Saturday, July 23, 2011

Why Cameron is not out of the woods yet

Ever since the start of the crisis over phone hacking that has engulfed the worlds of politics, journalism and the police over the past three weeks, Prime Minister David Cameron had appeared to be stuck on the back foot.

Much as he himself once managed to make Gordon Brown seem leaden-footed in his response to the MPs' expenses crisis two years ago, Labour leader Ed Miliband had seemed to be making the political weather as the public backlash against News International intensified.

Fortunately for Mr Cameron, he is far too skilled a politician for it to have lasted forever and sure enough, this week saw him finally come out fighting.

Prime Ministers always have an inbuilt advantage in the game of politics in that, while opposition leaders can just talk, they can actually do – and this week it was an advantage Mr Cameron exploited to the full.

Cutting short his trip to Africa, he postponed the parliamentary recess by 24 hours, enabling an extra session of Prime Minister's Questions and an emergency statement on phone hacking to be squeezed in before the MPs' summer break.

But besides raising the morale of the Tory Party by showing a bit of grit and determination in the face of his Labour tormentors, did it actually do him any good?

Well, his admission that he should not have hired the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his press secretary will go part of the way towards defusing the issue which has dogged him since well before the start of the current media firestorm.

But as Mr Miliband was swift to point out, having regrets about the appointment does not get away from the fact that it was, as he put it "a catastrophic error of judgment."

Mr Cameron has still yet to satisfactorily explain why he chose to ignore so many warnings about the dangers of making Mr Coulson Downing Street communications director.

The suspicion persists that he adopted something of a wise monkey stance in relation to his trusted press adviser - 'see no evil, hear no evil, think no evil.'

The disclosure that his chief of staff Ed Llewellyn had refused a detailed briefing on phone-hacking from the police could be interpreted as wanting to protect the Prime Minister from any suggestion that he could influence the investigation.

But it could equally be the case that aides like Mr Llewellyn simply did not want to tell the Prime Minister what they knew he did not want to hear.

Wednesday's debate also provided a convenient platform for Labour MPs to raise some additional issues which have further muddied the waters in relation to Mr Coulson.

First, Labour MP Chris Bryant claimed that the Royal Family had raised concerns with Downing Street about Mr Coulson's appointment – which would be hardly surprising since most of them had had their phones hacked.

Then the highly-respected former local government minister Nick Raynsford suggested that Mr Coulson might actually have practised phone-hacking while in the role of Downing Street press secretary, with a senior government official as the victim.

The Cabinet Secretary denied it, but if this allegation were to turn out to be true, the situation would look very grave indeed for Mr Cameron.

But the biggest reason why the Prime Minister is not out of the woods yet on phone hacking is because the question of his longer-term political survival is not really about that.

It is, rather, about his relationship with his Liberal Democrat coalition partners.

Nick Clegg and his party had no option but to go into the coalition in May 2011. The arithmetic of going with Labour didn't stack up, and standing on the sidelines and inflicting another election on the public would not have been forgiven.

But having entered it, they have found over the past 14 months just what a rock and a hard place they were put in as a result of the inconclusive election outcome.

As I wrote at the start of this year, a team is only as strong as its weakest member, and such has been the slump in the Lib Dems' political fortunes since joining the coalition that they currently constitute a pretty broken reed.

It remains my view that, in order to stand a chance of holding onto its Southern power base in which the Tories are its main challengers, the party has to find a way to break up the coalition at a point of maximum advantage to itself and maximum disadvantage to Mr Cameron.

As the political season draws to a close, that essential dynamic that makes this such a potentially unstable alliance between the two partners remains unaltered.

Mr Cameron may think he is safe for now. But as Lloyd George found, in a coalition, you are only ever as safe as your partners allow you to be.

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1 comment:

john problem said...

He's a smart guy. He hasn't said yet how many chats he had with NI execs BEFORE the election. And did you know that he and the Murdochs were groomed for their respective 'grillings' by the same verbal evasion coach? That's why their defences were so similar.