Cameron or Coulson, who's lying?

The PM contradicted Coulson's claim that he sought no "further assurances" over hacking.

Despite several uncomfortable moments, I suspect that Downing Street will largely be relieved with how David Cameron's performance at the Leveson inquiry went today. Cameron was visibly unnerved by the publication of Rebekah Brooks's cringeworthy text to him, but its sycophantic tone reflected worse on her than him.

Questioned over his decision to hand Jeremy Hunt ministerial responsibility for the BSkyB bid, Cameron was forced to admit that at the time he did not recall Hunt's memo to him in support of the deal. But he regained the initiative when he revealed that the Treasury solicitor, Paul Jenkins, later ruled that the memo did not mean the Culture Secretary was unfit for the role. "If anyone had told me that Jeremy Hunt couldn't do the job, I wouldn't have given him the job," Cameron declared. That no one appears to have done so is a significant point in the Prime Minister's favour. If he has any sense, Leveson will now summon the lawyers and civil servants in question to the inquiry to scrutinise their advice to Cameron.

On Andy Coulson, Cameron dismissed the controversy over his lower-level security vetting as a "complete red herring". It was cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood who made the decision that Coulson need not be subject to developed vetting at first as he fell within the special adviser category. Yet all of Coulson's recent predecessors received top-level clearance. Again, Heywood should be called to the inquiry to explain himself.

It was the exchange on phone-hacking that proved most notable. Asked by Robert Jay QC what assurances he sought from Coulson before hiring him as the Conservatives' director of communications, Cameron told the inquiry: "I raised the issue of phone-hacking and sought the assurance in the face-to-face meeting we had in my office". He added: "I accepted these undertakings but so did many other people and organisations who did a considerable amount to try and get to the bottom of this issue."

In his testimony to the inquiry last month, Coulson said that he did not "recall" Cameron seeking any "further assurances" after the Guardian reported in July 2009 that phone-hacking went far beyond "one rogue reporter". But in his witness statement, Cameron declared:

I was of course aware of the phone-hacking related article the Guardian published in July 2009. The question I asked myself all the way through was, 'Is there new information that Andy Coulson knew about hacking at the News of the World while he was the editor?'

I made the decision to employ Andy Coulson in good faith because of the assurances he gave me. I did not see any information in those articles that would have led me to change my mind about these assurances.

Nevertheless in the light of these stories I asked Andy Coulson to repeat the assurances that he gave me when I first employed him … He repeated those assurances. (Emphasis mine.)

We are left to conclude that either Coulson or Cameron misled the inquiry over the discussions that took place following the new hacking revelations.

One might also note further evidence of Cameron's extreme naïveté (or knavishness). After the New York Times published new evidence that  phone-hacking was more extensive than News International claimed, Cameron told the inquiry that he simply accepted Coulson's assurances. At no point did he seek independent verification of them.

David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street ahead of his appearance at the Leveson inquiry. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle