Despite several uncomfortable moments, I suspect that Downing Street will largely be relieved with how David Cameron’s performance at the Leveson inquiry went today. Cameron was visibly unnerved by the publication of Rebekah Brooks’s cringeworthy text to him, but its sycophantic tone reflected worse on her than him.
Questioned over his decision to hand Jeremy Hunt ministerial responsibility for the BSkyB bid, Cameron was forced to admit that at the time he did not recall Hunt’s memo to him in support of the deal. But he regained the initiative when he revealed that the Treasury solicitor, Paul Jenkins, later ruled that the memo did not mean the Culture Secretary was unfit for the role. “If anyone had told me that Jeremy Hunt couldn’t do the job, I wouldn’t have given him the job,” Cameron declared. That no one appears to have done so is a significant point in the Prime Minister’s favour. If he has any sense, Leveson will now summon the lawyers and civil servants in question to the inquiry to scrutinise their advice to Cameron.
On Andy Coulson, Cameron dismissed the controversy over his lower-level security vetting as a “complete red herring”. It was cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood who made the decision that Coulson need not be subject to developed vetting at first as he fell within the special adviser category. Yet all of Coulson’s recent predecessors received top-level clearance. Again, Heywood should be called to the inquiry to explain himself.
It was the exchange on phone-hacking that proved most notable. Asked by Robert Jay QC what assurances he sought from Coulson before hiring him as the Conservatives’ director of communications, Cameron told the inquiry: “I raised the issue of phone-hacking and sought the assurance in the face-to-face meeting we had in my office”. He added: “I accepted these undertakings but so did many other people and organisations who did a considerable amount to try and get to the bottom of this issue.”
In his testimony to the inquiry last month, Coulson said that he did not “recall” Cameron seeking any “further assurances” after the Guardian reported in July 2009 that phone-hacking went far beyond “one rogue reporter”. But in his witness statement, Cameron declared:
I was of course aware of the phone-hacking related article the Guardian published in July 2009. The question I asked myself all the way through was, ‘Is there new information that Andy Coulson knew about hacking at the News of the World while he was the editor?’
I made the decision to employ Andy Coulson in good faith because of the assurances he gave me. I did not see any information in those articles that would have led me to change my mind about these assurances.
Nevertheless in the light of these stories I asked Andy Coulson to repeat the assurances that he gave me when I first employed him … He repeated those assurances. (Emphasis mine.)
We are left to conclude that either Coulson or Cameron misled the inquiry over the discussions that took place following the new hacking revelations.
One might also note further evidence of Cameron’s extreme naïveté (or knavishness). After the New York Times published new evidence that phone-hacking was more extensive than News International claimed, Cameron told the inquiry that he simply accepted Coulson’s assurances. At no point did he seek independent verification of them.