Friends In High Places

How Close Is Prime Minister David Cameron to Former Murdoch Deputy Rebekah Brooks?

On the heels of the former News of the World editor’s arrest, questions arise about David Cameron’s ties to the flame-haired Murdoch favorite.

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The rolling hills of Oxfordshire, a genteel county in southeastern England, make for ideal riding country. The gentle pastures are favored by equestrian enthusiasts—including the British prime minister himself, whose outings on a police horse named Raisa created a stir in the U.K. press this month. The affair, dubbed “Horsegate,” revealed that David Cameron went riding on the mare with horse trainer and fellow Etonian Charlie Brooks—a man whom Cameron described as a “good friend for many years,” and whose wife, Rebekah, is, of course, the flame-haired lightning rod at the center of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. The horse had been lent to the couple by Scotland Yard, which said that “re-homing” horses after their retirement is a common practice. But critics saw the episode as evidence of how closely Britain’s power centers—from the media and Scotland Yard to Downing Street—have been linked in the ongoing saga.

So when news broke this morning of the arrests of Rebekah and Charlie, the inevitable question arose: just how close is Cameron to the power couple? And is it possible that the current woes of Murdoch’s former deputy—who, at the height of the phone-hacking scandal last summer, was called the most hated woman in Britain—could eventually tarnish Cameron himself?

“This is getting very, very difficult for [Cameron],” says a Westminster source who has been following the phone-hacking investigations closely. “It keeps getting ratcheted up. When someone who you declare has been a close personal friend of yours is arrested on a charge of perverting the course of justice, this is serious. We’re well beyond phone hacking. This is another dimension.”

As Cameron pointed out, he’s been close to Charlie Brooks for years, reaching all the way back to their schoolboy days. The Telegraph cited a November 2009 article for the British version of GQ, titled “The Eton Factor,” in which Brooks praised his fellow alumni, including both Cameron and the prime minister’s older brother Alex, a barrister. “Alex Cameron QC is the star of our pack,” wrote Brooks, who is the same age as the elder Cameron. “I thought he’d do well in politics, but it was to the bar that he went.”

“Then there’s Alex Cameron’s younger brother Dave,” Brooks continued. “Of him, we’ll be hearing plenty. If you’ve never seen him in action on a tennis court or cricket pitch, I can assure you of one thing. He’s a competitive old blue.”

The Telegraph piece noted that Brooks in fact seemed closer to Alex Cameron, and that a three-year difference between Brooks and David Cameron “makes a huge difference in the rigid social structure of a public school like Eton.” The suggestion was that Cameron was trying to cover up his close relationship to the controversial Rebekah by claiming the bond was with Charlie instead—an idea that, with both Brookses arrested today, seems unlikely to do the prime minister much good.

The younger Cameron was close enough to Charlie and Rebekah, known at the time as Rebekah Wade, to be a guest at their 2009 wedding at millionaire Charlie’s lavish estate in Oxfordshire. Cameron and his wife, Samantha, have reportedly spent frequent dinners, picnics, and at least one Christmas party with the Brookses (nicknamed “Champagne Charlie” and “Looks Brooks” by the media). And both couples are known to be members—along with James and Katherine Murdoch, who have also reportedly dined with the Camerons and Brookses—of the tightly knit Chipping Norton set, named for the tony market town in the Cotswold Hills where they all live, and which is an enclave of Tory power.

Some Murdoch watchers have even insinuated that Cameron’s friendship with Rebekah Brooks could be stronger than his friendship with her husband. Rebekah was a guest at Cameron’s 40th-birthday party in October 2006, even though her future husband was reportedly not on the list. And a Vanity Fair story last month claimed the two were so close that Cameron signed letters to her, “Love, David.”

In the wake of “Horsegate,” though, Cameron was careful to steer clear of the question of his ties to Rebekah, even as he confirmed that he had indeed been riding with Charlie.

This is not the first time Cameron’s purported ties to Rebekah Brooks have roiled the British press. During the implosion of News of the World last summer—which led to Brooks, who had been editor of the paper during the height of the alleged phone hacking, to resign from her position as chief executive of News International, the U.K. arm of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.—police arrested both Brooks and Cameron’s former director of communications Andy Coulson, who had preceded her as editor of the troubled tabloid. Coulson had resigned from his official post in January 2011 as the allegations of phone hacking started to heat up. (“When the spokesman needs a spokesman, it’s time to go,” Coulson said at the time.)

Last summer, it emerged that Coulson had bypassed routine security and background checks after going to work for Cameron, and that someone inside Downing Street had decided not to seek the highest level of security clearance for Coulson—even though The Guardian later claimed that it had warned senior Cameron aides about phone-hacking problems at News of the World. Later, senior government officials allegedly told The Guardian that despite his lesser security-clearance status, Coulson still had access to the most sensitive levels of information. (Cameron said he did not know that Coulson had received only a milder vetting until six months before News of the World closed.)

Rebekah’s and her husband’s arrests are the latest in a string of police roundups of former and current Murdoch journalists. (According to the BBC, the couple was detained at separate police stations before being released on bail late on Tuesday.) Just last month, five top employees from Murdoch’s flagship tabloid The Sun—which was also at one time run by Rebekah—were arrested in connection with an investigation into whether journalists had paid off public officials.

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The potential charges against the couple are far worse than simple phone hacking; instead, they face the charge of attempting to pervert (or, in American legal parlance, obstruct) justice, a charge that carries more jail time and legal gravitas. (Brooks’s longtime personal assistant, Cheryl Carter, was also arrested on suspicion of attempting to pervert the course of justice in January.) The Westminster source notes that, with the arrest of the Brookses, the phone-hacking investigation is starting to reach the upper echelons of Murdoch’s operations. “This is exactly what the police said early on. You start at the bottom and you ease this thing up, and people start talking.”

“It’s too strange to be a film script. There are too many twists and turns that wouldn’t be believable,” says Martin Moore, director of the Media Standards Trust and founder of the Hacked Off campaign.

Though the prime minister, who is in Washington this week to meet with President Obama, declined to comment on the arrests, his spokesperson did confirm today that Cameron would comply if called on to take the stand at the Leveson inquiry—the high-profile public inquiry formed in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal—this spring, when it turns its attention to the relationship between the British press and the country’s politicians. It is widely expected that Cameron will indeed be asked to take the stand. “The prime minister has long said that if politicians including himself are required to come forward as witnesses, then of course we will coop with that inquiry,” the spokesperson said.

“It’s one thing to try to distance yourself from Andy Coulson. Now you’re distancing yourself from Rebekah Brooks and her husband. Who’s next?” the Westminster source says. “It’s death by a thousand cuts. It’s not a story that’s going to finish tomorrow. That’s the problem for him. Where does it end?”