News, Culture & Society

QUENTIN LETTS: Tom Watson gave a display greasy enough to test one’s digestion

Banns of marriage are read at church three times, to make sure everyone is absolutely sure incest or bigamy is not about to be committed. There comes that awkward moment when the parson asks if anyone knows ‘cause or just impediment why these people should not be joined in matrimony’ – and then looks up, with disconcertingly hungry eye, to scan the horizon for objectors.

Likewise, the Commons yesterday again debated Press regulation. For the third time of asking, you could say.

The Data Protection Bill was before the House for the second week in succession, having once again been refused by the House of Lords. MPs again voted to disagree with the Lords’ insistence that the Leveson Inquiry be reactivated.

Last week the vote was passed by nine. Yesterday it was 12.

Tom Watson has been one of the biggest advocates of ‘Leveson Two’ and called for a renewed inquiry into journalists yesterday

Will the issue now go away? Will their lordships finally accept the superiority of the elected House, particularly given that last year’s Conservative manifesto included a promise to drop ‘Leveson Two’?

Peers never used to try to block manifesto promises. But that was before the lunacy that has descended on our political class since it was told what to do by the electorate on June 23, 2016. The Establishment is fighting, fang and claw, for its pre-eminence.

Labour’s Tom Watson led yesterday’s calls for renewed inquiry into journalists – specifically, as he noted, those on ‘national tabloids’. The BBC (which is approved of by the Establishment) is exempted.

Mr Watson tried various actorly artifices and oratorical devices. He spoke almost in a whisper and at a slow pace, the better to impart tragic gravitas to his words. He flattered MPs on the benches opposite – ‘he’s a great man’ – and he ladled honey on the Democratic Unionists, a party Labour frontbenchers normally vilify. During a speech by Labour backbencher John Grogan (Keighley), who was having his doubts, Mr Watson swivelled in his seat to ensure that Mr Grogan could see that he was listening to him with theclosest attention.

How courteous this bruiser Watson suddenly was! Imagine Joe Bugner holding a delicate china tea-cup, little pinkie at an angle in an attempt to look genteel. A performance greasy enough to test one’s digestion. Mr Watson quoted from a letter written by the unfortunate parent of a person who died in the Manchester bombing last year. This claimed that journalists had behaved insensitively at that terrible time.

Reading from this letter, Mr Watson massaged some emotion into his performance. He slowed. Gulped. Extracted a creak from his larynx. We were, I swear, close to tears. The House hushed. Yet it was not sufficiently impressed to change its mind from last week.

The Data Protection Bill was before the House for the second week in succession, having once again been refused by the House of Lords

The Data Protection Bill was before the House for the second week in succession, having once again been refused by the House of Lords

Culture Secretary Matthew Hancock said Parliament ‘should not sleepwalk into a society where high-quality journalism has been decimated and our democracy damaged’.

Iain Duncan Smith (Con, Chingford & Woodford Green) said politicians had no business trying to regulate the very newspapers that kept them in check and prevented political corruption.

Sir Peter Bottomley (Con, Worthing W), though on three occasions a successful litigant against newspapers, praised the spirit of the 19th-century satirist William Hone who pierced the pomposities of an earlier elite.

Sir Peter, en route, took a swipe at Dame Harry Evans, a former newspaper editor who has been hot for Leveson. Sir Peter had had dealings with Evans long ago and had not found him a satisfactory piece of work.

Those keen to see newspapers harried included unlovely Ian Lucas (Lab, Wrexham) and Europhile Kenneth Clarke (Con, Rushcliffe). I saw Mr Clarke brush past the Tory Chief Whip, Julian Smith, and attempt some jest. The Chief Whip was palpably underwhelmed.

Eurosceptic Peter Bone (Con, Wellingborough) had voted for Leveson Two last week but found his enthusiasm waning, in part because he was irked by lordly presumptions, in part because he had finally got round to reading last year’s Tory manifesto. Mr Clarke: ‘Can he let me know where I can get a copy?’ Oh, the drollery! The arrogance!


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