John Rentoul: George Osborne, the new Macavity

Cameron's insistence that the decision to employ Andy Coulson was 'mine and mine alone' looks like protesting too much
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The Independent Online

There is nothing quite like a focus group for bringing home to political obsessives how distant their concerns are from those of normal people. Deborah Mattinson, who was Gordon Brown's opinion researcher until she told him things that he didn't want to hear, was talking to focus groups as the phone-hacking scandal was breaking. The behaviour of the News of the World ("immoral and a disgrace", Ed Miliband; "absolutely disgusting", David Cameron) did not come up in discussion until she prompted them. "They talked about it, and said Rebekah Brooks should go and they didn't like Rupert Murdoch," Mattinson told me. "But they were keener to get back to talking about what really mattered to them, which was how to make ends meet."

It was not at all like the MPs' expenses story, she said, when it was difficult to get them to talk about anything else and there was "real anger". We journalists, who love talking about media stories, and we political obsessives, who are always calculating the likely impact of the latest crisis on the opinion polls, should remember that most people do not actually care that much.

The revelations about illegal journalistic methods and the crisis of the Murdoch media are having an effect on politics. But in the long run – that is, by the middle of next week – it should be clear how little will change. And the changes that do happen could well be unexpected. The strengthening of George Osborne, for example.

We will come to that in a moment. The immediate political effect has been that the Prime Minister has seemed uncomfortable, while the Labour leader, knowing that News International papers didn't support him anyway, bet everything on an anti-Murdoch position. That impressed many of his own MPs, and many of those journalists who do not work for Murdoch. That in turn filters through the media to people who do not watch Prime Minister's Questions. Hence Cameron's personal rating is down three points in our ComRes poll today, and Miliband's is up seven. But we should not get too excited about the change: the two-point swing to Labour in the voting intention figures is within the margin of error.

The main effect of the Murdoch Melodrama has been, as Rebekah Brooks might say, to "detract attention" from the story that matters most to people: the economy. Several economic stories last week could have dominated the front pages. One was the latest instalment in The Vindication of Those Swivel-Eyed Eurosceptics Who Said the Euro Would Never Work, a part-work that is now published weekly. The other was Has Anyone Seen Our Growth? They are linked because, contrary to what the Eurosceptics say, the collapse of the euro, or the German bailout of Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Belgium, would not be good for the prospects of British economic growth. And there were figures out last week which suggested that the British economy, having bounced back from the bottom of the recession, is now growing patchily and slowly. That often happens as an economy recovers from a shock, but if bad things happen to the Continental economy, and to the American economy as a result of the failure of Congress to agree spending cuts there, then we could find ourselves in a version of Japanese stagnation. It would cause problems for the Chancellor if there were little growth over the next four years and he failed to cut the deficit as planned.

Oh yes. George Osborne. Remember him? Not been seen much in public recently. He's probably locked in one of those rooms off the corridors of power, doing the brilliant strategising for which he is renowned. His absences; his reputation for thinking ahead; and his importance to his party's economic credibility – he seems to be turning into a Tory Gordon Brown. Among the many paradoxes of politics last week was Brown's sudden visibility, complaining in the Commons about his own failure as Prime Minister to order an inquiry into the whole murky Murdoch business: "My desire to have a judicial inquiry", he said, "was opposed by the police, opposed by the Home Office and opposed by the Civil Service."

Meanwhile, Osborne has been doing the old Macavity routine, about which the Tories used to enjoy taunting Brown when he was Chancellor. Osborne has even been rather quiet, I am told, in the series of crisis meetings in Downing Street. Out of embarrassment, no one has pointed out that it was his genius idea to hire Andy Coulson, the former editor of News of the World, as Cameron's head of communications in the first place. But everyone knows it.

Which was why it was significant that the Prime Minister was so keen to "take full responsibility" for hiring Coulson in his emergency news conference on 8 July: "The decision to hire him was mine and mine alone," he said. "I took the decision – as I say, my decision, my decision alone – to give him a second chance... That was a decision I took, a decision I will be held responsible for... I'm responsible for the decisions I take, the people I employ, the government I run. The buck stops right here."

We got the point. The real point, I understand, is to "protect George". Cameron has realised that Osborne's reputation is terribly important to the Government. Just as Brown became ironclad because his stewardship of the economy was so successful – if you can remember that far back – and unsackable.

Osborne went to lots of parties and meetings with News International people too, but the Chancellor must be protected from the Murdoch contagion, so that the markets will continue to have confidence in his handling of the economy. This is an unexpected effect of the phone-hacking scandal, binding the coalition even tighter to Osborne's policy on the deficit – a policy in which even the most unpolitical member of a focus group has a strong and personal interest.





independent.co.uk/jrentoul

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