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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496