Why Cameron got it so wrong on Coulson

The PM has a blind spot when it comes to accusations against people who are useful to him.

David Cameron's political antennae have badly let him down over phone hacking. It is an important moment for his premiership, although not, perhaps, a Titanic-on-the-iceberg moment, as some commentators have implied.

Naturally, he was cosy with News International. That, sadly, goes with the territory of being PM. So the fact of courting Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks was not so much a matter of judgment as submission to perceived political necessity. That doesn't make it OK - there will be much cringing in No. 10 over the photos of Cam and Brooks looking chummy. But the fact of a relationship is not, in itself a personal blow to the PM. The NI power game is a cross-party issue in the Westminster. The Labour party (as Mehdi wrote this week) is hardly immune from criticism on that front.

It is the appointment and repeated defences of Andy Coulson that make this whole issue toxic for Cameron. Presumably, when the appointment was first made in 2007 - on the recommendation of George Osborne, let no-one forget - a conversation was had about the existence of skeletons in NoW closets and how they might, in the future, damage the party and its leader. How thorough was that conversation? Was it repeated when the Guardian first started exposing the scale of the hacking, by which time Cameron was PM and Coulson was a senior figure in the government? Whatever happened between them, Cameron must not have interrogated his advisor enough about the culture of hacking and paying the police at the News of the World. Or he did and Coulson lied to him, in which case, shame on Cam for believing him.

There is always, of course, the possibility that Coulson was sincerely ignorant about what went on in his newsroom, in which case, as has been observed before, he would have to confess to being an incompetent idiot instead of a villain. My sense of it, based on a handful of encounters with Cameron and conversations with people who know him is that the prime minister has a blind spot when it comes to accusations against people who are useful to him. There is an instructive comparison to be made with the row around Lord Ashcroft's tax status that blew up just before the election.

Cameron let William Hague take the heat over that mini-scandal and it didn't get much public notice. It was nevertheless interesting how tetchy Cameron would get when asked about it in interviews and briefings. He had two stock responses. First, no-one cares about this apart from a handful of Guardian hacks. Second, this is all politically motivated and partisan and all of the supposed outrage about tax avoidance is confected by people who really just want to kick me and the Tories. Sound familiar?

That has been Number 10's default response to the phone hacking scandal. Cameron was intensely relaxed about it until recently for the simple reason that ordinary voters didn't really know what it was all about. The Downing St switchboard was not lighting up with complaints about Andy Coulson. That reinforced the prime minister's feeling that the whole thing was a Labour ploy to damage him, using Coulson's reputation as the weapon. That brought out Cameron's mulish side. He calculated that the political risk involved in keeping Coulson on board for so long was smaller than the risk of being seen to capitulate to a lefty plot.

What was entirely missing from these calculations was any understanding of why people might, as a matter of genuine principle, think it is wrong to hack into the voicemail of private citizens, just as I don't think he ever thought people were that sincerely outraged that Ashcroft avoided UK taxes while sitting in the Lords. In other words, he treated it as a political poker game, not an ethical choice. Only now that the hacking scandal has taken in victims of crime and families of bereaved soldiers does he begin to understand that it was an appalling practice *per se* - and not just something that Labour MPs said was appalling because they don't like being in opposition.

But it's too late for him to affect moral outrage. He can try, of course. But he left it too long. He should have been naturally disgusted that a national newspaper had clearly been operating a kind of sleazy Stasi approach to newsgathering, but he clearly wasn't. That was a pretty serious lapse of political instinct. My guess is that Conservative MPs - and the PM himself - will be a bit shaken by that. The mark of a good leader is that he can smell the way the public mood will go on something and leap accordingly. Leadership fail.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Who's winning the European referendum? The Vicar of Dibley gives us a clue

These polls seem meaningless, but they reveal things more conventional ones miss.

At the weekend, YouGov released some polling on 30 fictional characters and their supposed views on Brexit.  If you calculate a net pro-Remain score (per cent thinking that person would back Remain minus the per cent thinking they’d vote for Leave), you have a list that is topped by Geraldine Granger, the Vicar of Dibley (+21), and ends with Jim Royle (-38).

