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Wednesday, November 17, 2010 

Tom Watson has an incredibly short memory.

Politicians are cynical beasts. This we know. If they think they can get an advantage of something, then they almost certainly damn well will. This was never more proved than in a couple of incredibly histrionic performances put on by Tom Watson in the House of Commons just a few short weeks ago during the most recent outbreak of parliamentary discussion over the long-running News of the World phone-hacking scandal. Watson claimed during the first session that the "integrity of our democracy is under scrutiny around the world", which even by the standards of parliamentary debate was some of the most frightful bollocks recently spouted in the chamber. Watson, it should be made clear, has more reason than most to want to see the tabloid press reigned in, for perfectly legitimate reasons: both the Sun and Mail on Sunday paid out libel damages to him after claiming that he knew about the smears concocted by Damian McBride. His pursuit of Andy Coulson strangely however only began once Labour was out of office, and not before, when he could have perhaps helped to do something about what he now considers to be the out of control tabloid press.

If therefore the coalition did know beforehand that yesterday was going to see the announcement of a royal engagement, then I don't doubt for as much as a second that they would have ensured to get as much bad or unhelpful news out of the way as they possibly could. And to judge by the other stories which did break yesterday, including the highly embarrassing u-turn by Cameron himself which was to decide that his vanity staff shouldn't after all be on the public payroll, as well as the payout to the former Guantanamo detainees, this could well have been the case.

Tom Watson however doesn't suspect that news management was in operation yesterday; he's absolutely certain. In a post on Labour Uncut, which is fast becoming the place to be for former Labour ministers to write what are remarkably candid entries, as Eric Joyce did on Monday (although personally I think despite his "the voters are just as bad as we are" spiel he did have something resembling a point, even if not expressed in the most lucid fashion), he doesn't just have Coulson and co in on the scam but also the Bank of England and Greater Manchester Police, as well as the authors of the Redfern report. It's true that what would have otherwise been big or fairly big stories were as a result of the royal announcement shoved so far down the news agenda or off it altogether that most people probably didn't hear about them, yet it's difficult to believe that these weren't anything more than coincidences.

In fact, on the score of the cuts to the number of police officers serving in Greater Manchester the story was already being reported on Monday and was in Tuesday morning's papers. Hardly being buried. While politicians are capable on occasion of lying through their teeth on occasion and being wholly plausible about it, David Cameron's welcoming of the royal news seemed far too genuine to be anything but the truth, hearing about it by being passed the news while in cabinet and then relaying it to them. Even more indicative of how unlikely anyone other than the palace knew about the news was that there wasn't even a hint provided anywhere that it was going to be announced yesterday. There had been rumours that William had either proposed or was going to shortly, but not that an announcement was imminent.

If we're being incredibly charitable and cynical then, at worst the coalition rushed out the news about the sacking of Andy Parsons and Nicky Woodhouse yesterday morning knowing it would shortly be buried, while the Guantanamo payout plan was leaked on Monday night, too late for the first editions but appearing on all the news websites either before or around midnight. As argued yesterday, if anything this has had the welcome effect of significantly reducing the level of criticism of the deal when the detainees so richly deserve all they got and more besides.

As contemptible as this would be, it doesn't even began to rate on the scale when compared to the worst example of news management by New Labour. Most in the comments on Watson's posts have mentioned the notorious "burying of bad news" email sent by Jo Moore on 9/11, although whether any actual bad news was issued that would have made waves is debatable. By far the worst case was what happened on Thursday December the 14th 2006, when Tony Blair was questioned by police over the loans for peerages affair. Downing Street had known weeks in advance the Met were coming round that day, and that it would obviously lead all the newspapers and bulletins. What they didn't do was tell other ministers. Both Alistair Darling and Douglas Alexander had either "bad" or controversial announcements to make that day, while there was also the small matter of Lord Stevens releasing his long-awaited and trailed report into the death of Princess Diana, the date for which had also long been known. Just to top it all, Lord Goldsmith then went to the House of Lords and made his statement on the dropping of the inquiry by the Serious Fraud Office into BAE's Saudi slush fund. Tom Watson at the time was a parliamentary under-secretary at the Ministry of Defence.

I don't doubt that Watson knew nothing, like the other ministers, of what Downing Street had in store that day, and he most likely deplored and still deplores the way in which they went about handling the day's news. He was in fairness one of those involved in the following year's attempt to unseat Blair, which forced the then prime minister to set his timetable of departure from office. I also don't doubt dispute that the Conservatives have long issued a lot of piss and wind over spin, only to then employ the likes of Coulson and to engage in it themselves. To pretend however that yesterday's antics were up there with anything approaching New Labour's tactics is absolute nonsense.

It also shows just how utterly useless Labour currently is as an opposition; reduced to concocting such an unbelievable farrago of misdeeds which would be comical if it wasn't so tragic. Watson was in fact one of the best ministers during Brown's last days, expressing his misgivings over the Digital Economy bill and engaging online with those looking for ways to free more government data. He's left to resort to such tactics because the rest of the party is in such a moribund position under Ed Miliband, opposing almost nothing being proposed by the coalition and being all but completely invisible. Where are all the shadow spokesmen, even Miliband (Update: Miliband is of course on paternity leave, which would explain his absence, although not that of his ministers) himself? They seem to have vanished completely, not appearing on the likes of Newsnight or stating the opposite case almost anywhere, and when they do pick up on something, it's the vanity appointments rather than the coalition's actual policies which will shortly be adversely affecting millions. Spin in such circumstances is one of their lesser offences, while Labour's collective memory seems destined to continue to trip up any of their attempts to take the moral high ground.

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