Analysis: Something seriously stinks about the media’s response to May’s defeat

Ben Wray

May suffered the biggest parliamentary defeat in history but is continuing like she has more authority than before, while the Chancellor is telling big business a completely different story – but media attention is on the leader of the opposition 

THERE is something very strange, and quite remarkable, going on with the focus of media coverage in the day’s following May’s defeat. 

Here are the basic facts. The UK Government just suffered the worst defeat ever in UK parliamentary history. The Prime Minister has refused to concede power in its aftermath, a move which is historically unprecedented. Not only that, she has gave no indication that in response to such an enormous defeat she is willing to shift in any serious way on her red lines to try to find a parliamentary majority. This is despite there being just ten weeks to go until Brexit day.

One would expect that contradiction – between May’s lack of democratic legitimacy to govern and her actions – would be the main thrust of media reporting in the aftermath. No Prime Minister has ever before responded to such a devastating defeat in such a blithely arrogant manner. 

But, remarkably, the media’s focus has been elsewhere: on the opposition party. The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had been hounded for weeks about why he had not triggered a No Confidence vote in the government. After he had, which was inevitably defeated by a cowardly pact of Tories and the DUP terrified of facing the public in a General Election, focus immediately turned to why Corbyn was not entering into unconditional negotiations with Theresa May, or backing a second EU referendum. 

READ MORE: Editorial: May has lost her mandate to govern – It’s a democratic scandal if she doesn’t step down

This has dominated news coverage over recent days, with Labour backbencher and arch Corbyn-critic Mike Gapes given a continual platform to repeat the line that the Labour leader is happy to meet Hamas and Hezbollah but not the Prime Minister. 

Corbyn has refused to negotiate until May rules out No Deal. One would think from the media coverage that this is some sort of disgrace, but the Telegraph has reported on a transcript from Chancellor Phillip Hammond’s conference call with 11 big business leaders following May’s defeat in the House of Commons, and it appears that he too has ruled out No Deal.

Hammond said that the government was looking at how it “can somehow take the option of no deal off the table”, highlighting backbencher Nick Boles’ plans to pass a motion in the House of Commons. which would give legal effect to stopping No Deal. 

He went on to make the remarkable statement, totally at odds with May’s stated policy, that rescinding article 50 entirely, thus in effect stopping Brexit altogether, was now possible.

READ MORE: Analysis: Resistance to a General Election is a sign of Britain’s deepening malaise

Hammond said: “The Government is not in control of this. I am only telling you what information I have been able to glean.

“My understanding is that because the bill being brought forward will simply and solely rescind the Article 50 notice, the legal opinion that they have is that that will meet the test that the European Court of Justice has laid down for unilateral recision of an Article 50 notice.

“It is not within their power to mandate any future course of action, that would be for a Government to do.”

Doug Gurr, head of Amazon UK, responded to Hammond that taking No Deal off the table would provide them with “comfort”.

READ MORE: Analysis: The take away from the first days of Brexit 2019? No Deal is a charade that won’t happen

It’s stunning that this conference call has not been the focus of press attention over the past 24 hours, especially on TV, where it has not got anything like the attention which Corbyn – who, remember, is in opposition, not in power – putting down conditions on talks. Everything we have heard about the talks so far suggest May is not in the slightest bit interested in shifting her position. John Nicholson, an ex SNP MP, on This Week on Thursday stated that he had spoken to several MPs who have been in talks with the Prime Minister who said she repeated the line “my job is to deliver Brexit” and read from a script, i.e. Maybot mode.

It’s quite transparent what May is up to with this public call for talks. She wants to give the appearance to reach out to both sides and undermine Corbyn’s authority over Labour MPs, with the hope of playing them both off against each other to either pick off Tory Brexiteers who fear a Customs Union deal or a People’s Vote, or pick off backbench Labour MPs who fear No Deal.

In these circumstances – with the Prime Minister engaged in an obvious deception and the Chancellor telling big business a totally different thing to what May is telling the public – one would think the media would be all over the government like a rash, but instead they are focused on an opposition leader who is only asking for a commitment in public to what Hammond is stating in private to corporate elites.

READ MORE: Analysis: Is history closing in on Corbyn’s ‘constructive ambiguity’ over Brexit?

May’s response to Corbyn, that she can’t legally take No Deal off the table, appears to have been accepted by the press – but it entirely misses the point: she can politically take No Deal off the table, but is refusing to do so. She also has said she can’t extend article 50 until a new plan is brought forward, but there would be an obvious pretence to extend article 50 – a General Election. None of this perspective can be found on the BBC, ITV or Sky, and one has to wonder why.

The final insult was BBC Question Time, where presenter Fiona Bruce, who has recently replaced the retiring David Dimbleby, engaged in what could only be described as a sustained attack on the shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, interrupting her at every turn. Meanwhile, Conservative Prisons Minister Rory Stewart had what must have been the easiest night of his life. If someone had not watched the news for two years, they must have thought that Abbott was the Minister and Stewart was in opposition.

Afterwards, some audience attendees stated online that Bruce had whipped up the audience ten minutes before the show with jokes specifically about Abbott.

Something stinks about this. It is one thing to critique the Labour opposition – no doubt their position is at best confused and at worst deliberately misleading. It’s quite another, in the week the Prime Minister suffers the biggest defeat in history and continues as normal, while the Chancellor tells big business something completely different in private, to have what appears like a media siege against the opposition, at the expense of holding government to account.

Picture courtesy of Number 10

COMMONSPACE FORUM 31 January: 100 years on – Will the Clyde run Red again?