Rightwing press rocks the boat
Maria Miller and Nick Clegg suffer for the benefit of reactionary media moguls, writes Paul Demarty
It is safe enough to say that this has been a pretty rocky couple of weeks for the coalition government - despite economic ‘good news’.
The MPs’ expenses saga exploded again, five years after its first outing, with the outcry over the behaviour of Maria Miller, who resigned on April 9 from her post as minister for culture, media and sport. By manipulating her claims, she was able to turn a tidy profit on her Wimbledon second home - bought for £234,000 in 1996, and now worth a seven-figure sum. While claiming reimbursement for mortgage payments is a legitimate parliamentary expense, it is only so if you actually live in the place. Miller’s parents were in occupancy in Wimbledon. She had also taken out a £550,000 mortgage against the house, more than double the price she paid for it; thus she overcharged the taxpayer for interest payments.
So far, so 2009; but Miller has made a habit of making things worse. It was alleged in December 2012 by The Daily Telegraph that her special adviser, Jo Hindley, had made veiled threats against the paper for pursuing the Wimbledon wheeze: Miller was, after all, in charge of the future of press regulation. That allegation has now been more or less confirmed by the Telegraph, which released a recording of the conversation.1
On top of that, Miller appears to have attempted to circumvent the work of the parliamentary standards commissioner, Kathryn Hudson, accusing her of acting outside the law and threatening to refer her to the Commons standards committee. This did not play well in the public gallery. Neither, of course, did the way an alleged £45,000-odd repayment requested by Hudson somehow ended up reduced to the figure of £5,800 suggested by Miller herself, and endorsed by the same standards committee.2
The poor woman could not even say sorry right. She was widely ridiculed for fitting an apology to the Commons into 32 seconds - it was so short and banal we can reproduce it in full: “I wish to make a personal statement in relation to today’s report. The report resulted from an allegation made by the member for Bassetlaw. The committee has dismissed his allegation. The committee has recommended that I apologise to the house for my attitude to the commissioner’s inquiries, and I, of course, unreservedly apologise. I fully accept the recommendations of the committee, and thank them for bringing this matter to an end.” A masterclass in the art of the not-really-sorry apology, admittedly; but at this point in the farrago, we have to ask why the story ran and ran.
In his true-crime classic, Homicide, David Simon makes great play of “red ball” cases - murders which attract significant press attention and public outcry, on which justice absolutely must be seen to be done. Whichever Baltimore homicide detective catches a red ball will, on top of the usual whodunnit duties, have intense scrutiny on his every move.
Pity, then, poor Maria Miller. It is safe enough to say that the ministerial portfolio for culture is usually a pretty sleepy assignment, with media eyeballs trained on the treasury, the home office and Number 10 itself. She got the brief for the department of culture, media and sport, however, amid great chaos: her predecessor, Jeremy Hunt, was shunted rudely over to health when it was revealed at the Leveson inquiry just how sympathetic to Rupert Murdoch’s bid to buy out all of BSkyB he was - by none other than James Murdoch himself. Suddenly, culture was a red-ball department.
That state of affairs was exacerbated when it fell to Miller to push through the legalisation of gay marriage, a move that provoked powerful opposition from similar quarters. A little reflected Olympic glory was hardly enough to compensate.
It is in this context that the level of public opprobrium directed at Miller over her expenses-fiddling may be read. This had not been a new story; but we had a steady drip of increasingly unflattering allegations, culminating in her resignation. Much of this was the work not of the Labour benches (though John Mann fancies himself as the Tom Watson of this particular scandal), or left-liberal papers, but the rightwing press, most especially The Daily Telegraph. And, sure enough, it worked - polls suggest that up to 80% of voters thought Cameron wrong to keep her in her job, with two-thirds saying she should be stripped of all responsibility for press regulation.
The response of the Tory benches was mixed, and increasingly tense as the scandal wore on. David Cameron insisted to the very death on giving Miller, a close ally in the cut-throat world of Tory politics, full support. The line of Cameron - loyal cabinet ministers was generally supportive, while conceding that threatening the standards commissioner was out of order and, with regard to the slap on the wrist Miller ultimately received, that MPs perhaps should not be permitted to ‘mark their own homework’ on such matters. This was the attitude of Iain Duncan Smith, who nevertheless called the campaign against Miller a “witch hunt”, and also London mayor Boris Johnson (who likewise complained that Miller was being “hounded”).
