David Cameron's baiting of the BBC may betray a wider strategy

We learnt quite a lot at PMQs. But the most intriguing revelation was the Prime Minister's dig at the beeb

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

 

i Editor's Letter: Still all to play for at our live iDebate

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering