The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog


Coulson's conviction shows that only Miliband can be trusted to stand up to powerful interests

The British people will form the jury in May next year. There is only one possible verdict.

The British people will form the jury in May next year. There is only one possible verdict.
Ed Miliband speaks with David Cameron at the Palace of Westminster on February 27, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.

In recent weeks, David Cameron and his friends in the right-wing media have sought to make the leadership question a central issue in British politics. I say: bring it on.

The issue of leadership boils down to a choice next year between two contenders for No 10: Ed Miliband and David Cameron. The voters will look at both and ask which of these two best represents their own feelings about our future as a country. They will also ask which of them has the character to deliver the changes the country needs.

For the truth is that there is much that needs to change. Above all, the feeling exists that there are millions of people who work hard, play by the rules but feel unable to get on as they would wish, and as they deserve. At the same time, those millions believe that there is another set of rules which applies to the rich and powerful and those vested interests who seem, so often, to behave with impunity.

So, which of the two leaders has the right values and which of them has the character to stand up for ordinary people even if it means taking on powerful vested interests? The decision by the jury to convict Andy Coulson of phone hacking provides us with an answer to both of these questions.

Let us recall that the Murdoch newspapers denied throughout that they had behaved inappropriately in relation to hundreds of ordinary people by illegally hacking their phones. Among these ordinary people were totally innocent victims who had lost a child in the most heart rending circumstances possible. A court of law has now decided that this activity did indeed take place, that it was illegal and that it was organised at the highest levels in the Murdoch newspapers. By all accounts, this criminal activity took place on an unimaginable industrial scale.

A wave of revulsion swept across Britain when news emerged that the News of the World had hacked into the phones of the Dowler family. After a short period for reflection, people began to cancel their subscriptions to the newspaper, very quickly followed by the withdrawal of advertising space.

As it happens, I was with Ed Miliband when the news about the Dowler family emerged. Politicians from other parties must answer for themselves about their relationships with the Murdochs and we will come to Mr Cameron's behaviour in a moment. But I witnessed Ed's reaction. Others might have behaved with caution. But, without hesitation, Ed went public, capturing the British people’s widespread sense of shock and horror at the news. But then he went further. He called out News International and in the face of Cameron and Clegg’s reticence, and that of the whole of the British establishment, he committed our party to support the victims' cries for justice and for press reform.

From the distance of June 2014, Ed Miliband's actions that night still seem bold, but at the time they were a total revelation of the inner steel which he showed in facing up to some of the most powerful people in the land. Now that we have the verdict from a British jury that Mr Coulson was guilty of phone-hacking we are in a position to compare the character and the values of our Prime Minister with those the Leader of the Opposition. 

We know from the court that Rebekah Brooks was wholly innocent of the charges made against her. But we equally know that Mr Cameron was on very close terms with her whilst she was an extremely senior executive in News International. Was it really appropriate for our Prime Minister to be so close to her given the position she occupied? We all remember the slightly odd text messages which he sent her, and who can forget her horse, which the Prime Minister was in the habit of riding? This behaviour is not consistent with a Prime Minister who is determined to stand up to powerful interests on behalf of ordinary citizens.

But when it comes to Andy Coulson, Mr Cameron's behaviour is little short of culpable. He appointed Coulson as his director of communications. Let us recall that Coulson had only just left News International after his paper's royal editor had been found guilty of hacking. The PM was warned privately and publicly that Coulson would prove damaging to the interests of himself, his party and the country. And so it has proved. It was bound to end in tears, and now Mr Cameron has had to make a humiliating apology.

All of this brings us back to the question of leadership. Even the briefest encounter with the facts of the hacking case can leave little doubt about the question of which political leader better represents the values of the British people. And on the much-vaunted issue of character; which of the two has shown he had the personal strength to stand up to powerful interests when the public required it?

Examine the actions of David Cameron and Ed Miliband. And decide for yourself. The British people will form the jury in May next year. There is only one possible verdict.