Cameron's judgement remains the issue

The PM seems to think loyalty to an ex-colleague is an intrinsic virtue.

One small but revealing moment in David Cameron's press conference earlier today: when he was asked whether he was warned about specific problems in Andy Coulson's past he said he couldn't "recall" being told. A warning light should go on any time a politician uses that formula. It is neither a denial, nor is it an acknowledgement. It is a holding device that says, in essence, "I don't have a line on this yet, my lawyers have told me to say nothing."

The main impression most people will get from that press conference is that Cameron wanted to deflect this whole story away from questions about his judgement. He failed. In the process he left hostages to fortune. All of those references to his personal friendship with Coulson will be problematic if there is a trial and conviction. Cameron seems to think loyalty to an ex-colleague is an intrinsic virtue here. He said you'd have to be a "pretty unpleasant" person to casually drop an old chum.

But brutally cutting off someone who is damaging you is exactly what a politician in Cameron's position should be doing right now. That's the way it works. People won't respect him for staying loyal, they'll see him as part of a clubbish, mutual back-scratching conspiracy.

The attempt to scatter some of the blame around with references to the Blair era, Bernie Ecclestone's money, dodgy dossiers etc, was also pretty off-key, I thought. It sounded desperate, as if he wanted the whole of politics to take some of the heat when clearly the specific question of whether Coulson was an appropriate person to have running the government's communications operation cannot apply to anyone but the man who gave him the job.

What isn't clear is how much of the public anger over hacking will attach itself to the politicians who failed to get to grips with the issue. The principle villains are still the hackers themselves and the media bosses who tried to cover their tracks. Up to a point, all politicians stand accused of complicity. But the danger for Cameron is that, through the Coulson connection, he is associated in the public eye as part of that reviled media-boss class much more than anyone else in Westminster. He risks becoming the emblem of a corrupt power dynamic. With his press conference today he only made that more likely.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Vince Cable will need something snappier than a graduate tax to escape tuition fees

Perhaps he's placing his hopes in the “Anti Brexit People’s Liberation Front.” 

“We took power, and we got crushed,” Tim Farron said in what would turn out to be his final Autumn conference as Liberal Democrat leader, before hastening on to talk about Brexit and the need for a strong opposition.

A year and a snap election later, Vince Cable, the Lib Dem warhorse-turned-leader and the former Coalition business secretary, had plenty of cracks about Brexit.

He called for a second referendum – or what he dubbed a “first referendum on the facts” – and joked that he was “half prepared for a spell in a cell with Supreme Court judges, Gina Miller, Ken Clarke, and the governors of the BBC” for suggesting it".

Lib Dems, he suggested, were the “political adults” in the room, while Labour sat on the fence. Unlike Farron, however, he did not rule out the idea of working with Jeremy Corbyn, and urged "grown ups" in other parties to put aside their differences. “Jeremy – join us in the Anti Brexit People’s Liberation Front,” he said. The Lib Dems had been right on Iraq, and would be proved right on Brexit, he added. 

But unlike Farron, Cable revisited his party’s time in power.

“In government, we did a lot of good and we stopped a lot of bad,” he told conference. “Don’t let the Tories tell you that they lifted millions of low-earners out of income tax. We did… But we have paid a very high political price.”

Cable paid the price himself, when he lost his Twickenham seat in 2015, and saw his former Coalition colleague Nick Clegg turfed out of student-heavy Sheffield Hallam. However much the Lib Dems might wish it away, the tuition fees debate is here to stay, aided by some canny Labour manoeuvring, and no amount of opposition to Brexit will hide it.

“There is an elephant in the room,” the newly re-established MP for Twickenham said in his speech. “Debt – specifically student debt.” He defended the policy (he chose to vote for it in 2010, rather than abstain) for making sure universities were properly funded, but added: “Just because the system operates like a tax, we cannot escape the fact it isn’t seen as one.” He is reviewing options for the future, including a graduate tax. But students are unlikely to be cheering for a graduate tax when Labour is pledging to scrap tuition fees altogether.

There lies Cable’s challenge. Farron may have stepped down a week after the election declaring himself “torn” between religion and party, but if he had stayed, he would have had to face the fact that voters were happier to nibble Labour’s Brexit fudge (with lashings of free tuition fees), than choose a party on pure Remain principles alone.

“We are not a single-issue party…we’re not Ukip in reverse,” Cable said. “I see our future as a party of government.” In which case, the onus is on him to come up with something more inspiring than a graduate tax.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.