It’s easy to mock this sort of thing, and plenty did: “pointless”, “polling jumping the shark”, and so on. Some even think pollsters ask daft questions just to generate cheap headlines. What a cynical world we live in.

But the answers to those questions tell you quite a lot, both about the referendum campaign and about voters in general.

For one thing, most of the fictional characters that people saw as voting to Remain are (broadly) nice people, whilst the Outers included a fair few you’d not want to be stuck in a lift with, along with other chancers and wasters. On one side, you have the Vicar of Dibley (+21), Mary Poppins (+13), Miranda (+11), and Dr Who (+9) taking on Hyacinth Bucket (-13), Tracy Barlow (-15), Del Boy (-28), and Basil Fawlty (-36) on the other. This isn’t really much of a contest.

Obviously, some of these are subjective judgements. Personally, I’d not want to be stuck in a lift with the Vicar of Dibley under any circumstances – but she’s clearly meant to be a broadly sympathetic character.  Ditto – with knobs on – Miranda. And yes, some of the Outer characters are more nuanced. Captain Mainwaring (-31) may be pompous and insecure, but he is a brave man doing his best for his country. But still, it’s hard not to see some sort of division here, between broadly good people (Remain) and some more flawed individuals (Out).

So, on one level, this offers a pretty good insight into how people see the campaigns.  It’s why polling companies ask these sort of left-field questions – like the famous Tin Man and Scarecrow question asked by John Zogby – because they can often get at something that normal questions might miss. Sure, they also generate easy publicity for the polling company – but life’s not binary: some things can generate cheap headlines and still be interesting.

But there are two caveats. First, when you look at the full data tables you find that the numbers saying Don’t Know to each of these questions are really big– as high as 55 per cent for both Tracy Barlow and Arthur Dent. The lowest is for both Basil Fawlty and Del Boy, but that’s still 34 per cent. For 26 out of the 30 characters, the plurality response was Don’t Know. The data don’t really show that the public think Captain Birdseye (-11) is for Out; when half of all respondents said they don’t know, they show that the public doesn’t really have a clue what Captain Birdseye thinks.

Much more importantly, second, when you look at the cross breaks, it becomes clear how much of this is being driven by people’s own partisan views. Take James Bond, for example. Overall, he was seen as slightly pro-Remain (+5). But he’s seen as pro-Brexit (-22) by Brexit voters, and pro-Remain (+30) by Remain voters.

The same split applies to Dr Who, Postman Pat, Sherlock Holmes, Miranda, and so on.

In fact, of the 30 characters YouGov polled about, there were just eleven where respondents from both sides of the debate agreed – and these eleven excluded almost all of the broadly positive characters.

So, here’s the ten characters where both Remain and Leave voters agreed would be for Brexit: Alan Partridge; Jim Royle; Del Boy; Hyacinth Bucket; Pat Butcher; Tracy Barlow; Captain Mainwaring; Catherine Tate’s Nan; Cruella De Vil; and Basil Fawlty.

That’s not a great roll call. And it must be saying something that even Outers think Cruella De Vil, Alan Patridge, and Hyacinth Bucket would be one of theirs.

Mind you, the only pro-Remain character that both sides agree on is Sir Humphrey Appleby. That’s not great either.

For the rest, everyone wants them for their own.

So what about those who say they don’t yet know how they will vote in the referendum? These might be the key swing voters, after all. Maybe they can give a more unbiased response. Turns out their ranking is broadly similar to the overall one – with scores that are somewhere between the views of the Outers and the Inners.

But with this group the figures for don’t knows get even bigger: 54 per cent at a minimum, rising to a massive 77 per cent for Arthur Dent.

And that’s because, lacking a partisan view about the referendum, they are not able to project this view onto fictional characters.  They lack, in the jargon, a heuristic enabling them to answer the question. Which tells you something about how most people answered the questions.

Philip Cowley is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London.