07.18.11

Cameron on the Ropes

As Rupert Murdoch prepares to testify at Parliament’s inquiry, a rising tide of discontent threatens the Conservative government. Alex Massie asks, can the prime minister survive?

Will David Cameron's government survive the phone-hacking scandal engulfing Britain's political and media class? A week ago such a question seemed absurd; now it is no longer unthinkable that Cameron will be felled by his association with Rupert Murdoch and his hacking band of disgraced executives.

As a rule it is rarely a promising development when reporters start asking if the prime minister should resign. Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats and deputy prime minister, insisted on Monday that "of course" Cameron should not step down. "Let's keep things in perspective here," he pleaded, though he must know that perspective is the first thing to be sacrificed in times as turbulent as these. The wonder is not that the question was answered in the negative but that it was asked at all. The inconceivable is now conceivable.

The scandal may have originated at News of the World, but it has since engulfed politicians on both sides of the House of Commons, the rest of Britain's notoriously ruthless—or, if you prefer, unprincipled—press, and, as if this were not enough, the most senior officers at the Metropolitan Police, Britain's most prestigious and important police force.

The tragedy of Cameron's position—that is the fatal decision from which all else flows—has its origins in the well-intentioned but disastrous choice to hire former News of the World editor Andy Coulson to work as Cameron's communications director. Ed Miliband claimed on Monday that Cameron has been "hamstrung by his own decisions," and it is difficult to disagree with the Labour leader's analysis.

Coulson's job was to mend fences with News International's newspapers—especially The Sun and News of the World. Rupert Murdoch's papers had been enthusiastic cheerleaders for Margaret Thatcher but abandoned the Tories to support Tony Blair. Winning these "swing newspapers" back was considered a vital part of the Conservatives' route to Downing Street.

Coulson's ability to work the relationship between Cameron and influential News International figures such as Rebekah Brooks persuaded Cameron to overlook the fact that he had been forced to resign over a previous hacking scandal involving Princes William and Harry. News of the World claimed this was the work of a single “rogue reporter.” Moreover, Cameron said, Coulson deserved “a second chance.”

A report published by the Daily Mail on Saturday, however, revealed that Coulson was not Cameron's first choice. Initially the Tory leader had wanted to hire Guto Harri, a BBC journalist. Brooks, however, demanded that Cameron appoint someone "acceptable" to News International. And thus was sown a seed that may, however extraordinary it may seem, destroy the prime minister.

Cameron's government may not fall, but it is hard to imagine circumstances in which he can survive this tumult with his reputation wholly intact.

Nor was this the only example of Cameron's willingness to bend his knee before the Murdoch empire. In 2008 The Sun made it clear that the paper’s editors would not endorse the Conservatives unless Cameron sacked his shadow Home secretary, Dominic Grieve, who the paper felt was insufficiently "tough" on crime. Grieve was duly moved to another position in early 2009.

The impression of a desperate politician desperate to ingratiate himself with a powerful media baron was given additional credibility by reports that Cameron accepted flights on a private jet to the Greek island of Santorini in 2008 for a private conclave with Murdoch. Those flights were paid for by Murdoch's son-in-law, Matthew Freud.

Add the 26 meetings Cameron has had with senior News International figures in the 15 months since he became prime minister, and the impression created, fairly or not, is of a man who to all intents and purposes is at Rupert Murdoch's beck and call.

This may be unfair, but the perception matters, especially when the evidence suggests it may not be wholly incompatible with reality. Sucking up to News International was part of the price of attaining power, but few appreciated the degree to which it would impoverish Cameron's government. 

Coulson, recognizing that his continued presence would further embarrass the prime minister, resigned earlier this year. The damage had been done, however, and Coulson's ghost still haunts Downing Street.

In the House of Commons on Monday a series of Labour M.P.s asked the prime minister to “consider his position.” Their argument rests on a simple comparison: If Sir Paul Stephenson—until Sunday the head of Scotland Yard and Britain's most senior police officer—felt compelled to resign because of his links to News International, shouldn't Cameron do likewise, given his own relationship with the disgraced media company?

Stephenson stepped down because of his relationship with Neil Wallis, a News of the World executive turned police adviser who has been questioned by police investigating phone hacking at his former paper. As he left office, however, Stephenson said that at the time Wallis was hired as a PR consultant he had no reason to be concerned by Wallis's past. "Unlike Mr. Coulson," he said, "Mr. Wallis had not resigned from News of the World or, to the best of my knowledge, been in any way associated with the original phone-hacking investigation." The implication was clear: If I erred, prime minister, then so did you.

On Friday afternoon Cameron was dragged still further to the epicenter of the story when it emerged that Coulson had received "advice" from Wallis prior to last year's general election. This advice was "informal" and not something senior members of the Conservative Party were privy to. Nevertheless it is an additional complicating and embarrassing factor for a prime minister who urgently needs to reassert his authority. He has two chances to do so on Wednesday: first on the floor of the House of Commons and then at a meeting of the parliamentary Conservative Party.

Nor has the prime minister been assisted by his own party. Few Tories have piped up to defend him; Boris Johnson, mayor of London and a longtime Cameron rival, offered only tepid support for the embattled prime minister.

As Rupert Murdoch, his son James, and Rebekah Brooks prepare to be grilled by members of Parliament on Tuesday, it is neither clear where this scandal, which threatens to engulf the entire governing establishment, will end nor how much the public—which, after all, eagerly consumed the journalism produced by illegal means—cares about the matter. The government trusts that the public is interested in but not seriously outraged by the scandal. If so, it may be able to weather the storm.

Cameron, normally a suave, smooth, persuasive politician accustomed to skating past disaster and often saved by his own charm and reasonableness, has been dragged into the center of the tempest and appears to have lost his bearings. The sense of a government adrift was reinforced by his decision to proceed with a long-planned trip to Africa this week, only to cut it short at the last minute, announcing that he would return to the U.K. on Tuesday night.

Cameron's government may not fall, but it is hard to imagine circumstances in which he can survive this tumult with his reputation wholly intact. Nothing will ever be quite the same again.