Cameron's friendships are the problem, says Mehdi Hasan

When will the PM distance himself from the toxic trio of Murdoch, Coulson and Brooks?

One particular line stood out to me in Cameron's remarks on phone-hacking this morning, when the Prime Minister was asked whether he was still friends with his former communications director, and the ex-News of the World (NoW) editor, Andy Coulson:

He became a friend and is a friend

For me, this goes to the heart of the issue. This isn't just about the pernicious influence that the Murdoch-owned media have long exercised over British politics; nor is it just the latest example of another British prime minister - after Messrs Blair and Brown - bowing and scraping before the Sun King. Cameron's relationship with those around Murdoch was a close and personal one; it was one of friendship. And it is this friendship that has clouded his judgement and put him on the backfoot this week.

As Peter Oborne, the pro-Cameron commentator, pointed out in his brilliant Telegraph piece earlier this week:

Mr Cameron allowed himself to be drawn into a social coterie in which no respectable person, let alone a British prime minister, should be seen dead.

It was called the Chipping Norton set, an incestuous collection of louche, affluent, power-hungry and amoral Londoners, located in and around the Prime Minister's Oxfordshire constituency. Brooks and her husband, the former racing trainer Charlie Brooks, live in a house scarcely a mile from David and Samantha Cameron's constituency home. The two couples meet frequently, and have continued to do so long after the phone hacking scandal became well known.

Is it any wonder then that the Prime Minister would only say that he "would have taken" Rebekah Brooks's resignation while refusing to join the explicit calls for her to go? Most newspapers, commentators and the Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, have recognized that her position is untenable and that the NoW staff have been sacrificed by the Murdochs in a desperate and outrageous attempt to save Brooks.

I'm surprised that more hasn't been made of Cameron's dinner with Brooks, at the latter's Oxfordshire home (half a mile away from the PM's!), over the Christmas holidays. When Ian Katz, deputy editor of the Guardian, tried to get hold of more details about the dinner and what was discussed, he was rebuffed at every turn by Downing Street officials.

Katz wrote, back in February:

For more than two weeks the Guardian has been trying to establish a few details about an evening Cameron spent at the Oxfordshire home of Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International, during the Christmas holidays. Here's what the most open government in the world told us: first, No 10 categorically denied the PM had visited Brooks on Christmas day itself; then, when we asked instead if the PM had been entertained chez Brooks over the Christmas period it declined to confirm or deny.

Later Downing Street elaborated on its position, pointing out that Brooks was a constituent of Cameron's and, in any case, "the prime minister regularly meets newspaper executives from lots of different companies". But still No 10 refused to provide a date, or even confirm whether the dinner took place.

When it emerged that James Murdoch was at the dinner too, Downing Street became fractionally more transparent: an unattributable source reassured lobby reporters that neither Rupert Murdoch's controversial takeover bid for Sky nor the phone-hacking scandal had been discussed. So that's all right then.

I love this line from Cameron's spinners that he visited her at home because she happens to be a constituent of his. Hilarious. There are 78,220 voters in Witney - is the Prime Minister planning on visiting each and every one of them for dinner? Over Christmas?

It seems clear that the reason Cameron can't seem to cut Brooks or Coulson or News International loose is as personal as it is political.

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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.

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