It’s been a long-running nightmare for Prime Minister David Cameron. When the phone-hacking scandal broke in the summer of 2011, Cameron is reported to have told his closest aides, “don’t let me launch a public inquiry.” But with public outrage mounting at the number of victims and an alleged cover-up, and then the intense combined pressure from his Liberal Democrat partner, Nick Clegg, and the leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband, Cameron was forced to announce a wide-ranging, judge-led examination of the relationship between the press, the public, police, and politicians. Suddenly the ties between Britain’s political class and its powerful media moguls came under a searching spotlight.
As Lord Justice Brian Leveson’s inquiry rolled on for eight months, calling more than 600 witnesses under oath, and providing compelling viewing for political junkies and interested members of the public, that spotlight began to burn dangerously close to the prime minister. The inquiry increasingly focused on the connections between the suppression of phone hacking and the biggest merger in British media history—News Corp.’s $15 billion bid for the country’s most lucrative broadcaster, BSkyB. Forced to hand over details of meetings, texts and emails, senior ministers and their advisers appeared to be deeply involved in James Murdoch’s plan to create a Wapping 2: a digital hub combining Fleet Street’s dominant paper group News International, with broadcast and Internet assets. This was damaging to the conservatives. Approval of the merger could so easily be read as a quid pro quo for the support News International’s newspapers in the run up to the 2010 election.
More embarrassing still for the prime minister was the revelation of his close relationship with News International’s disgraced chief executive, Rebekah Brooks; how Cameron went riding on an old police horse loaned to Brooks by the Metropolitan Police; how he sent her text messages signed LOL, thinking that meant ‘lots of love’ instead of ‘laugh out loud’. More intimate texts have leaked out in recent weeks, with Brooks avowing how she cried twice at Cameron’s 2009 conference speech and “Will love working together.’” Given that Cameron’s hand-chosen top press spokesman, Andy Coulson, was Brooks’s close friend and former deputy, the cozy net seemed tighter still. Brooks and Coulson face trials for multiple charges of phone hacking and illegal payments to public officials next year, with additional charges of cover-up and perjury thrown in. The questioning of the prime minister’s judgement over his close confidantes and aides won’t go away.
Cameron’s immediate problem is political. When the Leveson report is published on Thursday, it is expected to contain various proposals to curb the excesses of Fleet Street, and that will require Cameron to act rather than just react. In the last few weeks, an almighty fight around freedom of the press and an independent regulatory body has dominated the airwaves and op-eds. On Tuesday, a poll found that nearly 80 percent of respondents said they supported the creation of an independent body to regulate the press. Roughly 60 percent said Cameron should put the recommendations in Leveson’s report in place, and more than 80 percent said the new system should be legally binding.
If the Liberal Democrats join forces with Labour and the other small parties in the House of Commons, they would be only one position short of a majority.
This public support leaves Cameron in a bad place; he’s damned if he doesn’t enact Leveson’s proposals, damned if he does. The prime minister faces some of the loudest and most influential editors in Fleet Street, especially at The Daily Mail and The Sun, calling any kind of statutory backstop to a new press regulator the end of nearly 400 years of press freedom and the beginnings of state control. These editors have been joined by three senior Tories—the former leader and current foreign secretary, William Hague, the education secretary Michael Gove, and Cameron’s biggest rival and possible replacement, the mayor of London, Boris Johnson.
All three, it should be noted, have been highly paid newspaper columnists, but together they constitute some of the most powerful conservatives of their generation. Their preemptive dissent from the report that their own government commissioned—sometimes involving a direct mocking of Leveson himself—shows a serious rift in senior Tory ranks. Further evidence came on Tuesday when 86 members of Parliament called on the government to oppose such regulation, in a letter to the Guardian.
Perversely, the whole hacking scandal has had a reverse effect on the main opposition Labour Party, which historically reverts to internecine warfare after an election defeat. Until The Guardian revealed in July of 2011 that the phone of the murdered teenager Milly Dowler was hacked by News of the World, the current leader, Ed Miliband, was in deep trouble. Resented by the majority of his fellow party members in Parliament, who had voted for his elder brother, David, in the leadership election the year prior, Miliband had been unsteady in parliamentary questions, and deemed an untelegenic policy wonk. Rumors that he would not survive the summer were rife. Though both Miliband’s predecessors, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, had become personal friends with Rupert Murdoch, Miliband went against advice and made phone hacking a cause célèbre, risking the wrath of News International, which commands 43 percent of the national newspaper readership, by demanding the resignation of Brooks, the company’s chief executive. Since then, Miliband has grown in confidence and stature, and the Labour Party has continued to rise in the opinion polls. He is now secure in his leadership of the party—at least till the next election.
Though the Liberal Democrats have a much better record than Labour of opposing the political demands of press barons, who have ignored or ridiculed them for years; and though Nick Clegg actually called for Brooks’s resignation before Miliband, little good has come his way as a result of his stance. The Liberal Democrats have hemorrhaged support during the past two years, and two weeks ago lost their deposits in a recent by-election, coming fourth behind the U.K. Independence Party in the Corby seat vacated by Louise Mensch. Having joined forces with Miliband to set up the Leveson Inquiry last year, Clegg is certain to join the Labour leader in insisting its proposals are implemented during the parliamentary debate set for Monday next week. And this is where the math gets interesting.
If the Liberal Democrats join forces with Labour and the other small parties in the House of Commons, they would be only one position short of a majority. All it takes is one Tory member of Parliament to rebel, and the floor is theirs. The battle lines are not completely party political, as nearly 70 Conservative members of Parliament and peers have signed letters indicating they would accept Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals. But there are few issues that are quite so potent as the revelations of the Leveson Inquiry, and here the Conservatives look fractured, and an incipient coalition of Liberal Democrats and Labour Party members seems secure.
The much-anticipated report, in three hefty volumes, was delivered to senior ministers this Wednesday morning, a day before publication. Initially, Cameron was prepared to make a response to the House of Commons on behalf of the government. But on Monday Nick Clegg revealed that Cameron will not be speaking for the Liberal Democrats, implying a potential breach between the coalition partners during a crucial juncture.
Launched as a marriage of principle rather than convenience after the 2010 general election, the coalition has rapidly lost the honeymoon glow that surrounded the two young leaders two years back. A variety of factors—zero growth in the economy, rebellion on the Tory back benches, and a collapse in Liberal Democrat support—have now turned the arrangement into a fractious and difficult co-habitation. Both parties plan to part ways some time in the run-up to the next general election in 2015. The question remains, however, could the Leveson report arrive at exactly the wrong moment, and be the final straw that not only precipitates the promised divorce, but gives Liberal Democrats the warm embrace of another potential partner?