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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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

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