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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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