When it comes to the big occasion, David Cameron is an assured performer. And today’s occasion was the biggest yet in his 15 months as prime minister: a special sitting of the House of Commons to discuss the phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s News International group, an affair that in the words of Cameron’s opening statement, had set off “a torrent of revelations and allegations” shaking the public’s faith in some of the “most important institutions” of the state.
To the relief of his party, the prime minister didn’t disappoint. If Cameron was contrite at times, he wasn’t craven. If he didn’t respond fully to every accusation, he at least gave an appearance of a prime minister in firm control; carefully listing all the measures taken so far to look into the affair and ready to confront his critics head on. Albeit in confident tones, he even suggested an appropriate humility. “You live and you learn and, believe me, I have learned.”
With hindsight, Cameron conceded, it was a mistake to have employed Andy Coulson, a former editor of News of the World who resigned over the phone-hacking allegations, as his director of communications. But the prime minister chose the shelter of the moral high ground: he wasn’t about to condemn Coulson—now on police bail—until his guilt was proven.
As for the suggestions that Cameron had allowed personal relationships with News International bosses to interfere with his decision making, he was emphatic in his denial. There had been “no inappropriate conversation” over Murdoch’s now-abandoned attempt to buy outright control over BSkyB, Britain’s largest commercial broadcaster.
In terms of fighting back, it was overdue not least because Cameron has been touring South Africa and Nigeria over the last few days, breaking off his trip for today’s debate. Meanwhile, opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband has managed to reverse a slide in his own ratings over the last two weeks through his dogged attacks on Cameron and the Murdoch press. Some reports speak of rumbles of discontent even in Conservative ranks, with senior figures failing to rally to his side. Before the debate, leading bookmakers had shortened the odds on Cameron’s survival as leader from 100 to 1 to just 8 to 1.
Of course, a single masterful performance won’t silence his opponents. Labour will ensure that questions over the prime minister’s judgment won’t go away. In today’s debate, Miliband pointed out that Cameron appears to have ignored repeated warnings over the wisdom of employing Coulson at a time when he was already tainted by the suspicion of hacking.
Nor will Cameron’s insistence on transparency—Downing Street published a list of his every meeting with journalists and newspaper executives—dispel the impression of a prime minister in thrall to the Murdoch press. In his testimony to a parliamentary committee, Rupert Murdoch described how he was among the earliest guests at Downing Street after Cameron’s arrival last year, admitted by the back door to avoid drawing press attention. If Cameron has indeed drawn lessons from the affair, the first may be that journalists make poor friends for politicians.