Cameron in trouble? Oh, please. . .

Until someone can show me that the Prime Minister has broken a law, I'm happier not to join in all t

Write about the impact of the current situation on David Cameron, suggested the editor. A friend sent me an email too, a Labour friend, half-teasing but half, I think, seriously. What does it all mean? Are we living through the end of Cameron's term in office?

The second question is a fitting contribution to John Rentoul's wonderful blog at the Independent ("Questions to which the answer is no"). The things we are learning about the practices at News International are disgusting; those involving the Metropolitan Police Service are frightening; and both are rightly the object of a judicial enquiry. But the idea that the Prime Minister is damaged because he once employed someone who may be found guilty, at a future date, of a crime which he previously denied committing to the Prime Minister, strikes me as extraordinary. There are consequences to demanding that we all accept moral culpability for the actions of our friends, ones I find abhorrent. I'll come back to this.

The nadir of political debate last week was on Tuesday afternoon, when it became clear that last September the Prime Minister's chief of staff had told John Yates that no, the Prime Minister did not want to be informed about something Yates had learned about his investigations. This was the "tipping point" according to the twitterati - my timeline erupted in a frenzy of "This is serious, Cameron in trouble" wishful thinking. I'm sorry? The Prime Minister should have stuck his nose into an active police investigation? Or at least he should have wanted to be briefed about where it was heading? In order to do what, exactly? My friend Tim Montgomerie is entirely correct about this. The scandal would have erupted had the Prime Minister attempted to interfere in such activities. Police investigations should not be controlled by the occupants of political office.

Ah, you will say, but what of the Prime Minister's "judgement", that he employed Andy Coulson at all.

Let's leave to one side the hypocrisy that the loudest cries on this matter come from a politician who employs Tom Baldwin, formerly of News International and accused of, er, interesting journalistic tactics. Take Keith Vaz at his own self-estimate, that he is a humble tribune of the people, and ignore the serial accusations of corruption which he endured in the last parliament. Pretend we have the memory span of a fruit fly, and forget the previous administration's employment of Alistair Campbell. Don't, whatever you do, remember the death of David Kelly, or wonder at just how genuine is the outrage of these Labour politicians. From tragedy to farce: learn to accept Chris Bryant as a serious political force, and wipe the image of him in his Y-fronts from your mind. Just because the last Labour government was a seething pit of mendacity and smears, just because they employed a man that a civilized society should shun, doesn't mean we can ignore their accusations now.

But what is this "judgement" we are supposed to practice, with regard to our friends? I have had an image in my mind all this week, a picture from the National Gallery, attributed to the workshop of Durer, called "The Madonna With The Iris". It's an example of a hortus conclusus, a Virgin in the Garden. The picture compels me because I find the concept - purity from intact isolation - horrific.

You can remain immune to the actions of your friends - by not having any. You can be pure in this world, you can maximize your degrees of freedom - by living alone. To love and be loved - to live as a social animal - necessarily entails fewer degrees of freedom - but much, much more joy.
If the loss of degrees of freedom, inherent in having friendship, is worth anything at all - and I'm pretty sure that it is - then such friendships are not to be tossed aside at moments of personal difficulty. A friend's value is neither a function of his purity nor his utility. His "value", of course, is his love, albeit a different form of love to that which binds us to our other halves.

To be banal: even if a friend were charged with a venal offence, he would still be welcome to my house for dinner - the great crime of which the Prime Minister stands accused being that he had Coulson for dinner, after he left his employment.

I told you, editor, that I cannot produce prose to match the hysteria we're living through. But until someone can show me that the Prime Minister has broken a law, I'm happier not to join in all the shouting, particularly not when I see the company I would be keeping. I'm not on Keith Vaz's side, or Alistair Campbell's side, on many things. Certainly not in matters of political ethics.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.