Labour steps up the pressure on Cameron

Yvette Cooper: relationship with Coulson raises "serious questions" about the Prime Minister's judge

Labour is stepping up the pressure on David Cameron following the resignation of Britain's top police officer, Sir Paul Stephenson.

The head of the Metropolitan Police stood down yesterday, citing speculation about the relationship between News International and the police force. The pressure on him grew with the revelation that he had employed the News of the World deputy editor, Neil Wallis. Notably, Stephenson directly referred to Cameron's relationship with the former News of the World editor, Andy Coulson:

Once Mr Wallis's name did become associated with Operation Weeting, I did not want to compromise the Prime Minister in any way by revealing or discussing a potential suspect who clearly had a close relationship with Mr Coulson. I am aware of the many political exchanges in relation to Mr Coulson's previous employment -- I believe it would have been extraordinarily clumsy of me to have exposed the Prime Minister, or by association the Home Secretary, to any accusation, however unfair, as a consequence of them being in possession of operational information in this regard. Similarly, the Mayor. Because of the individuals involved, their positions and relationships, these were I believe unique circumstances.

On the Today programme this morning, the shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said that this raised questions about Cameron's "continued silence" on the matter. Here's the key section of the interview:

Cooper: It was interesting what Sir Paul said yesterday -- that one of the reasons he clearly felt he could not tell the Home Secretary, the mayor, Downing Street about that contract that he had with Neil Wallis, the former deputy editor of News of the World --- he couldn't tell them because of the relationship between the Prime minister and Andy Coulson. That seems to me to be unprecedented. I cannot think of any case where the commissioner could not tell the Home Secretary because he was worried about the Prime Minister's relationship with somebody involved in the criminal investigation.

Interviewer: To be clear, this resignation statement, he says "I did not want to compromise the Prime Minister in any way by revealing or discussing a potential suspect who clearly had a close relationship with Mr Coulson. But why would that have compromised the Prime Minister?

Cooper: Well, this is obviously Sir Paul's judgement --

Interviewer: Can you explain to us how that could be? It's difficult to know why it would compromise the Prime Minister. What are the options?

Cooper: I don't know the details of what it is Sir Paul knows about the ongoing investigation, what the role of Andy Coulson is. But as you'll know, the Prime Minister is obviously continuing to see Coulson, he invited him to Chequers some time after his resignation, so he has obviously continued to be in touch with Andy Coulson. So there are clearly questions I think about Andy Coulson's role in all of this and about the Prime Minister's judgement in appointing him and in continuing to keep that relationship up. So it does raise concerns. If the Met commissioner himself thought that relationship -- that compromised relationship -- prevented him from telling the Home Secretary what was happening, talking to her about operational things, but also maintaining the Home Secretary and the mayor's confidence in the on-going work of the Met and how they were handling a difficult situation -- that puts the Met commissioner in an extremely difficult situation.

Cameron is currently on a trade visit to Africa, a trip which he has cut from four days to two. However, his absence at this critical time looks strange to say the least. He has so far ignored the serious questions that his relationship with Coulson raises, except to say that if he was misled by Coulson, then so were police and parliament. Stephenson's comments -- while certainly not notable for their clarity -- seem designed to put the pressure back on Downing Street. This is potentially very damaging for Cameron: he will not be able to delay providing answers for much longer.

UPDATE: Cameron has rejected Stephenson's comparison between his hiring of Wallis and Cameron's hiring of Coulson. Speaking at a press conference in South Africa, he said:

I think the situation in Metropolitan Police service is really quite different to the situation in government, not least because the issues that the Metropolitan police service are looking at and the issues around them have had a direct bearing on public confidence into the police inquiry into the News of the World and indeed the police themselves.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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.