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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.