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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The real question about George Osborne and the Evening Standard? Why he'd even want the job

The week in the media, from Osborne’s irrelevant editorship to the unrepentant McGuinness and Vera Lynn’s stirring ballads.

The big puzzle about George Osborne’s appointment as the editor of the London Evening Standard is why he wanted the job. The Standard is now just a local freesheet, a pale shadow of its old self. In Tube carriages, discarded copies far exceed those being read. Its columnists are lightweight [Ed: as an occasional columnist myself, thanks, Peter] and its news stale, mostly written the previous day. Critics of Osborne’s appointment describe the Standard as “a major newspaper”. It is no such thing. The idea that the editorship will allow the former chancellor to propel himself towards the London mayoralty is laughable. In last year’s election for mayor, the Standard, according to University of London research, ran twice as many positive headlines about the Tories’ Zac Goldsmith as it did about Labour’s Sadiq Khan. The latter won comfortably. The paper was so supportive of Khan’s predecessor, Boris Johnson, that it became known as “the Daily Boris”. But Johnson, with a high profile from television, hardly needed its backing to beat a tired and largely discredited Ken Livingstone.

If Osborne believes that the Standard offers him a significant political platform, it is just further proof that he belongs to an ignorant elite.

 

Violent legacy

More than anyone else, Martin McGuinness, who has died aged 66, represented how the IRA-Sinn Fein combined uncompromising violence with negotiating charm to achieve its aims. Unlike Gerry Adams, McGuinness admitted openly and proudly that he was a senior IRA commander. In Londonderry on Bloody Sunday in 1972 he carried a sub-machine gun, but apparently without using it. Later that year, he was among a delegation that held secret talks with British ministers and officials. The following year, he was arrested near a car containing prodigious quantities of explosives and ammunition.

Like many who recall the IRA’s campaign in mainland Britain – three huge bombs detonated less than half a mile from me – I could never quite accept McGuinness as a government minister and man of peace. Whatever he said, he did not renounce ­violence. He just had no further use for it, a decision that was reversible.

 

A peace of sorts

When I hear politicians saying they could never contemplate talks with al-Qaeda, I smile. They said the same about the IRA. The idea of negotiation, John Major said, “turns my stomach”. A month later, news leaked of secret talks that would lead to a ceasefire. You can call it hypocrisy but politicians have no practical alternative. Significant terrorist campaigns rarely end without deals of some sort. Even then, dishonesty is necessary. The parties to the Good Friday Agreement with Sinn Fein in 1998 never admitted the true terms, perhaps even to themselves. In return for a role in government, the IRA ceased attacks on the British mainland, army, governing classes and commercial interests. It remained in control of working-class Catholic enclaves in Northern Ireland, where it continued to murder, inflict punishment beatings and run protection rackets. Not a pretty bargain, but it brought peace of a sort.

 

Real war anthems

“We’ll Meet Again” and “The White Cliffs of Dover”, sung by Dame Vera Lynn, who has just celebrated her 100th birthday, are the songs most closely associated with the Second World War. This, when you think about it, is peculiar. Most wars are associated with stirring, patriotic anthems, not sentimental ballads. Even the First World War’s “Keep the Home Fires Burning”, before it mentions hearts yearning for home, stresses the noble, manly instincts that drove soldiers to fight: “They were summoned from the hillside/They were called in from the glen,/And the country found them ready/At the stirring call for men.” Lynn’s songs had only the wistful sadnesses of parting and reassurances that nothing would change.

Their “slushy” tone troubled the BBC. It feared they would weaken the troops’ fighting spirit. Despite Lynn’s high ratings among listeners at home and service personnel overseas, her radio series was dropped in favour of more virile programmes featuring marching songs. Unable to sing to her forces fans over the airwaves, Lynn bravely travelled to the army camps in Burma. A BBC centenary tribute showed veterans of the war against Japan weeping as her songs were played back.

The wartime role of this unassuming plumber’s daughter makes me – and, I suspect, millions of others – feel prouder to be British than any military anthem could.

 

Ham-fisted attempt

After his failed attempt to increase National Insurance contributions for the self-employed, Philip Hammond, it is said, will have a £2bn hole in his budget. It will be more than that. Thanks to the publicity, tens of thousands more workers in regular employment will be aware of the tax advantages of self-employed status and hasten to rearrange their affairs. Likewise, newspaper accountants of old, after circulating memos imploring journalists to reduce lavish claims for “subsistence” while covering stories away from the office, would find a sharp rise in claims from hacks previously unaware that such a perk existed.

 

Battle of Hastings

My fellow journalist Max Hastings, attending a West End play, was once dragged on stage by the comedian James Corden, told to help move a heavy trunk and slapped on the bottom. Ever since, I have approached plays starring comedians warily. I dropped my guard, however, when I bought tickets for a contemporary adaptation of Molière’s The Miser starring Griff Rhys Jones, and found myself drenched when Jones spilled (deliberately) what purported to be fine wine. It was of course only water and, unlike
Hastings, I shall not demand a refund.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution