MORNING BRIEFING – By Benedict Brogan (Daily Telegraph)
By noon today Jeremy Hunt will be a sideshow and attention will be on David Cameron, who looks perilously vulnerable as Rupert Murdoch opens two days of testimony.
Mr Cameron likes to say that he hates PMQs – well, today will be particularly brutal. Not only is he under pressure to explain his relationship with News International, don’t forget that the GDP figures come out at 9.30am – and may well show Britain back in official recession.
Our splash story is here – we’re focused on the “absolutely illegal” line from Frederic Michel, NI’s head of Public Affairs, to James Murdoch in an email. Unsurprisingly, all of the papers (except for the Sun) have splashed on the story too.
The Independent and the Daily Mail go for “Murdoch’s revenge” while the Guardian dubs Hunt “the Minister for Murdoch” . The story has also made the front page of the New York Times, which has the thrilling headline “Murdoch Case Shifts Its Focus To a Minister” .
Last night, Mr Hunt released a statement saying that: “now is not a time for knee-jerk reactions”, and he has asked Lord Leveson to allow him to speak before the inquiry earlier to make his case – he reckons he managed the case with “scrupulous fairness”. Will others agree?
The impression doing the rounds last night was that while the Culture Secretary may be heading for the exit – remember when he was being promoted as Dave’s successor? – it is the PM who ultimately set the cosy tone for the relationship with Murdoch world.
As Nick Davies points out in the Guardian , we are inching closer to evidence of a grand bargain in which the Tories traded a pledge of regulatory favours for NI’s political support. Uncertainty – even distaste – about the relationship has in many ways been the accelerator for doubts about Mr Cameron since before he became PM.
In the early days we were all assured that he would make a point of not imitating the Labour method of hugging their enemy close. That turned out to be untrue.
At all times in this saga it is worth remembering that this is a violent political struggle between left and right: forget all this stuff about principle, those leading the charge against Murdoch are themselves biased political actors seeking the final destruction of one of the political and cultural left’s most potent enemies.
The fact that he was been brought low, and is dragging Dave down with him, has all kinds of fascinating implications for politics, none of which should please those on the right.
OTHERS IN THE FRAME
It doesn’t stop at Dave and Jeremy Hunt though. Alex Salmond will have questions to answer too. The emails suggest that he told NI’s public affairs guy that he would lobby Mr Hunt “whenever we need him to” over the bid. Patrick Wintour in the Guardian and Ben Webster in the Times (£) have more details.
Salmond is speaking alongside Nick Clegg at the IoD this morning – he might suffer some awkward questions.
The papers are thick with judgement on the affair. Our leader column says Mr Hunt was following the example set by his boss, arguing that Mr Cameron has been the real cheerleader for the Murdoch empire in this administration:
“It is unsurprising that Labour has called for the Culture Secretary’s resignation: he has a lot of explaining to do. By the time Rupert Murdoch finishes his own testimony to Leveson, which will be heard today and tomorrow, so may the Prime Minister.”
The Guardian’s leader column says: “The emails… describe a pattern of behaviour that, if true, is indefensible,” putting the PM firmly in the frame. It calls on Leveson to demand a full audit of all contacts – including emails, whether on official or personal accounts – involving Mr Cameron, George Osborne and their advisers, and News Corp and BSkyB executives.
The Guardian also carries a bruising column by Tom Watson who condemns Mr Hunt, but also the rest of Parliament – and in particular, Sir Gus O’Donnell and other civil servants for knowing that these shadowy contacts existed and failing to act:
“Poor Vince. I criticised him at the time and I shouldn’t have done. I apologise to you, Mr Cable. Your methods were wrong, but your motives were right. And when Hunt was given the responsibility for the deal, I raised my concerns with Gus O’Donnell, the then cabinet secretary.”
Finally, The Times (£) leader column says Mr Hunt has questions to answer, but “The regulation of newspapers and broadcasting in Britain is more complex than this widely believed account suggests.”
CALM BUT NO LONGER IN CONTROL?
Dave had enough problems already, which I’ve covered in my column today. In recent weeks the conversation at Westminster has settled on a number of well-worn themes.
Follow these strands and they converge eventually on Mr Cameron himself, specifically his character and his suitability for office in a time of national crisis. With an Ipsos MORI poll yesterday recording his lowest satisfaction level yet – minus 57 per cent – even his friends are beginning to wonder if Dave’s effortlessness is suited to present needs.
CLEGG ON BANKS
In other news, Nick Clegg speaks to the Institute of Directors today . He is expected to offer this message to the banks:
“Yes, of course, get your balance sheets in order. Meet the new capital requirements. But don’t lurch to the other extreme at the expense of British business. Don’t unnecessarily hoard capital when businesses need loans. Don’t sit on your hands while firms are crying out for cash. And understand that getting credit to businesses is in your interests too.”
The DPM wants ‘dating’ agencies to match entrepreneurs with angel investors to bypass the banks – quite a good idea, actually (one of the reasons why the US has recovered better is arguably that its investors are less dependent on a crippled banking sector). It’s a shame the speech will get little attention thanks to Murdoch.
