07.20.11

Cameron Buys Himself Time

Britain’s prime minister put himself in political peril with his proximity to the Murdoch scandal. Alex Massie on how his Question Time performance saved his skin—for the moment, anyway.

The House of Commons is not the imperial Parliament of old, a place where debates determined the fate of provinces from the Punjab to the Cape of Good Hope. Nevertheless, it remains an institution that can make or break a politician. Being an accomplished Commons performer is not enough for success. But a politician who cannot command the House is never likely to win the respect of the wider electorate, either.

David Cameron showed why this still matters. His performance in Parliament today showed him at his prime-ministerial best: in command, in control, and, for the first time since the phone-hacking scandal at News of the World erupted, on top of the situation. "The buck stops with the prime minister," he said.

He was contrite when he needed to be. On Andy Coulson, the former editor of News of the World, who was hired to improve relations with News International and sharpen Cameron's press operation: "With 20/20 hindsight—and all that has followed—I would not have offered him the job.” However, he added, "you don't make decisions in hindsight, you make them in the present. You live and you learn, and believe you me, I have learned."

But Cameron put the affair into context, too. Acknowledging that "the clock has stopped on my watch" was a deft formulation. Yes, this affair had been brewing for many years and successive (Labour) prime ministers had failed to notice—or, if they noticed it, confront—the problem. And yes, Cameron now has responsibility for the ship of state, and he will deal with the problem so his own successors need not be troubled by these concerns again.

In this respect he admitted his own culpability while stressing his leadership credentials. For perhaps the first time since the scandal erupted he seemed in command, a proper leader at last. As he said, the affair has "opened a whole conversation that perhaps in this country we have waited too long to have."

It helped that Cameron answered no fewer than 136 questions in the morning, made a statement to Parliament in the afternoon, and then addressed a meeting of the parliamentary Conservative Party. This marathon seems—for the time being at least—to have satisfied some of his critics while soothing the fraying nerves of many of his colleagues on the Tory benches.

The prime minister often resembles nothing so much as a bright but less-than-diligent student who rescues his fortunes with an all-night study session the night before a crucial final exam.

Even so, not all questions have been answered. Cameron insisted he had never had an "inappropriate" conversation with anyone from News Corp. about the company's plans to take over BSkyB. This left open the question of what "appropriate conversations" he may have had on the matter.

Despite that, there is a view, on the Tory benches at least, that the mood has shifted and Cameron has escaped the worst. But this dizzying affair has produced more than its fair share of surprises already and may yet give birth to more.

Nevertheless, as my Spectator colleague James Forsyth reported, one Tory M.P. said "he had never known a Prime Minister more adept at getting out of scrapes. But he had also never known a Prime Minister who got into so many scrapes." Cameron, perhaps relieved, "finished by saying that he’d try to get into fewer scrapes in the future and get out of them quicker than he had this one."

Cameron has often seemed a lucky politician. The scrapes he finds himself in are often the result of his own actions. And many of them can be attributed to a certain nonchalance or carelessness. The prime minister often resembles nothing so much as a bright but less-than-diligent student who rescues his fortunes with an all-night study session the night before a crucial final exam. Eventually, you sense, his luck must run out, but for the time being he's still rescuing good results from deservedly unpromising situations. Lucky Dave, indeed.