Question Time

07.20.11

David Cameron, Bruised and Depleted

With the phone-hacking scandal threatening to engulf him, the British prime minister appeared before Parliament on Wednesday. Philip Delves Broughton on how he risks losing his base of support.

For David Cameron, the summer recess cannot come soon enough. Having extended this parliamentary session by an extra day to allow an emergency debate on the still-roiling phone-hacking scandal, he entered the House of Commons bruised and left winded, hoping the break can restore his depleted political energies.

Such has been Cameron’s fast and gilded rise to the top of British politics that we have rarely seen him up against it like this, facing an angry public and an opposition fortified by the taste of blood. The last few weeks have seen all the public’s worst fears about Cameron aired and in some cases confirmed: that he’s too slick, that he has poor taste in friends, and that when given the choice between doing what is right and what helps him win, he chooses the latter. He hired Andy Coulson to be his communications adviser even when those closest to him had been told Coulson was suspected of committing criminal acts as editor of News of the World. It was classic Faustian stuff.

“You live and you learn,” he told the House of Commons on Wednesday. “And believe you me, I have learned.” His manner, though, did not suggest genuine apology, but rather the righteous disappointment of a headmaster, or an old-school stockbroker justifying his abysmal losses to investors.  Of Coulson, he said, “If it turns out I've been lied to, that would be a moment for a profound apology.” He also noted, “Of course, I regret and I am extremely sorry about the furor it has caused,” but then justified his poor hiring choice by saying, “You don't make decisions in hindsight.”

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Cameron’s success to date has been attributed to his having a connection with Middle England, that amorphous mass of honest burghers, sipping pints and playing village cricket, the British equivalent of Nixon’s "silent majority." The great danger of the phone-hacking scandal is that this connection has been seriously frayed. Everyone in Britain understands the need for politicians of every party to win over newspaper owners and their editors, even Rupert Murdoch. But there is also a hypocritical deal in place here—that when you do so, you should do so with at least a display of reluctance. You should treat your friendships in the press as a necessary evil. Journalists don’t mind being treated that way. It’s part of the job. But Cameron was spending his Christmases with these people. He made them his closest advisers. He was eating sausage rolls with them even while his government decided the fate of Murdoch’s acquisition of the rest of BSkyB.

You should treat your friendships in the press as a necessary evil. But Cameron was spending his Christmases with these people.

Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News International, told a parliamentary select committee on Tuesday that she never discussed business with Cameron. But both should know that in English minds, visiting one another’s homes at Christmas is tantamount to conspiracy.

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband said Cameron’s hedged mea culpa was “not good enough” and said that questions about Coulson had been met “with a wall of silence” by Cameron’s aides. He is right. But now come the holidays. Cameron and his rightly disillusioned supporters can use the time off.