July 13, 2011 5:58 pm

Cameron removes political poison

Willie Whitelaw, Margaret Thatcher’s deputy prime minister, was once asked – after some long-forgotten political embarrassment afflicting the opposition Labour party – if he was gloating about it. “Certainly not,” he replied. “Mustn’t gloat. Wrong to gloat. Never do such a thing . . . But I can tell you, I’m gloating like hell.”

This has been National Gloat Week, and what a glorious addition to the summer sporting calendar it has been. The world we knew went topsy-turvy, and there to some extent it will stay. Less than two weeks ago there were hundreds of MPs proudly representing Murdochshire Central. On Wednesday it became clear there were now none at all. You would need a heart of stone not to laugh, really you would.

The crisis for News Corp will go on, for sure. The withdrawal of its offer for British Sky Broadcasting, in advance of a unanimous motion insisting it do just that, may bring about a period of calm, but no immediate restoration of its old imperium. As things stand (despite some issues surrounding the question of raising the capital), I have more chance of getting a majority stake in BSkyB than Rupert Murdoch.

However, even before the announcement, one could sense the political crisis starting to abate. David Cameron spent more than half his last prime minister’s questions before the summer recess fending off inquiries on hacking, blagging and allied trades. Then he made a statement about the public inquiry and answered 78 (the Speaker counted) further questions over the next hour. On and on it went, round and round, over and over the same trampled ground. By the end, everyone in political life had had their tuppence-worth except the Downing Street cat.

The planned debate was rendered pointless, not so much by the withdrawal of the bid, but by Mr Cameron’s skill. After a week of struggle, he removed the political poison infecting his innards like a backwoodsman sucking the snake venom out of his own arm. 

On the one hand, no one was now going to outflank him in his degree of disgust for Murdochian journalistic excesses: “Frankly disgraceful . . . widespread lawbreaking . . . alleged corruption . . . shocking allegations . . . this ugly chapter . . . there needs to be root-and-branch change”. History may record that if he did have Rebekah Brooks for Christmas lunch, he ate her with Brussels sprouts and a chestnut stuffing.

On the other hand, he induced an atmosphere of extraordinary emollience inside the chamber. This is Mr Cameron’s great gift. He has had a wretched week. Ed Miliband, leader of the current opposition Labour party, was cheered as a champ when he rose to speak. Tom Watson, the Labour bruiser garlanded with campaign medals after this war, was greeted with the respectful silence normally granted at Westminster only to an archbishop.

But Mr Cameron prevailed on the day. He leaned on the despatch box oozing charm. “We had an excellent meeting last night,” he beamed at Mr Miliband. He told several of the 78 questioners they had made a good point, a device I think he may use to give himself thinking time, as most of us use “um” or “er”. He didn’t quite say “I agree with Ed” but that was the general theme of the occasion.

Even Mr Watson was forced to admit: “I find myself in the slightly embarrassing position of having to congratulate all three party leaders.” Near the end of the questionathon, another Labour MP, Jack Dromey (aka Mr Harriet Harman) got belligerent with the prime minister in a manner that would have been perfectly reasonable an hour earlier. But by then it felt as though he was drowning a kitten.

The government’s choice of Lord Justice Leveson to head the inquiry was greeted warmly by Jack Straw, a former minister of justice, who called him “a man of the highest intelligence and integrity”. Judges in Britain mostly being obscure bewigged figures rather than celebrities, no one seemed able to assent or otherwise.

Usually such comments presage an inquiry in which the judge turns out to be a patsy who does what Downing Street tells him. But in this case Downing Street no longer knows what it wants.

In bygone days, the prime minister – of whichever party – would lean on Rupert Murdoch or his representative and try to find out what would please the electors of Murdochshire Central. But those days have now gone, seemingly for ever.

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