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8 July 2011

Cameron fails to solve his Coulson problem

The mantra that he gave a "second chance" to his friend is hopelessly inadequate.

By George Eaton

As an act of damage limitation, David Cameron’s press conference began well. He promised a full public inquiry with a judge in charge so that there’s “no question that it is totally independent”. He declared that the Press Complaints Commission had “failed” and signalled an end to the system of self-regulation.On the BSkyB bid, he merely stated that the government would “follow legal processes” but skipped over the subject so fast that few had a chance to notice.

He refused to call directly for Rebekah Brooks to go but smartly said that he would have accepted her resignation, thus deterring any questions about his personal friendship with the News International chief executive. But inevitably it was Cameron’s decision to hire Andy Coulson, the man he said “became a friend and is a friend”, that dominated proceedings.

Throughout, he repeated the mantra that he gave Coulson a “second chance” but, regretfully, “it didn’t work out.” But the question that Cameron appeared unwilling to confront was why it “didn’t work out”. Asked how he responded when the Guardian revaled in 2009 that the News of the Worldpaid out £1m to gag the victims of phone hacking, Cameron replied that he asked new questions of Coulson but continued to accept his “assurances”. It was a hopelessly inadequate response that leaves the Prime Minister as either a fool or a knave.

Cameron was equally unconvincing when asked by the Times’s Roland Watson what “specific assurances” he sought before hiring Coulson in 2007 (a decision that Cameron pointedly said was “mine and mine alone”). He replied that a “basic background check” was carried out (as Paul Waugh says, basic indeed) and that since a police investigation had already taken place, no further assurances were required. He maintained that Coulson should be judged by “the work he did for the Conservative Party and for me”, as if his alleged criminality was a mere detail. What Cameron desperately needs to offer is an apology for his decision to hire a man whose arrest is imminent. Today he missed the best opportunity he will have to do so.

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In a transparent attempt to redistribute some of the blame, Cameron insisted that everyone – politicians, the press, the police – was “in this together”. But while all sides may have questions to answer, some face far bigger questions than others. And, today, Cameron failed to answer them.