The charges: That David Cameron demonstrated an unforgivably severe lack of judgement over the appointment of Andy Coulson, and that News Corp’s BSkyB bid may have been influenced unduly by Cameron’s relationship with Rebekah Brooks.
Refusing to confirm or deny in the Commons (nine times, no less) whether he had discussed the BSkyB bid with his “neighbour and friend” Rebekah Brooks is the kind of thing that smells nasty even if it’s perfectly clean. And given that the BSkyB brief was removed from Vince Cable after he inadvertently gave slip to a personal bias against Rupert Murdoch, it seems perhaps especially hypocritical to be discussing in private with the Chief Executive of News International, but that doesn’t actually make the discussions (that Jeremy Hunt inadvertently admitted took place) improper. (Well, it was probably inadvertent. Hunt couldn’t have been all too pleased at being left in the firing line for the initial debate; a debate which commentators are saying squashed all Hunt’s hopes of future leadership in about the first three minutes of his performance.)
Unfortunately Cameron’s panicked refusal to answer the question probably prompted more of a story than a simple answer – perhaps to the effect that yes, the News Corp bid for BSkyB came up in conversation occasionally but private conversations would have no bearing on the final decision – would have done. After all, if he’s going to avoid a question nine times that’s as good as an admission anyway, in most people’s minds, but with an added implied acceptance that he actually did something wrong.
In other words, as is so often the case with Cameron, it’s his handling of the issue which was so disastrous, not the issue itself. Cameron’s belly-dancing around impropriety and inappropriateness and legality is almost irrelevant. There’s a popular narrative amongst his supporters that because he’s done nothing technically wrong, and Labour Prime Ministers were closer to the Murdochs anyway, that his critics should lay off. There’s even an argument that his background is causing a bias against him. The trouble is, Cameron is not really under fire for his relationship with the Murdochs and Brooks itself, nor is he under fire for any actual improper activity. He’s under fire, instead, for his naivety, and his arrogance, and his weak grasp on the severity of the crisis.
Yet regarding the ‘Andy Coulson problem’, even for those of us who cringe over our PM at the best of times, never mind when he dodges questions about patronage and corruption in Parliament, the calls for his actual resignation over the Andy Coulson’s appointment seem a little bit unfair.
First of all, let’s be fair: it’s not just Cameron who was fooled by Coulson. There were several police officers, for a start, who presumably believed him innocent of any crime, not to mention a Parliamentary committee and, well, pretty much everyone who doesn’t pay much attention to the Guardian took the view that, at the very least, the phone-hacking scandal, though disgraceful at the time, had all been adequately resolved when Glen Mulcaire and Clive Goodman were arrested.
In fact, even now, the allegations against Mr Coulson remain purely just that – allegations – and most senior ministers, if only for legal reasons, are still being extremely careful to make that clear whenever Mr Coulson is discussed.
Of course, none of these other people were perhaps given the “warnings” about Coulson that Cameron is said to have received. It is difficult to know how many “warnings” David Cameron actually received himself, from credible sources he could in all honesty be expected to take seriously, because the whole world and his hamster now seems to be claiming to have “warned” Cameron about hiring Coulson in one way or another, but certainly the Guardian and its sister paper the New York Times were confident enough to print a series of facts and questions that, well, weren’t exactly things Coulson would put on his CV, to put it generously. (Why was News International paying Glen Mulcaire’s legal fees? How did all the further accusations to come out square with the ‘rogue reporter’ line of defense? Why did Rebekah Brooks admit to paying police for information in the past, and why did Andy Coulson interrupt her to correct her comments? And so on…). With all these claims being raised by a national newspaper, and with letters sent by senior figures like John Prescott and Tom Watson clearly calling attention to the suspicions around Coulson, it’s at best puzzling that this didn’t make the PM even the slightest bit uneasy. As Mr Prescott put it in his open letter to Cameron in 2009: “You now appear to be the only person satisfied with Coulson’s role while every other relevant authority is investigating the claims… I must say that I feel your “very relaxed” attitude to these allegations seriously calls your judgment into question.” Indeed.
Just to be clear: there is no partisan argument being made here, only a personal one against David Cameron. This is what makes the Conservative rhetoric (whilst calling for cross party cooperation, no less) about Labour misdemeanours like Alistair Campbell’s “sexed-up” Iraq Dossier (a claim that has been thrown out by several inquiries although deep public mistrust definitely still surrounds the issue), the Damien Green scandal, the Phil Woolas scandal, and the Tom Baldwin, er, not scandal, such poor responses to serious questions about, let’s face it, potential corruption at the core of British democracy.
A partisan response might make sense if the criticisms were all coming from Labour supporters and members, and if they were all directed at the Conservative party itself, but they aren’t. Criticisms are being directed at David Cameron personally, and they have come from Daily Telegraph columnist Peter O’Bourne, ConservativeHome editor Tim Montgomerie, and other firmly Blue voices. Either David Cameron doesn’t realise this, or else he genuinely only understands one very simplistic, immature style of debating. Which is worse? It’s genuinely difficult to say.
There are issues of ideology in politics, and issues of ethics, which can be debated over port and brie for hours. Then there are issues of ability and competence. For example, Tony Blair, whilst far from perfect, many would say, in terms of ideology or ethics, was never seen by anybody – even his fiercest critics – as incompetent or weak. He was certainly never unable to answer a question. Or at least, you didn’t realise he hadn’t answered it until he’d gone.
Yes, David Cameron’s manner of handling of both the BSkyB bid and the Andy Coulson debacle worries a lot of people, understandably, for ideological reasons. The Tories have, after all, been working extremely hard to convince floating voters that the days of crony capitalism, patronage, and minority financial gain, all taking priority over the national interest are long gone from their party’s policies. The nooks and crannies of this scandal – was Neil Wallis’s free advice, advice which is valued by the Met at £1,000 a day, ever declared as, or considered as, a Conservative party donation? Should it have been? What did he advise? Did Mr Wallis influence government policy at all? Did Wallis and Coulson talk about Sky ownership? – lie like gaping wounds in our political system, with the answers to such questions at best unknown, at worst avoided, by the Prime Minister. The nature of the issues involved (corruption, patronage, money, private corporations run amok with no regard for the rule of law) definitely risks making Conservative politics look ‘nasty’ again in a way that it wouldn’t do perhaps for the Labour party, because of a partisan bias.
But the reason the scandal is so damaging to David Cameron himself is not ideological, but personal: it confirms and highlights not just the worst fears people on the left have about the Conservative party itself, but the worst fears people on all sides of the political spectrum have about the weaknesses of David Cameron as a leader. Not only that, but it shows us exactly why those qualities that he lacks so desperately matter so very much in a Prime Minister. It was that terrible mix of naivety and arrogance, surely, which led Cameron to ignore so many heavyweight warnings about hiring Andy Coulson. A lack of negotiating powers, debating skills, or political stature leads more than ever to unelected figures calling the shots. And – perhaps worst of all – a failure to properly understand the British people ourselves caused him to completely underestimate the importance of the phone-hacking scandal to his electorate, made him fail to realise how frightened and angry people would be about the apparent collusion of the police force with an unelected body like News International, and led him to remain “very relaxed” about the entire stink right up until he was absolutely forced, by the Guardian, Chris Bryant, and Tom Watson, to address it.
The Guardian is not calling for him to resign over this, and neither am I. But they did “warn” us not to hire him as our Prime Minister in the first place, because he seemed naive, arrogant, out of touch, and ill-equipped to engage intellectually with important issues. Whether or not any wrongdoing actually occurred at Number Ten, they were demonstrably correct in their analysis of his talents.