

"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

0800 7318496