“The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties, with which I myself have wrestled for perhaps too long”
The conclusion of Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech to the House of Commons on the 13th of November 1990 might well have entered the thoughts of several Tory MPs in recent days. After the latest bout of press bullying, culminating in the Daily Mail’s thundering denunciation last Thursday - which could have been written by Andrei Zhdanov - did they continue to go along with Theresa May’s appeasement of the press bullies?
This man is elected, and in power ...
... and this one is not elected, but still wields power
The welter of abuse, and even death threats, saw to it that gradually, the ranks broke, culminating in full-on revolt from many Tories in a Commons debate yesterday. Free speech was one thing; shouting “Fire” in a crowded theatre was not. The constant bullying from the cowardly Paul Dacre and his minions over Europe had to be faced down.
Faisal Islam of Sky News observed “The dossier of death and hanging threats to Anna Soubry after last week’s vote is absolutely extraordinary - people who have left phone numbers and addresses in Kent, Warwickshire etc … No better when its anonymous bots, but that people feel comfortable enough to threaten violence against MPs because they have voted a specific way on a Commons vote is a remarkable development”.
The increasingly desperate and downmarket Telegraph also came in for criticism. “Soubry has given her two dossiers to the Speaker, specifically cites recent Daily Mail and Telegraph headlines, which she says have led to some of the violent threats against her … Dominic Grieve directly criticising the Daily Mail too: ‘We are going to have to stand up for decency in public discourse and face it down’ Rudd: ‘we're going to call this out and ask for a new type of behaviour’”. Dacre will not like this. Nor will many others in the press.
Labour joined the attack. “Harriet Harman: ‘the Telegraph and Mail identifying certain members as targets.. the mob following.. in other countries when violence is threatened because of how they voted we call that tyranny and fascism’”. Ms Harman has been a target of the press mob for many years now. And she had more to say.
“Harman calls on Home Secretary Rudd to call in the editors of the Mail and the Telegraph”. Thus the problem, as her colleague Yvette Cooper showed. “Cooper: Home Sec should challenge national newspapers if they do things which also incite death threats impacting on public debate... invites Rudd to say Mail was wrong re calling MPs ‘treacherous’ Rudd: real problem is the attackers”. But the Mail IS the attackers.
The Home Secretary was still frightened of the press. “Rudd - ‘we are now in an era where MPs are beginning to report hate threats, threats of violence as the new normal, and that is what we need their assistance stepping down from’”. She was evading the issue.
And the problem was not just the press, but those in Parliament sucking up to it for personal gain: “[Antoinette Sandbach] ... ‘not helped by members of this House calling for deselections.. members democratically elected by constituents are entitled to vote with conscience’ Apparent reference to her fellow Conservative Nadine Dorries”. The fragrant Nadine is always keen to keep in the good books of the press establishment.
The problem was, though, as ITV political editor Robert Peston noted, that the Government was, to quote Mrs T., frit of the press bullies. “.@AmberRuddHR won't take up @YvetteCooperMP invitation to criticise Daily Mail for taunting the 11 Tory Brexit rebels”. Not with her party leader and Brexit secretary colleagues entertaining its editor.
Commons Speaker John Bercow faced no such dilemma. He has, for so long, been a favourite target of right-wing shit-stirrers and the schoolboy sniggering from the likes of the odious Quentin Letts (let’s not), another of Dacre’s bully boys. Where senior Tories squirmed and vacillated, he spoke firmly and with purpose.
“Making death threats or other threats of violence will always be wrong, in a political context, making death threats against people for their views is a kind of fascism, unequivocally denounced … The Chair is calling upon members to vote as they think fit... they have an absolute bound and duty to vote as they think fit... In voting as you think fit, you as MPs are never mutineers, never traitors, never malcontents, never enemies of the people … if there are people who cannot understand that perhaps they need help to ensure that in future they do”. He chose his words deliberately and dramatically.
Using the language of the press bullies - “enemies of the people” and “malcontents” are recent Daily Mail examples - Bercow placed himself in clear opposition to the kind of behaviour which Paul Dacre has been exhibiting of late. Parliament is sovereign and supreme, Parliament will not be subjugated to unelected bullies who, as they did in the time of Stanley Baldwin, exercise “power without responsibility”.
So now the scene is set for the most almighty ruckus. Dacre cannot, by the iron law of the press establishment and in protecting his own dignity, back down. The rest of the Europhobic and bullying part of the Fourth Estate - the Barclay Brothers at the Telegraph, Richard “Dirty” Desmond at the Express, and the Murdoch mafiosi at the Sun and Times - will stand behind him, ready as in the style of Nikita Khrushchev at Stalingrad to shoot him down if he so much as thinks about chickening out of the confrontation.
No surprise, then, that James O’Brien has observed of Bercow’s intervention “A brief swell of patriotic pride at what he says, a deep sense of foreboding about what compelled him to say it”. The bullies have to be faced down; no-one else in power will do it. Hell, Theresa May gave James Slack, who wrote the Mail’s infamous “Enemies of the People” assault on the judiciary, a job in Downing Street. She and her cabinet are hopelessly compromised.
The press establishment has for too long held our political class in its grip. It is high time that the grip was loosened. John Bercow has done the right thing.