The Howard Flight affair tells us something about the Labour party, the media and Michael Howard. It now appears to be agreed that a Labour-supporting student called John Woodcock (not, as was first claimed, Jorg Trowter) taped Mr Flight's speech on 23 March and passed it to his masters at Labour HQ. Naturally, they handed it to The Times, whose political staff have since 1997 been the favoured recipients of many stories that help New Labour and damage the Tories. Tom Baldwin, whose byline appeared above the piece, is a veteran of many anti-Tory campaigns, most memorably the (unsuccessful) attempt to convict Lord Ashcroft, the then Conservative Party treasurer, of drug-running.
So far, so good. Everybody had acted according to type - the Labour party's dirty tricks department and The Times. (Incidentally, the passion for taping maverick Tories is an established tradition. In his newly published diaries, Piers Morgan records how, when he was editor of the Daily Mirror in 2002, Gordon Brown obligingly slipped him a tape that purported to incriminate Liam Fox, then the shadow Secretary of State for Health). Now it was Mr Howard's turn to act according to type. A week earlier he had personally de-selected Danny Kruger, the prospective Tory parliamentary candidate for Tony Blair's seat of Sedgefield, after Polly Toynbee had publicised in her Guardian column some mildly controversial remarks Mr Kruger had made in a speech. Mr Howard removed Mr Flight, first from the deputy chairmanship of the Party when The Times alerted his office on the evening of 24 March, and the following day as the candidate for Arundel and South Downs. The Tory leader is something of a serial sacker, and needed no great persuasion. He realised perfectly well that the de-selection of Mr Flight might embroil the party in a legal battle.
Everything else is history. The rest of the press and the BBC piled in. The main points of interest have been whether Labour moles were at work, and whether Mr Howard overreacted. Most newspapers have concluded that he has, with only the Daily Mail (which feels more warmly about Mr Howard than it has about any new Tory leader since Margaret Thatcher in 1979) providing unflagging support. Amid all the hubbub it has been almost universally agreed that Mr Flight said something of which he should be ashamed. The Labour party and The Times had established this as absolute fact by running the original story; most of the rest of the media cheerfully took it on trust; and Mr Howard, by choosing to ruin Mr Flight's political career, confirmed it as a God-given truth.
Let me say that I do not enormously like the cut of Mr Flight's jib. I have only once met the man, when we sat next to each other at a lunch. But whatever our prejudices about him, we must be fair. If we go back to The Times's original report on 25 March, there is nothing I can find that justifies the general media reaction or Mr Howard's behaviour. The most controversial thing he said was this: "The potential for getting better tax-payer value is a good bit greater than the James findings, [which have been] 'sieved' for what is politically acceptable and what is not going to lose the main argument." Wow! Was this cause enough for demonising Mr Flight? I hardly think so. All that he was saying was that the cost savings of £35bn over many years that have been identified by the James review (which was commissioned by the Tories) might one day be taken a bit further. This does not seem to me to be a completely outrageous proposition. Shouldn't we all be in favour of judicious economies?
Probably it was right to remove Mr Flight from his unimportant job as a deputy chairman of the Conservative Party. He spoke out of turn a few weeks before an election. But by sacking him as an MP, Mr Howard played absolutely into Labour's hands. Mr Flight has been outed as an extremist, and voters are left with the feeling that the Tory ranks are full of such people who intend, in the unlikely event of a Conservative victory, to take a meat cleaver to public spending. They aren't. As for the media, most of us happily played along with The Times's and Labour's premise without taking much time to read the small print. Whenever the words "public spending" and "Tories" are heard in close conjunction, the media go into a default mode that tends to suit the Government's purposes very well.
Some pundits have suggested recently that The Sun is in the process of transferring its allegiance back to the Tories. Not true, I think. Certainly its editorials sometimes chide the Government and give Mr Howard an occasional pat on the back. But the presentation of news can be a more telling indicator.
Last Thursday, the paper carried a story about the Government's shameless jumping on Jamie Oliver's school dinners bandwagon under the headlines: "Blair gives Oliver more" and "School dinners victory". This unequivocal endorsement of a dodgy policy will certainly have had more impact than the paper's slightly sceptical editorial.
In defence of privacy
May I take issue with a point made by Andrew Marr in a surprisingly sententious letter in these pages last week? The BBC's political editor accuses me of "sloppiness" for making an adverse judgment about a speech he made at the recent British Press Awards, which I did not attend. Is one therefore not allowed to pass any judgement on an event unless one has been present? This is a very curious doctrine, which would make Mr Marr's own job impossible to do.
Evidently stung by my estimation of his speech, he took a swipe at me for criticising Piers Morgan's revelations of recent private conversations with Tony Blair and others, pointing out that I once wrote a book that was awash with private conversations. I fear he has got the wrong end of the stick. All diaries and memoirs reveal such conversations. My worry about Mr Morgan is that his embarrassing revelations about private meetings, many of them very recent, might have the effect of limiting Tony Blair's candour in future off-the-record encounters with editors and journalists.
Incidentally, Mr Marr's own recent book about the press has its fair share of accounts of private conversations, most memorably involving David Montgomery, at one time Mr Marr's somewhat unfriendly boss. I certainly would not criticise him for that. The portrayal of Mr Montgomery is one of many delights in one of the best books - part-personal history, part-grand sweep - I have ever read about the medium.Reuse content