What next in the phone-hacking battle?

Why Les Hinton's evidence is crucial and a possible replacement for Andy Coulson

The news that Les Hinton, the former News International executive chairman, will give evidence to the Commons media committee as part of its inquiry into the alleged phone hacking by the News of the World is more significant than it appears.

It was Hinton, now chief executive of Dow Jones, who appeared before the committee after the News of the World's former royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glen Mulcaire were jailed in January 2007 for tapping the phones of royal staff.

The key exchange with the committee chairman, John Whittingdale, ran:

Whittingdale: You carried out a full, rigorous internal inquiry and you are absolutely convinced that Clive Goodman was the only person who knew what was going on?

Hinton: Yes, we have and I believe he was the only person, but that investigation, under the new editor, continues.

It's worth noting Hinton's use of the caveat "I believe", which offers him some wriggle room.

Whittingdale has since said that evidence that other reporters were involved in the hacking operation "might contradict" Hinton's testimony.

Expect questions to focus on the emails uncovered by the Guardian suggesting that Neville Thurlbeck, the paper's chief reporter, was also involved.

Let's hope that the committee has more success in its face-off with Hinton than it did with Andy Coulson, the News of the World editor at the time, who still shamelessly maintains that he had no knowledge of the affair.

As I've continually argued, if Coulson did know about the phone hacking then he's too wicked to be the Tories' spin chief, and if he didn't know then he's too stupid to be the Tories' spin chief.

But in the unlikely event that Coulson is forced to step down there may be a replacement waiting in the wings. Conservative sources tell me that Team Cameron regards Matthew d'Ancona, who recently resigned as editor of the Spectator, as the ideal candidate for the job.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.