As Ed Miliband put it, David Cameron today offered a “half apology” for his decision to appoint Andy Coulson as his director of communications. “With hindsight”, the PM said, he would not have offered him a job and he suspects Coulson would not have taken it. He confessed: “You live and learn and believe me I have learned.”
Cameron’s admission has bought him some valuable political breathing space. Having persistently refused to offer a full apology on the basis that Coulson is “innocent until proven guilty”, he could hardly do so today. But, using notably stronger language than before, he declared: “If it turns out I have been lied to, that would be a moment for a profound apology. And, in that event, I can tell you I will not fall short.” The Conservative Party, increasingly alarmed by Cameron’s handling of the crisis, will likely be satisfied with that.
Elsewhere, he continued to offer his standard defence of Coulson – that no one ever complained about the work he did in Downing Street. But he surely knows that this is not the point. The point is that Cameron repeatedly ignored new evidence suggesting that Coulson, contrary to his protestations, did know about the phone hacking that took place at the News of the World. It was extraordinary of Cameron to claim that there was nothing in the September 2010 New York Times piece that led him to doubt the “assurances” he had received. It was the NYT piece that first quoted News of the World reporter Sean Hoare as saying that Coulson “actively encouraged” him to hack phones and that he played tape recordings of hacked messages for him. Another longtime reporter memorably told the paper: “Everyone knew … The office cat knew.”
The real question, therefore, is why Cameron chose to ignore the mounting evidence that Coulson knew about the hacking. The allegation levelled by Ed Miliband was one of willful blindness. Cameron, he said: “[M]ade a deliberate attempt to hide from the facts about Mr Coulson.” It is that charge, one suspects, that will continue to dog the Prime Minister over the coming months.