Conservative Diary

« David Cameron's full remarks at press conference, in wake of newspaper hacking crisis | Main | The big idea of early intervention »

Cameron's Star Trek moment

by Paul Goodman

Earlier this morning, I wrote that Cameron should close down Miliband and seize the moment by announcing the appointment of a judge to lead a public enquiry into the hacking scandal.  An hour or so, the Prime Minister did exactly that, knowing well that the only alternative - to make the same annoucement after hanging around for a week - would be damaging, if not fatal.

In that respect, he executed a textbook gambit.  The police enquiry into the News of the World will continue.  The public enquiry will take up where it leaves off.  There will be a third and more general enquiry into the media. And Cameron wrapped it all up with a general statement of regret: we're all (he didn't quite say) in this together.  The media, the political parties and the police have failed the public.

All agreed, please note, with the support of the Deputy Prime Minister.  Cameron even distanced himself from Rebekah Brooks.  So far, so good: and if that was all there was to it, Cameron woud have closed his problems down - at least for the moment - and left Miliband with nowhere to go.  Any thorny questions could simply have been waved away, and pointed in the direction of the enquiries.

But that isn't quite all there is to it.  He now faces a short-term problem and a long-term problem.
  • The short-term problem is his view of Andy Coulson.  Cameron could simply have said that he made a mistake in appointing him.  Perhaps he thought that this would make him look weak.  Perhaps he believed that it would be wrong to desert his former media chief now he's in serious trouble.  Perhaps he's worried about what Coulson may have scribbled in his diary.  Perhaps all three.  But at any rate, he stuck with his line about Coulson deserving a second chance, and went further by describing him as a "friend".

This leaves two dangerous lines of enquiry.

The first are essentially journalistic questions.  They consist largely of questions that have been asked before, but which have now acquired a new momentum.  What was Cameron told about Coulson in the first place?  In particular, did he receive any specific warning from any member of his staff (which Cameron this morning went on the record to deny)?  Whether so or not, what questions did he ask about a man who must at least have had general knowledge of what had been going on in his own News of the World newsroom?

The second are not the kind of questions that are usually pursued by those inside the Westminster bubble.  Rather, they're the kind that voters ask.  Why give a "second chance" to someone who screwed up his first chance so badly?  Should Britain's Prime Minister still be counting Coulson as a friend?  What does all this say about Cameron's judgement? (Note: by taking "full responsibility" himself this morning, he stood shoulder to shoulder with George Osborne, who first recommended Coulson.)

  • The long-term problem is the enquiries into the media.  As I wrote this morning, bugging, hacking and illegality haven't been confined to the News of the World.  I provided some figures from the Information Commissioner.  And Lord Ashcroft provided a story from his own experience.  The broad enquiry into the media is one thing, even though the coming end of the Press Complaints Commission will make proprietors and editors nervous.  But a judge-led enquiry operating under oath is quite another.  Light will be shone in some very dark places.

As I say, Cameron had no alternative but to announce a judicial enquiry, and to bolt on a more general one makes sense.  In their reasonable moments, the papers will recognise this.  But, like all human institutions (and one could argue especially so), both they and the people who run them are never entirely reasonable.  Imagine watching Cameron's announcement being watched by the Editor of any of the papers named by the Information Commissioner.  And now imagine how that Editor is likely to react.

Cameron has never been popular with the "quad" - the Sun, Mail, Telegraph and Express.  He has this morning given these papers and others a powerful new cause for grievance.  Since the public enquiry can't gather steam until the police enquiry is over, it could spill over into the run-up of the next election.  Cameron relied today, like Blair in his earliest days, on being accepted as a newish Prime Minister who's "a straight kind of guy", in his toughest personal moment since the allegation-ridden days of his leadership campaign.

For the third time, then: though he could have taken a different stance on Coulson, he had no alternative but to make today's enquiry announcement.  Of his consequent two problems, the latter is by far the bigger.  This is Cameron's Star Trek moment.  By announcing a judge-led enquiry not just into what happened at the News of the World but "what was going on at other newspapers", he is going boldly where no Prime Minister has gone before.


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.