The press boys are back in town
On the implications of the Mitchell affair rather than the detail of who said what, I recommend this piece just posted by former Tory MP Paul Goodman on what it means for who’s up and who’s down in the government/media power struggle. He talks about how the government has pulled back from its original approach (all the signals were that they could live with light touch statutory regulation) and how the newspapers’ assertion of power in this latest power struggle between the estates of the land over “gate-gate” shows the press are back.
Mr Goodman writes: “The Mitchell resignation is one more sign that the media is back on top. Parts of it are tweaking the Prime Minister’s tail over his unpublished texts to Rebecca Brooks – a warning to him not to concede statutory regulation if Lord Leveson recommends it.”
Appearances at Leveson
Paul Goodman mentions Michael Gove’s appearance at Lord Justice Leveson’s Inquiry which signalled a swerve away from any sort of statutory control whatsoever. I would dispute Paul Goodman’s description of Michael Gove’s appearance as “exquisitely polite” and say it was “excruciatingly polite”, a touch disingenuously using the trappings of politesse to license or camouflage a contemptuous slap-down to what he appeared to think was an unwordly judge. That, judging by Lord Justice Leveson’s snappish response on the day, was how it felt to him.
George Osborne followed Michael Gove in a similar approach though with less tart delivery. Both signalled the government didn’t want to use laws to control the press and the flexing of press muscle over Mitchell will have reminded the Tory leadership what that muscle can deliver.
If Lord Justice Leveson wants regulation that goes beyond the beefed-up self-regulation the government might incline towards, Lord Justice Leveson has some useful allies in the hacking victims, a new power in the land who David Cameron has said must be satisfied.
But Lord Justice Leveson isn’t packing in the allies anywhere else. The tone of the letters that he sent out to newspaper editors alerting them to his draft thoughts on the industry have clearly infuriated even some of the most straight-laced at the broadsheet end of the market. And now there’s a report that he queried a piece in The Times on “The Thick of It” satirising inquiries. Anyway, all this to come some time in the next few weeks.
We probably shouldn’t ignore the other institution in play in the story – the police. It’s meant to be bad form for journalists to speculate on other journalists’ sources but I’m going to stick my neck out and suggest that The Sun scoop that kicked off this story was triggered by a tip-off from the normally super discreet police protection force. If so, why might a normally buttoned-up lot be talking?
Former head of counter-terrorism, John Yates took a stab at the answer in the Telegraph when the story broke. Mr Yates wrote: “Festering police resentment against the Government” played a role. He said the whole thing could be a curtain-raiser for what’ll happen when Tom Winsor reports on police pay and conditions. He also said how odd it was that the Met chief, after contact with the cabinet secretary, decided against any inquiry into the fairly important question of who was telling the truth, the police who would continue in vital roles (albeit switched from Downing Street) or the minister at the heart of government. Not worth pursuing, Bernard Hogan-Howe decided, much to the annoyance of some of his increasingly restless frontline troops.
Balance of power
What the Mitchell affair also tells you about is the balance of power in the Tory parliamentary ranks. David Cameron’s writ does not run that far. His cabinet reshuffle should’ve been a moment when his patronage powers were asserted but it exposed him as a man at the mercy of ministers least in tune with his original political project. Justine Greening rubbished the Cameron doctrine on international aid and was rewarded with a plea to take the portfolio anyway. IDS refused to make way for someone more malleable in welfare.
I hear of another cabinet minister who was refused his request to bring a special adviser with him from his previous job, threatened not to move in the circumstances and got his way. At a meeting with supposedly loyal PPSs at the cabinet table this week, three parliamentary aides told David Cameron to his face that Andrew Mitchell should go. The specially constructed 1922 backbench meeting on Wednesday, the insurrection by the whips team supposed to work with Andrew Mitchell, the mutterings of cabinet ministers have had a cumulative effect, all of it undermining the PM’s authority.
The parliamentary ranks and Mr Cameron’s officers have effectively told the PM he was wrong-headed to keep Andrew Mitchell and they have won the day.
Follow Gary Gibbon on Twitter via @GaryGibbonBlog