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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Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.