It’s in the interstices of politics that you sometimes spot a coming battle, and so it was on Wednesday. We learnt quite a lot at PMQs. First, that David Cameron really can’t decide what to do about Labour’s energy price freeze. One minute he was labelling it the modern day equivalent of Stalin’s five-year plans; the next it was just a harmless gimmick.
Nor has he worked out how to tackle Ed Miliband, wildly accusing him, Dacre-style, of “Communist plots” and living in “a Marxist universe”. It reminded me of Churchill declaring in 1945 that Attlee’s socialism would require some form of Gestapo, or Ken Livingstone failing to decide whether to attack Boris Johnson as a clown or a menace. They both lost.
But it was the third unwitting revelation that most intrigued me, because time and again Cameron slipped in a dig at the BBC, along the lines that he was amazed the Corporation had reported a survey that found that despite austerity cuts people thought local government services had got better. Amazed, presumably, because he believes that the BBC is stuffed to the gills with lily-livered, foreigner-loving, pinkoes whose sole aim in life is to convert the rest of the country to their entirely deviant lifestyles, either overtly through propaganda programming like the news and the Today programme or subliminally by peopling EastEnders with single mothers, benefits scroungers, lefty vicars and immigrants.
We all have our criticisms of the Beeb. I worry that BBC Wales thinks its mission is to build a Welsh national identity. I am furious that they under-reported the ludicrous government top-down reorganisation and effective privatisation of the NHS in England. But the BBC is not just Britain’s greatest artistic invention; it is the quintessence of studied impartiality. Even after Savile, the BBC is one of the most respected and loved British institutions and the licence fee remains the least avoided form of tax.
So I worry that Cameron’s careless cynicism about the BBC betrays a bigger strategy. The BBC Charter runs out in 2016. When Cameron came to power he threatened to neuter Ofcom and insisted not only that the licence fee would be frozen for six years, but that it would foot the bill for S4C and the World Service. What he couldn’t do was end the licence fee or sell off TV channels or radio stations, yet. But at his back he still has Rupert Murdoch begging him to slash the BBC further, and in his party he has plenty who would happily abolish the whole thing. So the fight is on and the BBC will need doughty defenders.
One fact makes my point. Sky had £7.2bn to play with last year. The BBC had £3.7bn.
Burt out but not down
Reshuffle time is hideous. One minute you’re the world’s expert (well, your party’s expert) on pleural plaques and the next you’re debating which literary figure merits a blue plaque. As often as not you’ll find out that someone else has got your job before you are told what job you are getting, so you have a period of anxious flitting between dejection and anger. And when (or if) the phone call comes, you have to make a snap decision. The net result is a political class of the permanently unsettled.
One victim of the Cameron reshuffle was Alistair Burt, the minister for the Middle East. Alistair is the nicest, warmest and most generally fantabulous MP there is. As minister he was abundantly courteous, he went out of the way to help colleagues, he provided regular informative updates on individual countries in his patch, he devoted as much attention to individual cases as to his whole region, and his letters actually read as if he had written them. No wonder 18 MPs (ranging from Glenda Jackson to Rory Stewart) bemoaned his departure from office during Hague’s statement on the Middle East on Tuesday. It is particularly unfair that Cameron and Hague mishandled the vote on Syria and lost control of their foreign policy, but remain, while Alistair is turfed out.
One clear sign that Parliament is failing
On Monday night the Guardian hosted a special screening of The Fifth Estate. There was some odd casting. Alan Rusbridger joked that he had always wanted to be played in a film by Jason Robards (who won an Oscar for his role in All The President’s Men), but it was a bit curious to see Alan unnecessarily transmogrified into the Scot Peter Capaldi. Benedict Cumberbatch is outstandingly convincing as Julian Assange, but I found the whole thing sickeningly self-congratulatory. It seems no brand of piety is more sanctimonious than that of a liberal journalist (or columnist, no doubt).
Rusbridger made one important point, though. Despite the intense public debate about our intelligence services, Parliament has barely batted an eyelid. True, Hague gave a statement in June, but since then, nada. In the US these issues have rent the political parties asunder and a vote in the House was won only very narrowly by the administration. We all sneer at the US system’s capacity for legislative gridlock and fiscal shutdown, but the separation of the executive from the legislature does mean that Congress takes its job seriously in scrutinising even the touchiest issues. By that standard, Parliament is failing.
Speaking with the enemy
The battle for the Deputy Speakership – which has to go to an MP on the government side of the House – will reach its climax on Wednesday when the whole House gets to vote Single Transferably. The 1922 Committee naughtily had a private hustings meeting on Wednesday. But the hottest ticket in town is for the meeting on Monday when all seven Conservative candidates (cue jokes about Happy, Sneezy et al) will appear at the Parliamentary Labour Party, hustling for Labour votes. We’re already dreaming up questions.