Oh, I so enjoy a power struggle. As a spectator sport, it has few equals; and that is what we have been witnessing over the past few weeks. Its highlight, to this viewer, was The Daily Telegraph’s putting a photo of George Osborne in a first-class carriage on its front page under the headline (in red): “Osborne – The Great Train Snobbery”.
You might think the readers of The Telegraph are not the sort to imagine that to sit in the first-class compartment is the mark of Cain. This is not the Daily Worker we are talking about. On the same day, the Daily Mail also excoriated the Chancellor for daring to upgrade to the-first class compartment of the Great Western service from Wilmslow to London Euston. “Just Who Does He Think He Is?” asked the Mail of its readers, most of whom, I suspect, would be thinking: that’s the Chancellor doing what I would be doing if I were in that job.
So why are such respectable small-c conservative newspapers – whose own executives would feel no social embarrassment or guilt whatsoever travelling first-class when on business – going so over-the-top, almost encouraging their readers to storm Downing Street as the Bolsheviks did the Tsar’s Winter Palace? It can be explained in one word: Leveson.
You want more? Well, Lord Justice Leveson is soon to produce his report on the press and it seems increasingly likely that this lawyer, who has evinced no particular admiration for my trade, will propose that the Government implements some form of statutory regulation. Actually, this outcome will have seemed obvious to anyone who has cast a glance at the front page of the Leveson Inquiry website, on which is emblazoned his Lordship’s remark: “At the heart of this inquiry is one simple question: who guards the guardians?”
There are, of course, excellent and time-honoured reasons why one should not have statutory regulation of the press – read the US constitution if you want a classical exposition of the argument. But for newspapers, this is more than just a matter of principle, however sincerely held. They simply do not want to be subject to regular invigilation by a group of government-chosen appointees, who might – let’s put it no higher – cramp their style.
What we are now seeing is an attempt by newspapers thus threatened, to intimidate the Government. Essentially, they are saying: if you think this is bad press, Mr Cameron, just imagine how we will treat you and your colleagues if you decide to accept Lord Leveson’s recommendations without taking our views into account. Think about it; and, meanwhile, have a nice day.
There is one trade association even scarier for a government to deal with, and from which the newspapers’ “snobbery” attacks actually derive. I refer to the Police Federation. It is this body of men that has done for the Government Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell; first by telling the Sun about the contretemps he had with one of their officers and then by leaking the entire log of the incident to The Daily Telegraph. This stood up the claim, repeatedly denied by Mitchell, that he had called one of the coppers guarding Downing Street “a pleb”, apparently for making the MP leave through a side exit rather than the main gate.
I leave it to readers to decide if they would regard the log of a policeman involved in an argument with a member of the public as invariably the gospel truth. What cannot be in doubt is that such a leak was a brutally effective way of intimidating a government which is attempting to introduce dramatic reforms to police working practices. The Labour Party has decided to back the Police Federation with Ed Miliband its cutting edge in the House of Commons, where his pursuit of Mitchell’s alleged crime of snobbery with violence (of expression) left the Chief Whip, as he put it, “ toast”. It was in vain that the former Labour minister Chris Mullin pleaded with his erstwhile colleagues not to side with the Police Federation, which he called “as big a bunch of headbangers as one is ever likely to come across this side of sanity”.
Mullin went on to relate how, when as Chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Committee he made the unremarkable observation that police disciplinary and complaints procedures were being subverted by a minority of dishonest officers, “the wrath of the federation immediately descended on my head. It was on to the Home Secretary and Shadow Home Secretary, demanding they denounce me. It then rang round each of my fellow committee members, demanding they disassociate themselves from my comments... The federation has a long track record of intimidating ministers, journalists and anyone else who gets in its way.” So these are the characters whose allegations (“plebgate”) against the intemperate and now politically ruined Mr Mitchell the press has found so convenient in its own power battle against the Government. In fact, Downing Street can reasonably claim that it is not being intimidated by the Police Federation. It was more Mitchell’s unpopularity with his own backbenchers that made his position untenable – a Chief Whip with fewer internal enemies would have survived the battle of believability with Mullin’s “bunch of headbangers”.
Indeed, the recent Conservative Party Conference was a clear demonstration of the Government’s determination to carry the battle against the Police Federation. The Prime Minister broke with Tory tradition by not mentioning the police in his conference address. The minister responsible for the police, Damian Green, said he would press for police disciplinary proceedings to be opened up to the public, declaring that “police at all levels need to be more accountable”. The Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, told the conference that the Government would change the law so that in future those whose homes were being burgled would not be guilty of a crime even if they used “disproportionate” force against intruders. This proposal is strongly opposed by the police, who feel that the use of disproportionate force – such as Tasering a blind 62-year-old, when mistaking his white stick for a samurai sword – should remain their monopoly.
So no wonder the Police Federation stepped up its campaign against the Chief Whip in the wake of the Conservative Conference; and no wonder its implicit charge of snobbery against the party leadership as a whole was so enthusiastically followed through by newspapers, who also want to make the Government bend to their will in a battle involving a trade interest. As I say, it is spectacular viewing – so long as you are not put off by the sight of blood.