Apropos of my guest appearance, this week, at Iain Dale’s Dairy, its seems that David Davis’ Dandie Dinmont (or Cameron’s Chihuahua, if you prefer) is finding a simple exercise in English comprehension a little too difficult to cope with.
Let’s finish up from last Tuesday and his efforts to spin last week’s blanket coverage of Gordon Brown’s policy statement on the prospects for further anti-terrorism legislation into yet another ‘clunking fist’ non-story.
Patrick Hennessy was the first to fire a broadside against me, but he was quickly followed by Ian Kirby (News of the World), Nick Watt (Observer) and Marie Woolf (IoS). They all denied that Brown’s spin team had leant on them. I explained that I knew that one paper had indeed been leant on and had assumed, because all their stories were more or less identical, that it had happened to the rest of them. But it still left open the question of why none of them had approached the opposition parties for a quote.
Dale appears to have some rather unorthodox ideas about the meaning of the phrase ‘left open’ given that both Hennessey and Kirby responded directly the question of why they didn’t seek quotes from the opposition parties:
HENNESSEY: “I didn’t think the story needed a Tory or Lib Dem reaction”
KIRBY: “On this story, I knew there was no need for a response because Shadow Home Affairs spokesmen would be falling over themselves to air their opinions on Saturday night and Sunday”
In short, its not our job to ask the opposition what they think, its their job to get off their arse and tell us when they’ve got something to say – after all, they’re the politicians.
If there’s an open question left from last week it is only the question of why Dale persists with the wholly unsubstantiated allegation that the Brown camp leant on a newspaper to try and prevent the opposition getting a look in, in the face of comments from four political editors/journalists, all of whom wrote up Brown’s policy announcement for their respective Sunday paper, all asserting that no such thing took place. After all, if its reasonable to assume that what goes for one newspaper goes for them all, as Dale has stated repeatedly in trying to defend his original story, then its also reasonable to assume that when four newspapers all deny that any such thing took place one should start to question the veracity of your original ‘source’ – why, for example, would Brown’s PR minders choose to lean on only one newspaper and not all of them if they were actually minded to lean on anyone at all? It just doesn’t make sense.
(To be clear, I checked on all the main Sundays but for the Sunday Sport and Daily Star Sunday – I figured that there were simply not enough tits or ‘girl-on-girl action’ in the story to interest either – and all ran with much the same material and without any quotes from the opposition, including the Mail on Sunday and Sunday Express.)
Still, not being one to let questions like that interrupt a stream of propaganda, Dale’s back today to claim vindication for last week’s embarrassing faux pas on the back of a story by Nick Watt in the Observer, which he claims makes his point about why the should have spoken to his lord and master:
Tony Blair has been forced to issue an unprecedented apology to David Cameron after a Tory anti-terrorism initiative was unveiled by Gordon Brown weeks after the Conservative leader passed on the idea in private to the Prime Minister. An embarrassed Downing Street gave the Prime Minister’s apologies to Cameron’s office last week after the Tory leader expressed his anger when he found his idea trailed by Brown as a new tool for tackling terrorism. The extraordinary gesture from the Prime Minister to the leader of the Opposition was made after Brown called last weekend for a privy council review into whether telephone tap evidence should be admitted as evidence in court.
A series of Sunday newspapers, including The Observer, carried Brown’s comments as a sign of
how he will adopt a tough approach to tackling terrorism. A furious Cameron instructed his office to contact Downing Street last Monday to find out what had happened, because he had suggested the idea to Blair in a private meeting in No 10 two weeks earlier. Cameron was particularly upset because the meeting with Blair was meant to establish a cross-party consensus on dealing with the terrorist threat.
The Tory leader’s office and Downing Street refused yesterday to comment on their exchanges. But The Observer understands that an embarrassed Blair instructed senior officials to convey his regrets to Cameron after sympathising with Tory complaints that Brown’s intervention had at least given the impression that the terms of the Cameron/Blair meeting, held on private privy council terms, had been breached.
If the issue here is that privy council terms have been breached then that’s hardly ‘unprecedented’ – during the run in to the invasion of Iraq, former Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith, walked straight out of a private briefing at Downing Street, held on the precisely the same Privy Council terms, and blabbed the content the meeting to the waiting press more or less on the doorstep of number 10, but as Watt’s story goes on to explain, things are rather more complicated on this occasion.
Brown emphatically denies doing anything wrong because he knew nothing of Cameron’s proposal when he made his comments last weekend. ‘Gordon has been thinking through how you build consensus on these issues,’ a source said. ‘It has been in gestation for some time. We only realised subsequently that this had been proposed by David Cameron to Tony Blair.
