Given the potential for upset, the Conservatives will be delighted with how well George Osborne’s appearance at the Leveson inquiry went. The Chancellor, who was evidently well-prepared, gave an impressively calm performance that will go way some to restoring his diminished political reputation.
There were no bombshells, no revelations of inappropriate contact with the Murdochs, and Osborne successfully fielded a series of questions on Jeremy Hunt and Andy Coulson. Asked why Hunt was given responsibility for the BSkyB bid, he passed the buck to the then-permanent secretary, Jeremy Heywood, who advised that the Culture Secretary should be handed control. Hunt’s publicly-expressed support for the bid was “not considered” a problem, although Osborne notably added that the inquiry would need to ask David Cameron about the legal advice he received on the subject.
On Coulson, he argued persuasively that the former News of the World editor was hired principally for his journalistic nous, not for his News International contacts (“which were already well-established”). The Chancellor, who told the inquiry that he remained “a friend” of Coulson (“though sadly I have not been able to speak to him for a year”), expressed genuine regard for Coulson’s abilities as a spinner. As Rafael wrote recently, the Tories feel sorrow, rather than anger, at his downfall.
Osborne revealed that he asked Coulson whether there was “more in the phone-hacking story that was going to come out” and accepted his assurances. He added that he assumed that there was nothing more to be revealed because of statements from the Press Complaints Commission and the trial of Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire. In a missed opportunity, Robert Jay QC did not go on to ask Osborne whether he changed his view when the Guardian revealed that phone-hacking went far beyond “one rogue reporter”. We already know from Coulson’s testimony that Cameron, perhaps afraid of what he would learn, sought no further assurances at this point.
Cameron and those who advised him (including Osborne) remain guilty of showing terrible judgement by appointing Hunt and Coulson to their respective positions. The Murdoch scandal continues to dog every attempt they make to relaunch their moribund government. It has provided, and will continue to provide, Labour with an endless stream of bad news stories. But, for now, the Tories will be relieved that Osborne’s appearance merely confirmed, rather than deepened, their woes.