During the 40 minutes in which the House of Commons debated the News of the World phone tapping scandal, it gradually became apparent that a majority of MPs across the House are — privately if not publicly — highly concerned.
Just in time for the Labour MP Tom Watson’s urgent question to the Home Secretary, Simon Hughes took his seat, to be joined by Sir Menzies Campbell. The pair looked a little uncomfortable during the debate, and exchanged hushed words.
Theresa May did what she could to defend the police’s investigations, relying heavily on the Culture Select Committee that was unable to prove the case against Andy Coulson, the former NotW editor and current head of communications to David Cameron.
But Watson ran through the defence bit by bit, pointing out the new material in the New York Times investigation into the tabloid. “The integrity of our democracy is under scrutiny throughout the world,” he said. John Wittingdale, the chair of the Culture Select Committee, said the committee found it hard to believe that there were not more NotW journalists in the know about the phone tapping, and requested that May kept the commitee informed of developments. It felt like Wittingdale was willing to pursue the affair.
Alan Johnson, the shadow and former home secretary, told May that she must “subject the police to greater scrutiny”. Frank Dobson, the former health secretary, weighed in, saying that there had been a “distinct lack of zeal” about the police’s approach.
On the Tory side, there was some complacency. Julian Lewis appeared to call into question the integrity of the NYT’s sources, asking why they did not come forward sooner to the police. May echoed the sentiment, saying she did not understand the “timing” of the NYT story. Tony Baldry, however, showed the luke warm defence that most Tory MPs would probably adopt, saying that any new information should be brought into the public domain.
Overall, May was on the back foot. In some ways it is unfortunate for Cameron that he does not have more of a bruiser in the Home Office: May, after all, was unable to get the better of Stephen Byers many years ago over Railtrack being forced into administration.
On return to Parliament today, Labour MPs scent blood.