The Telegraph tapes are a Westminster Wikileaks. But the Government will survive. Entrapment will become more common. And politicians will turn even more timid.
by Paul Goodman
Once upon a time, the careers of Cabinet members could be brutally terminated, and governments shaken to their foundations, by Ministers' financial or sexual deeds. Today, politicians can be humiliated, and this Coalition rocked, by their words alone - words spoken about...politics.
This banal reality is a sign of the times. Operating in politics demands at once both candour, because without it trust between public figures and voters is broken, and craft, because without it collegiality, and therefore government itself, becomes impossible.
This is so when one party governs alone, and even more when two do so together. A government that contains, as this one does, say, Gerald Howarth and Lynne Featherstone will find its collegiality stretched to the limit.
The Daily Telegraph's entrapment of Ministers is a Westminster Wikileaks. In other words, it makes public what some already knew and many guessed. Except that the culprits aren't a child of the counterculture crazed by his own self-righteouness and a rogue soldier whose head is rattling with loose screws.
Instead, they're senior Ministers entrapped by their own vanity, desire to please, frustration and - in some cases, perhaps - a sense of shame. The Daily Telegraph this morning nails to its battlements the heads of Michael Moore, Ed Davey and Steve Webb alongside the balding skull of Vince Cable.
As I write in the Guardian this morning, a weakened Cable is very useful both to Cameron and Clegg - the key reason why he wasn't sacked. It strengthens the leading right-of-party-centre Liberal Democrat (Clegg) against the leading left-of-centre one (Cable).
Cameron will also have known that further revelations were on the way, and not wanted to start sacking Ministers for their indiscretions when even more flagrant ones may be round the corner. Conservatives who are rejoicing this morning should note the Telegraph's claim that Tory Ministers have also been enmeshed.
Where's all this going? The following is clear -
- The Government will survive. Don't rule out a resignation over the Christmas period. Some senior Minister, perhaps a Conservative, may have said words even more reckless than Cable's over Murdoch. Or another may suddenly have a fit of the vapours, and quit. But the Coalition is a young government whose poll ratings - as far as its senior partner is concerned - are surprisingly robust, not an old one like Labour at the time of an even bigger Telegraph reporting hit, the expenses scandal.
- Entrapment will be more common. My prediction of a YouTube election after Alan Duncan was trapped on tape was out only in its timing. Where the Daily Telegraph has gone, the waning galaxy of Fleet Street and the waxing one of the internet and the new technology will follow. It's striking that the Telegraph itself is this morning hoist with its own petard - since its actions may bring about the very BSkyB decision it's been campaigning against. It's also open to accusations of hypocrisy, though it will plead public interest. Fleet Street, as ever unwilling to expose its own interests, is largely silent on these matters. Jonathan is not.
- Politicians will turn even more timid. There will be the odd great exception - like Boris Johnson and Ann Widdecombe. But their successors will suffer setbacks - as both these gifted politicians have done - before winning affection, money and celebrity status. The rest will look over their shoulders more often, stick to the "line to take" more rigidly, express themselves more timidly, glance around for the hidden camera or tape recorder. It's no use complaining. This is how it is. This is how it's going to be.