Westminster has shut down for Christmas. Some things are still sacred. The Con Dem coalition is fortunate not to be facing a full-blown crisis this morning. But we can still pose the questions. Is there a legitimate distinction between public and private comment or is the difference always hypocrisy? The question lies at the heart of the WikiLeaks controversy and now in the spate of Lib Dem indiscretions. For political journalists the distinction is part of their stock in trade. So does the refusal of some to recognise any difference when it applies to politicians. Does their appeal to the greater public interest in entrapping the Lib Dem ministers justify what could otherwise be seen as a greater hypocrisy than anything said by the politicians?
As heard on the tapes, two giggling young women Heidi Blake and Holly Watt have broken the invisible rulebook by giving four amazingly susceptible and indiscreet Lib Dem ministers the treatment normally reserved for suspected fraudsters. They were sponsored by the Daily Telegraph, the paper that brought you the MPs’ expenses scandal in remorseless detail.
Right wing sympathisers may see a Tory plot to undermine the liberal tendency in the coalition. Left field conspiracy theorists might argue that the surreptitious interviews gave Lib Dem ministers, heavily bruised in the tuition fees controversy, an ideal platform to assert their independence in public. That argument might have flown, just, had the former national treasure Vince Cable not blown himself up with his own bomb.
By the old rules of spin and politics, his position is untenable. Coalition politics may be different, we shall see, but Vince’s appearance in the Christmas Strictly Come Dancing will help keep the controversy alive in a neatly ironic fashion over the holiday. At best, Cable has been emasculated, a great pity, while Cameron and Clegg will cling together even more tightly.
The Daily Telegraph have their own questions to answer. Why did they withhold Vince’s smoking gun which was leaked later to the BBC’s Robert Peston? Might it have been intended as a tender-hearted Christmas present to Vince? Unlikely. The fact that they have an interest in any decision that affects the power of Rupert Murdoch raises the suspicion that they are guilty of the greatest hypocrisy of all – censorship out of self-interest. Either that, or they’d have fired the bullet of Vince’s “declaration of war” on Murdoch at the point when Cameron and Clegg had thought they ‘d got away with it and were relaxing for Christmas. Hacks, doncha love’em?
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London