Reid’s comments and Blair’s apology will raise questions about the state of communications between the Prime Minister and Chancellor just weeks before Brown takes over in No 10. Brown’s anti-terrorism initiative, which he has been working on for months, was virtually identical to the plan outlined by Reid in the Commons. This suggests that the Home Office and Downing Street incorporated Brown’s ideas on phone taps without telling the him they had been suggested by Cameron. Brown is understood to believe that the Tories may be playing fast and loose. He has been examining the idea of holding a privy council inquiry on telephone tap evidence for some time and has been consulting outside the government. There are fears that some of Brown’s thoughts may have been passed to the Tories during this consultation. There will also be questions about whether Cameron’s cordial relations with No 10 will be maintained once Brown takes over.
So the actual issue here is that both Brown and members of the opposition have been thinking along much the same lines without realising it because neither Blair or Reid, both of whom will be gone in less than three weeks time, could find it in themselves to communicate properly with either side, unless, of course, your name is Iain Dale in which case you try to spin the story like this:
So all of them missed a real story last week, just because they didn’t pick up the phone to David or Clegg. Credit to Nick Watt for getting the story this week, though.
But let’s move on from that because it raises some serious questions about Gordon Brown.
Huh? Does it? Watts’ article clearly suggests that if there’s fault to be found here then that fault lies with Blair and Reid for playing both ends of their discussions with Brown and with the opposition without telling either that they’ve been thinking along pretty much the same lines. So why the questions about Brown?
Why, for example, did he make a policy speech and then brief newspapers on an issue he clearly wasn’t fully briefed on himself? Why did he not pick up the phone to Number Ten or the Home Secretary to check on the latest state of play? Why did he freelance on an issue of national security when he must have known that Reid was about to make firm proposals only a few days later? In short, why did he play politics with terror?
Quite what planet Dale’s on here is anyone’s guess, because it certainly isn’t the one described in Watts’ story. In the first instance, if anyone could be said to be ‘playing politics with terror’, or rather ‘terrorism’ to at least make some sort of nod in the direction of English grammar, then it would appear to Blair and Reid who appear to have been keeping Brown out of the loop on the substance of their discussions with the opposition.
One might also reasonably question quite what the opposition are doing holding talks with both in the full knowledge that neither will be in office at the end of the month and without ensuring that the man who will be in office, and the next Prime Minister, is fully appraised of developments. It’s not as if they can claim not to know the score here or that, come the 27th June, it will be Gordon Brown they’ll be dealing with to try in order to take these proposals forward rather than either Brown or Reid, so why the hell haven’t they made absolutely sure, themselves, that Brown was in the loop on these discussions. Let’s face it, even without a contested election for the leadership, you’d have to be a complete half-wit not to think that the question of anti-terrorism policy wouldn’t come up as Brown tours the country fulfilling his schedule of hustings with Labour Party members.
And as for ‘playing politics’, isn’t that precisely what Dale is doing here in desperately trying to spin this as an anti-Brown story when it seems patently obvious that its Blair and Reid at fault. Okay, so Dale’s rather limited in his options at the moment given that three of the only four policies that the Tory Party have got (married couples tax allowance, not building new grammar schools unless they are going to build them and calling Brown ‘Macavity’) are completely inapplicable, leaving him only the ‘referring to Brown as clunking’ policy to play with, but even then this is still a piss poor effort on his part.
His actions have made a growing cross-party consensus more difficult to take forward.
So far as I can see Brown’s stated position differs only from that of the Tories in his apparent support for 90 day detention in terrorism investigations, and from that of John Reid only in his support for the use of telephone intercept information in court, on which his position appears to be identical to that of the Tories. A more astute and media savvy spokesman than Davis would have responded to Brown’s statement not by whinging about not getting the credit he feels he deserves but by commending Brown for coming around to his own party’s point of view and expressing optimism for future discussions with the new Prime Minister. After all, it hardly looks much like you’re serious about building a consensus on further anti-terrorism legislation when you start pissing and moaning over who thought of what first.
He should be grateful that the Conservatives and LibDems haven’t taken their bats and balls home completely. His new Home Secretary will have quite a job to do in rebuilding relations.
Aside from noting that the opposition ‘taking their bats and balls home’ would blatantly amount to playing politics with terrorism, the one concrete thing to emerge from this whole situation is the knowledge of precisely how little difference there actually is between Brown’s position and that of the opposition, especially the Tories. Far from putting the onus on the next Home Secretary to rebuild relations, all the Tories have done is put themselves in a much weaker position by making public the full extent to which both they and Brown are looking at precisely the same measures for the upcoming anti-terrorism bill.
Having nailed their flag to the mast by claiming much of what Brown announced last week as their own, how can they now back out of those ideas without clearly appearing to put exclusively partizan interests ahead of Britain’s security?
All the next Home Secretary need to do is press ahead with everything that the Tories have already ‘fessed up to supporting and they’ve no way of backing out. As former US President, Lyndon Baines Johnson is alleged to have observed, “If you got ’em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow”, and all the Tories (including Dale) have actually done this week is gift-wrap their bollocks and deliver them Gordon Brown on a silver platter.
The only noteworthy thing to emerge from this whole episode is the Tory’s (and Dale’s) complete lack of political and media savvy.