The current phase of the Leveson inquiry, focusing on the relationship between politicians and the press, will see David Cameron and six senior cabinet ministers (Nick Clegg, Theresa May, Michael Gove, Vince Cable, Ken Clarke and Jeremy Hunt) take to the witness stand. Yet, bizarrely, George Osborne is not one of them. The Chancellor will not appear in person and will merely submit a witness statement. I say bizarrely because, as was confirmed again during Andy Coulson’s testimony, it was Osborne who first suggested that Cameron should hire Coulson as the Conservatives’ communications director. Here’s the key extract from Coulson’s witness statement:
The first approach from the Conservatives came from George Osborne, I believe in March 2007 (NB: this was just two months after Coulson resigned as editor of the News of the World over phone-hacking). He contacted me and we met at a London hotel for a drink. In that conversation he told me that the Conservative Party wanted to make changes to its professional operation and asked whether I would be interested in joining the team … I believe David Cameron called me later that night to say that Mr Osborne hold told him of our conversation and that he would like to meet.
Questioned at length on why the Conservatives had hired him, Coulson replied at one point: “I don’t want to be obstructive, but that’s a question for Mr Osborne”. Indeed it is, which is precisely why the Chancellor should appear himself. As Lib Dem peer Michael Oakeshott has quipped, “Leveson without Osborne would be like Hamlet without the prince”.
Before Coulson’s appearance yesterday, James Murdoch told the inquiry that he complained to Osborne about the “slow” progress of the BSkyB bid. In his witness statement, he recorded:
I recall one conversation with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, about the bid … I expressed my concern at the slow progress with the regulatory process, my view that the investment would be good for Britain and also my view that there were no plurality issues raised by our proposal.
Osborne met Murdoch executives 16 times in the period following the general election, including two meetings with Rupert Murdoch and four with James Murdoch. Rebekah Brooks, who will appear at the inquiry from 10am this morning, met Osborne five times in her capacity as chief executive of News International. Should she divulge the details of their conversations, the pressure for Osborne to appear himself could become irresistible.