Saturday, 9 July 2011

David Cameron on the ropes in wake of hacking scandal

Peter Oborne of the Daily Telegraph wrote a blistering attack on David Cameron as the News of the World crisis unfolded this week. He speculated that the revelations of large-scale phone hacking could prove toxic for the prime minister, especially considering his closeness to former News of the World editor (more recently Cameron's director of communications) Andy Coulson.

Oborne even speculated that it might be comparable to Black Wednesday in 1992 for John Major or the invasion of Iraq in 2003 for Tony Blair - a crisis that dooms the prime minister even if he can stumble on for another few years (Major and Blair both lasted another four years or so in office, but as damaged goods).

Fanciful? Exaggerated? The new YouGov poll certainly suggests there is a big short-term hit for the government, even if we can't be sure of the longer-term picture. For perhaps the first time Labour has a higher percentage on voting intentions than the two governing parties combined. Labour is on a commanding 44%, with Tories down to 35% and Lib Dems languishing on 8%.

In his press conference on Friday, a beleagured Cameron tried desperately to distance himself from the disgraced Coulson personally, and from Rupert Murdoch's News International. But seemingly with little success. It was his lowest moment since entering 10 Downing Street last May. The crisis, reaching into the heart of government and encompassing press, police and political leaders alike, shows no sign of abating.

The indications are that guilt by association - at the very least - is sticking to Cameron. His slavish adherence to Murdoch and his party's preoccupation with gaining the approval of the media tycoon's newspapers are now a liability. Murdoch's support - recall the Sun's front page on general election day last May, comparing the Tory leader to Barack Obama - is no longer so coveted. The tight relationship between Murdoch and this country's political leaders (and the former's power over the latter) seems to be permanently broken.

Ed Miliband - whatever else you say about him, and despite a faltering start after the crisis emerged on Monday - has been largely effective in responding to events. He's got it basically right on a number of issues - Rebeka Brooks should resign, the Press Complaints Commission is toothless, wide ranging inquiries are needed, the BSkyB deal needs a Commons debate (due on Wednesday) - and expressed remorse for Labour's past closeness to the Murdoch empire.

Grasping the public mood, the Labour leader has finally shown some leadership (something many of us doubted he was capable of). It is less clear, alas, that he will break from the logic that says Labour must pursue press approval and adapt policies to the right accordingly.

Wider campaigning and popular pressure is required to ensure top News International executives are held to account and the rotten BSkyB deal, which would grant Murdoch unprecedented media power, is abandoned altogether.

Cameron, his party and his government are weakened. It's time not only for Miliband to press home the advantage but, even more importantly, for the anti-cuts movement and the left to mobilise the widespread popular anger and disgust at our establishment elite. It will be harder for a discredited and tarnished government to ram through the cuts. This is a crucial moment - and what we do matters.


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