David Cameron’s opening line in his speech to the first Westminster Correspondents’ Dinner in 40 years was that it was good to be “amongst friends”.
He meant it ironically, it seemed, because he went on to deliver a series of jokes poking fun at both the political journalists and the MPs. The jokes were indeed funny. But last Thursday’s formal dinner, with 170 guests including Cabinet ministers and members of the shadow Cabinet, was (relatively) intimate. Lobby journalists, whose job is to scrutinise politicians, breaking bread with those same politicians – does it show that this relationship is too cosy? Was he indeed among friends?
Amid the wit and the bad sex jokes, the Prime Minister had a serious message – he had been moved by his visit to the Tamil north of Sri Lanka last November, which took in a tour of the Uthayan newspaper whose journalists had been murdered at their desks, their colleagues delivering copies of the paper by motorbike to avoid being attacked. Along with other British political reporters, I went with him. From the safety of the parliamentary lobby, we bandy around the phrase “without fear or favour” all the time. At the Uthayan, there is no need to spell out the words “without fear or favour” when there are bullet holes in the walls, a firebombed printing press in the back and pictures of reporters’ bloodied corpses on display. It is an experience I will never forget. At our desks in the House of Commons where security is so tight you can’t get a pizza delivered to the front gate, we should be fearless. But are we?
Cameron said that, at its best, the British political press has a “vital role to play in our country”. Yes, we are “rowdy, tenacious, sceptical, uncontrollable, often uncomfortable for our politicians”. But, the PM added, “British political reporting is deservedly respected around the world, for the way it probes, it inquires, it scrutinises, and these things are linchpins of our democracy.”
It is true that we are rowdy and troublemaking – what Tony Blair called the feral beast still roams – yet our activities are often curtailed, our sharp teeth blunted and filed down. There is so much we do not know and are not allowed access to. The same Prime Minister who praised political journalism has not held a press conference in the UK since last June. That trip to Sri Lanka’s north came hours after he angrily slapped down a journalist from the Mirror for asking him – perfectly legitimately – to justify his comments about class and aspiration. Under Blair and Gordon Brown, I was convinced that Whitehall press officers and special advisers deliberately misled me and others, and today the obfuscation continues – bar some honourable exceptions.
The expenses scandal of 2009 was supposed to herald a new era of transparency and honesty. Yet the Government (a different lot from that of 2009, obviously, but with the same bad habits) still thinks it acceptable to release hundreds of pages of documents about ministers’ expenses, meetings, hospitality and gifts at 5.45pm on a Friday, and under the label “transparency data”. Opacity data, more like.
When the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war cannot proceed with a report because a civil servant, the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood (who also served under the previous Labour government), is blocking a tranche of documents, it is a scandal.
Watching the way our French counterparts bashfully dealt with President François Hollande’s affair, we Westminster correspondents can be proud. Adam Boulton, Sky News’s political editor who is standing down after 25 years, has never shied from asking tough questions of all sides – including losing it in a live interview with Alastair Campbell after the 2010 election. Despite this embarrassment, Boulton’s is a good approach to follow. But would our colleagues at the Uthayan be proud of us for holding our politicians to account? I am not sure.
Gordon’s not a moron
Gordon Brown made two appearances on the political frontline last week. The first was on Scotland, calling for greater powers for Holyrood as a way to hold the UK together. The second was in his role as UN envoy for children’s education, with an appeal to fund the education of Syrian refugees. Both of these issues are close to his heart, and on both, he has an authentic voice. Brown’s record as prime minister was disastrous, his one as Chancellor severely dented, yet in these two areas he has the opportunity to rehabilitate himself, politically. In Westminster, Alistair Darling is more admired than Brown on economic matters. Yet in Scotland, the only place that counts in this year’s referendum, Brown carries more weight than Darling, leader of the Better Together campaign. This is particularly true among working-class Labour voters in Glasgow who distrust the Westminster establishment and see Darling, the Edinburgh lawyer, as part of that. The cost-of-living crisis and recession remain real for them, no matter what George Osborne says. Senior “no” campaign figures are concerned that the union could be lost because this powerful group is considering voting “yes” to independence. How ironic that those who feel most disenfranchised by Westminster’s elite could be the ones who bring it crashing down with the break-up of the union. Brown can be at the forefront of saving the UK – and change how he is seen by historians.
With another hung Parliament in the offing, Nick Clegg seemed, until last week, to have the greatest chance of all the party leaders of being in government after 2015. Yet the fresh rumpus over Lord Rennard suggests danger for his leadership. Once again, it is the party’s rules that are making life difficult for a Lib Dem leader – because the party is truly democratic, he has little power over discipline. Is the leadership important or impotent? At some point, the Lib Dems have to decide.
I saw Penny Mordaunt, the Conservative MP who is taking part in television diving show Splash!, the other evening as she took a break from training. Nursing a bumped head and a dislocated thumb, she explained that her first dive, last night – involving jumping backwards in an upside-down crucifix – is one of the hardest ever performed on the programme. I am in awe of Penny, whose courage goes beyond the diving board – she endangered her chances of getting on to the ministerial ladder by rebelling over House of Lords reform. Without fear or favour indeed. Incredibly, some celebs have tried to be on Splash! even though they can’t swim. That’s not fearless, just stupid.Reuse content