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How many Conservative MPs will fall for Miliband's ploy next week?

By Paul Goodman
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Ed Miliband knows as well as anyone else that Jeremy Hunt is required to act in a quasi-judicial capacity over Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB bid, and that OFCOM can rule on whether he is a "fit and proper person" in that regard.  But the Labour leader is consumed not by law but by politics.  Whether the Government could lose in court to a Murdoch challenge were Hunt to block the bid doesn't matter to him.  But whether it could be defeated in the Commons next week matters to him intensely.  His manoevre this morning to hold a debate next week - made in the papers, and repeated on Marr - probably won't succeed in achieving that outcome.

However, it is certain to divide Nick Clegg's party - Simon Hughes is already making trouble - and challenge David Cameron's control.  Let's deal with each of these aspects in turn.  First, the Liberal Democrats.  Unlike the other two main parties, they have had no institutional engagement of any significance with Murdoch, his editors and his papers.  Of all the larger parties' MPs, Liberal Democrats are the most reflexively hostile to him.  Of all the three principal parties' voters, Liberal Democrats ones are the most likely to fling up their hands in horror at mention of the Wizard of Oz (or Warlock, if you prefer.)

Next, the Conservatives.  On the whole, Tory MPs are less prone than Liberal Democrat ones to chase after political fashion in an attempt to catch up.  So they will be less febrile and more constrained than their yellow partners, remembering their party's 30-year long whirl with Murdoch on the dance floor.  Some will still be hoping that the breach with his titles can be mended.  (It's noticable that the Sunday Times this morning contained two attack stories about MPs.)   Others will want to maintain their own relationships with those papers - and the more often they're quoted, the more fervent this wish will be.

Others still, though, hate the Murdoch tabloids for the way in they have, over the years, reported the deeds and misdeeds of MPs, or shake their heads sorrowfully at the impact that these titillating titles have had on popular culture - or both.  But the danger for David Cameron isn't what Conservative backbenchers think about Murdoch: it's what they think about him.  I spoke to senior MPs yesterday who told me that their colleagues are furious with the Prime Minister for taking the risk of hiring Coulson in the first place (an anger that they've usually failed to voice to date, for whatever reason).

These rumblings have duly surfaced in today's papers.  It would be nice to report that, for better or worse, they relate purely to the merits of the issue.  But motives are seldom pure, and they aren't in this case.  Mixed up in all this is frustration over parts of Government policy (those relating to the EU, the NHS retreat, Clarke's prison plans - still - the curb on defence spending and the boost in overseas aid, the 50p rate, Huhne's carbon reduction targets...you know the list) and resentment with Downing Street.  Tim listed some of the reasons in the Sunday Telegraph this morning.  I've previously set out a list of them on this site.

Miliband wants to paint Cameron and his circle as part of a Chipping Norton Set to parallel the Cliveden Set of the 1960s: well-connected, personally wealthy, morally slack and insulated from the experience of the people they represent.  Fifty years ago, most Tory MPs had independent means, and thus shared a common bond with the men who led them.  Fifty years on from Profumo, this bond is under strain: more backbenchers are dependent on their salaries, and thus distant from their leaders in a crucial respect.  My sense is that a significant proportion of Conservative MPs feel that Cameron's circle is a group apart.

The consequence is a simmering Conservative class war in the Commons.  I don't believe that Tory MPs will be so self-destructive as to let it boil over in the Commons next week, although if LibDem MPs rebel some may insist on acting likewise.  And Downing Street is bound to come up with something for the debate to persuade waverers into the Government lobby.  But for the moment, Miliband is making the running (though he's awkward questions to answer about his own media chief).  Win or lose next week, he's working away at exploiting the soft yellow underbelly of the Coalition and the most rebellious Conservative MPs yet.

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