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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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear