New phone-hacking questions for Coulson

Tory spin chief said to have "personally listened" to hacked phone messages.

Just in time for the Conservative conference, come yet more revelations about the News of the World phone-hacking scandal and Tory spin chief Andy Coulson's alleged role in it.

Coulson maintains that he had no knowledge of the affair and that the former royal editor Clive Goodman, jailed in 2007 for hacking into the phones of royal staff, was the only reporter involved. But this "rotten apples" excuse is rather undermined by a new finding from tonight's Channel Four Dispatches investigation.

A former senior NoW journalist reveals that Coulson personally listened to intercepted voicemail messages. He tells the programme:

Sometimes, they would say: 'We've got a recording' and Andy would say: 'OK, bring it into my office and play it to me' or 'Bring me, email me a transcript of it.'

It's never good news for a spin doctor when they become the story and the idea that Coulson, then NoW editor, was one of the few people at the paper who didn't know about the scandal is risible. In any case, as I've argued before, if Coulson did know then he's too wicked to stay in his post, and if he didn't know then he's too stupid.

Tonight's programme is presented by Peter Oborne, formerly of the Daily Mail and now chief political commentator of the Daily Telegraph, which should give it some real bite. Oborne, one of David Cameron's strongest supporters on Fleet Street, can't be dismissed as a partisan hack or a Labour lackey.

For now, the media's focus is rightly on Osborne's cuts but you do sense that Coulson is living on borrowed time.

UPDATE: Courtesy of Tweetminister, you can hear a preview of tonight's programme from Peter Oborne by clicking below.

Listen!

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How worried are Labour MPs about losing their seats?

Despite their party's abysmal poll ratings, MPs find cause for optimism on the campaign trail. 

Labour enters the general election with subterranean expectations. A "good result", MPs say, would be to retain 180-200 of their 229 MPs. Some fear a worse result than 1935, when the party won just 154 seats. Rather than falling, the Conservatives' poll lead has risen as the prospect of electing a government concentrates minds (last night's YouGov survey, showing the Tories a mere 16 points ahead, was an exception).

Though Conservative strategists insist they could lose the election, in an attempt to incentivise turnout, their decision to target Labour MPs with majorities as high as 8,000 shows the scale of their ambitions (a Commons majority of circa 150 seats). But as well as despair, there is hope to be found in the opposition's ranks.

Though MPs lament that Jeremy Corbyn is an unavoidable drag on their support, they cite four reasons for optimism. The first is their local reputation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from the national party (some quip that the only leaflets on which Corbyn will feature are Tory ones). The second is that since few voters believe the Labour leader can become Prime Minister, there is less risk attached to voting for the party (a point some MPs make explicit) "The problem with Ed Miliband and the SNP in 2015 was that it was a plausible scenario," a shadow minister told me. "It was quite legitimate for voters to ask us the question we didn't want to answer: 'what would you do in a hung parliament?' If voters have a complaint it's usually about Jeremy but it's not the case that he looks like he can become prime minister."

The third reason is the spectre of an omnipotent Tory government. MPs appeal to voters not to give Theresa May a "free hand" and to ensure there is some semblance of an opposition remains. Finally, MPs believe there is an enduring tribal loyalty to Labour, which will assert itself as polling day approaches. Some liken such voters to sports fans, who support their team through thick and thin, regardless of whether they like the manager. Outgoing MP Michael Dugher (who I interviewed this week) was told by an elderly woman: "Don't worry, love, I will still vote Labour. I vote for you even when you're rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the long-serving MP for Exter, who has a majority of 7,183, told me: "We're not anything for granted of course. On the current national polling, the Tories would take Exeter. But having covered five polling districts, although the leadership is undoubtedly a big issue on the doorstep, most people say they'll still vote for me as their local MP and we're not detecting any significant shift away from 2015. Which is slightly puzzling given the chasm in the opinion polls." Bradshaw also promotes himself as "the only non-Tory MP in the south-west outside Bristol": a leaflet shows a blue-splattered map with a lone red dot. The Labour MP warns voters not to be left in a "one-party state". 

As in 2010, Labour may yet retain more seats than its vote share suggests (aided by unchanged boundaries). But the fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 - when the party was reduced from 56 MPs to eight - shows that local reputations are worth less than many suppose. Theresa May has succeeded in framing herself as a figure above party interests, who needs a "strong hand" in the Brexit negotiations. At the very moment when a vigorous opposition is needed most, Labour has rarely been weaker. And when the public turn resolutely against a party, even the best men and women are not spared.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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