Not all colleagues were quite so forgiving. Ever more malicious in his decrepitude, Norman Tebbit quickly called for her head - he is an increasingly significant figure on the Tory right. The Conservative Grassroots pressure group, composed primarily of local government figures and civil society types, condemned Cameron for keeping her on - “this whole issue stinks”, said chair Robert Wollard. Andrew Bridgen, a rightwing backbencher, even called for a vote of no confidence in David Cameron over his support for Miller - he quickly retracted, ostensibly because on reflection he wished to avoid the “horrific consequences” of an Ed Miliband government, but more likely because he did not have much support.
In the end, it was too much for Miller to face down. A looming meeting of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs was not likely to go her way. MPs like John Mann were keen to keep the expenses and parliamentary standards issue alive in parliament, which would inevitably result in Miller’s misdemeanours returning again and again to the public eye.
So she resigned, her statement upon doing so as clichéd as her apology had been insubstantial: “It is with great regret that I have decided that I should tender my resignation as a member of the cabinet,” she wrote to David Cameron. “I am very grateful to you for your personal support, but it has become clear to me that the present situation has become a distraction from the vital work this government is doing to turn our country around.”
With European elections looming, the prospect of a Miliband government is not figuring overmuch in the calculations of the Telegraph and co. The European parliamentary elections provide an excellent and, by now, quite traditional opportunity for a nice punishing protest vote. In 2009, with the expenses scandal having just exploded, Gordon Brown’s dying government was pushed into a poor third place. (In my then constituency in the south-west, Labour was relegated to fifth.)
The rightwing press has plenty of reasons to wish a similar humiliation on the present government. The presence of wishy-washy Liberal Democrats in the cabinet is intolerable, of course: but Cameron and co are also hated for their concessions to modern ‘political correctness’ and so forth, as exemplified by the gay marriage legislation. Looming over it all, as mentioned, is the spectre of press regulation, a direct assault by the government on the interests of the media barons.
The biggest, bluntest instrument in the reactionary media armoury is the UK Independence Party. Most ‘sensible’ media moguls would not be happy with a Nigel Farage government, still less with a Tory vote so split that Ed Miliband sneaks into Number 10 by the back door. (Murdoch, in particular, is playing Tory politics, discreetly backing Michael Gove and Boris Johnson as prime ministerial hopefuls.) A proper t r o u n cing th i s summer, however, will be heard loud and clear in the Tory inner circle: Farage can be used to chase Cameron to the right, and remind him of who his friends are.
So, also, the debates between Nick Clegg and Farage - and most particularly the way they were reported in the press. Clegg, they say, was utterly destroyed. He argued bland technicalities: Farage spoke to the soul of the common man. Polls suggest that this is, indeed, how the result was perceived.3 A better contrast could not be built up. Nick Clegg is a notorious opportunist and bland, slick career man. Farage is a ‘lovable oaf’, a plain-speaking man of the people. (It is rare to find any media coverage of this demagogue that mentions his not so humble background as a well-remunerated commodities broker.)
The left - including, these days, the Labour Party - likes to talk in obtuse, populist terms about how “out of touch” the Tory benches are from the struggles and concerns of ordinary people. A bloodless Nick Clegg performance or Maria Miller caught with her snout in the trough: such things add a sharp note to the obvious disconnect between the establishment and the rest of us.
The trouble is that this is equally a rightwing note to sound. It is obvious from the downfall of Maria Miller, which was driven throughout by the right. It was even more obvious five years ago, at the time of the expenses scandal. It has been the appeal of would-be dictators over centuries to speak for the voiceless against corrupt cliques; and it is very much the appeal of Nigel Farage. It is by no means clear that many of Farage’s voters agree with his hyper-Thatcherism. A majority support major chunks of the welfare state, although they might agree with him, say, on Europe and immigrants. His appeal, especially in protest vote season, is that he is the anti-politics politician par excellence.
It is not difficult to fathom why anti-establishment populism should, in our day, translate so seamlessly into reactionary politics. In order for it to be obvious that the likes of Clegg and Miller do not ‘speak for us’, it is necessary that somebody should appear to do just that. Labour does not fit the bill very easily, led as it is today by the same kind of central office test-tube baby as the coalition parties. So the opinions of the common man or woman are supposedly voiced by one section of the establishment with a megaphone at the ready - the media. This populist message is utterly manufactured; but it can be sold back to the ‘voiceless’ relatively easily in the absence of any serious competition in the ideological marketplace.
So, for all that we despise the grasping Maria Miller and mendacious Nick Clegg, we must concede that the troubles in this coalition government are hardly of direct benefit to our side. Rather, they are another index of how rapidly British society is moving to the right l
2. www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/ apr/04/maria-miller-threatened-watchdog-in-attempt-to-limit-investigation.
3. www.independent. co.uk/news/uk/ politics/nick-clegg-v-nigel-farage-second-live-debate-deputy-pms-aggressive-change-of-strategy-fails-to-win-over-the-public-9233930. html.