BORIS ON RENT RAGE
The Guardian reports that Boris has stepped into criticise councils that are moving housing benefit claimants out of the capital, – he’s repeated what he said last year that we will not have: “Kosovo-style social cleansing” of the poor in London. Well, it’s an election year.
BRAND ON DRUGS
And finally, Russell Brand added some colour to yesterday’s serious revelations.
He appeared before the Home Office Select Committee to discuss the UK’s drug policy. When pushed for time by Keith Vaz, Brand replied: “Time is infinite. We can’t run out of time. Who’s next? Theresa May? She may not turn up. Ask her if she knows what day it is.” Ouch.
Latest YouGov/The Sun results: Labour lead on 11 – Conservative 32%, Labour 43%, Liberal Democrats 8%, UKIP 8%
Government approval rating: -40
TWEETS AND TWITS
Jeremy Hunt’s last tweet (on April 23rd): “All the world’s a stage” .
And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.
In The Telegraph
Benedict Brogan: If Cameron fears his enemies, he should hear what his friends say
Daniel Hannan: From Holland to Hollande, the answer is ‘no’
Leader: A passport to chaos
Best of the rest
Daniel Finkelstein in the Times (£): Judges can’t pretend they are outside politics
Matthew Norman in the Independent: As ever with Rupert Murdoch, we have an immorality tale worthy of Don Corleone in The Godfather
Adam Afriyie in the Times (£): It’s not immoral to try to reduce your tax bill
Seumas Milne in the Guardian: London mayoral election: if politics becomes a game show, elites call the shots
Today: Nick Clegg and Alex Salmond will speak at the Institute of Directors conference
Today: Ed Davey will open the third Clean Energy Ministerial meeting. This is an international conference aimed at accelerating the transition to clean energy technologies
Today: James Brokenshire, Minister for Crime and Security, will publish an update on the Government’s drugs strategy
9.30am: Preliminary GDP figures for the first quarter of 2012 are published
10am: Rupert Murdoch appears before the Leveson enquiry, High Court, London
11.30am: Welsh Questions
12pm: David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Question Time
2.15pm: Chloe Smith appears for the Environmental Audit Select Committee to discuss the environmental aspects of the Budget
5pm: Francis Maude appears before the Public Administration Select Committee to discuss the rules that govern the take-up of jobs by former ministers and crown servants
6.30pm: London Citizens hosts a hustings for the London mayoral candidates, Methodist Central Hall, London
The figures have just come out, and – to the surprise of anonymous City analysts, but not to me, or the OECD, we’re in an official douple dip recession. The economy has shrunk for two quarters in a row. Where the City was expecting around 0.1 per cent of growth, we’ve in fact got 0.2 per cent of shrinkage (I’m listening out for the first mention of “negative growth”).
This is pretty terrible news for the Government. Economists may think that the definition of a recession is pretty irrelevant, but presentationally it matters. Most people don’t follow the quarterly GDP figures, but they know that the economy is in a bad way. When all the broadcasters today and newspapers tomorrow run “double dip recession” headlines, that general sense of gloom will become one of panic. The irony is that this could then become self-fulfilling, as consumers begin cutting back whatever spending they were doing, thereby making the situation worse.
The face says it all. David Cameron had a rough time at PMQs, and he knew it. After less than 10 minutes today, the Prime Minister looked like a pedigree bulldog chewing a wasp.
Probably the worst moment for Mr Cameron was when he tried to persuade the House, the media and the country that we should all wait for the end of the Leveson Inquiry before we reach conclusions about the conduct of his Government over the BSkyB deal, instead of making judgements on a single day’s evidence.
That would be a flimsy enough claim at the best of times, but coming an hour after a Government adviser has quit because of a single day’s evidence, it’s just silly, and the House knew it.
The double-dip recession may be top of the list of George Osborne’s worries this morning, but whatever the GDP figures he’d still have to explain why he’s so prominent in the timeline of dodgy contacts between News International and the Government. Our blow-by-blow account is full of tantalising details:
May 2010: Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne each meet Rupert Murdoch for general discussion. Osborne also meets Rebekah Brooks and James Murdoch.
September 2010: Osborne attends social engagement with Rebekah Brooks, general discussion with James Harding, and social engagement with James Murdoch.
How ironic. We’ve all been waiting with bated breath for Rupert Murdoch to drop David Cameron in it, and yet it’s poor old Gordon Brown who has been left in the nasty stuff. Murdoch this morning confirmed the story that when the Sun switched to the Tories on the day of Brown’s party conference speech in 2009, the then Prime Minister went bonkers. Murdoch said he was phoned by Brown: “He said, and I must stress no voices were raised, he said: ‘well, your company has declared war on my government and we have no alternative to make war on your company. I said ‘I’m sorry about that Gordon, thank you for calling’ and that was that.” Not quite. Brown really did go to war, making that extraordinary Commons speech in July last year in which he alleged that the Sun and News International were part of a criminal conspiracy. It’s worth quoting a chunk: