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Pontius Pilate asked:

“What is truth?” 

There is always plenty of speculation in the media before a cabinet reshuffle and before a Budget. With the reshuffle expected on Friday, and the Budget due to be delivered on March 11th, we are presently overloaded. Sometimes the reports are contradictory and so, by definition, they can not all materialise. Happily for the correspondents whose predictions prove array, such stories are soon forgotten. Once the announcements are made, then the hard news is the focus of attention. Private Eye occasionally provides a disobliging “hack watch” recounting past claims – but everyone else quickly moves on.

However, sometimes, even if an item of speculation does not materialise, it does not mean that it was untrue. It is more complicated than that. Prime Ministers and Chancellors can change their minds. Fleet Street subeditors can make a headline “stronger” than the caveats in the article below it might justify.

The Daily Mail reports this morning:

“Andrea Leadsom is facing the axe in this week’s reshuffle after ‘lecturing’ Boris Johnson on the dangers of a male-dominated Cabinet.

“The Business Secretary, whose position was already under threat, sparked irritation in Downing Street at the weekend by insisting in a newspaper article that gender equality should be ‘the absolute norm’.”

Let us suppose that she is not sacked. Does it mean the story was pure invention? Not necessarily. The “irritation” might well be genuine. The Prime Minister might be “minded” to sack her. But then he might be persuaded at some meeting tomorrow, or Wednesday, that it would be better for her to stay. In other words, the truth can change. What might be true on Monday might no longer be true on Thursday.

I suspect most Conservatives will have been more concerned by the Budget speculation. The Sunday Telegraph yesterday splashed with the headline:

“Tories eye mansion tax and raid on pensions”

Its report said:

“Boris Johnson has been weighing up shock plans to impose a ‘mansion tax’ on owners of expensive homes, in a move which will infuriate the Conservative Party’s grassroots and stun MPs. Severe cuts to pension tax relief enjoyed by millions of voters are also being considered by the Prime Minister and his Chancellor, Sajid Javid, for the Budget next month in an effort to pay for a huge increase in public spending. Two separate sources told The Telegraph that ideas to raise more tax from better-off homeowners had been discussed on separate occasions in the past few weeks at the highest levels of the Treasury and No 10. Some Treasury officials are understood to be keen on introducing what has been described as a “recurring” wealth tax that would primarily affect London and the South East, possibly as a quid pro quo for cutting stamp duty. It is not clear exactly what form the tax would take if it were included in the March 11 Budget, but options range from a levy – first mooted by Ed Miliband, the former Labour leader – to an additional higher band of council tax.”

It added;

“Two separate sources told The Telegraph that ideas to raise more tax from better-off homeowners had been discussed on separate occasions in the past few weeks at the highest levels of the Treasury and No 10.”

The paper followed up today with various people attacking the proposals – one response being that they are “half baked”, another warned against an “act of fiscal hooliganism”.

For many Conservatives, that story will have caused rather more concern than the game of musical chairs around the Cabinet table. As Tony Benn used to remind us:

“It’s not about personalities. It’s about issshues.”

Even if the measures are not introduced it does not mean that the Telegraph story is false. It could be that someone thought it would be a good idea to “float” the idea in the media to test reaction. If so, then the staunchly negative response will have been noted. Expectation management is sometimes regarded as a cunning wheeze. Perhaps by threatening us with really severe tax increases, the notion is that we will all be grateful and relieved if only mild tax rises are imposed.

Officially sourced stories are pretty reliable. “It will be announced later today….” or “The Prime Minister is expected to say to this afternoon in a speech in Bolton…” Those with unofficial sources have a greater risk of unravelling.

So are we merely in a busy season for a most traditional media sport?

Not quite. The tone and substance of the “Tory press” is markedly lacking in deference for the Conservative Government. The initiative by Downing Street to disrupt the established “lobby” arrangements for reporting may have been – as Andrew Gimson wrote last week – handled in a “cack handed” manner. Or it could be an overdue move to open up a smug closed shop and adapt to the age of transparency and social media. It might be both. At any rate, it won’t have helped relations with the press.

There is also a point of pride that newspapers have to assert their independence, most particularly when a Government is strong. We had a big Conservative majority returned in December – since then the polling suggests that Conservative popularity has risen further. We have vacancies for the Labour and Lib Dem leaderships. This is a time when the media’s instinct is that it must “hold the Government to account”. Who else will offer “real opposition”? That instinct is noble. For the Daily Telegraph it is a particular point of honour. That is because its association with the Prime Minister is so well known. He wrote for them for decades. The paper is not shy about it – it features an archive of his work prominently on its website. But nor does it wish to be regarded as his poodle.

That is not to suggest that we should be complacent about threats of tax increases. How can we be, after the last decade? With the economy already groaning under the weight of the burdens imposed by Gordon Brown we have seen Conservative Chancellors in subsequent years piling on yet more damaging tax rises – sometimes proving counter productive in terms of yield.

It is just worth noting that when the Telegraph catches a whiff of such stories, its inclination, at this stage in the political cycle, will be to offer pretty robust coverage.

43 comments for: The “Tory press” are keen to show they will provide the real opposition to the Government

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