Downing Street has reacted to increasing panic that the Conservative leadership is being damaged by revelations at the Leveson Inquiry about its dealings with the Murdoch empire. Yesterday it demanded that senior ministers be allowed to see potentially incendiary evidence from Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson.
David Cameron and seven of his cabinet colleagues, including the Chancellor George Osborne and embattled Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, were granted "core participant" status before giving evidence to the press ethics inquiry. The surprise move allows ministers advance access to the testimony of witnesses and extra time to prepare rebuttals.
The decision by the Government to seek special status in the public inquiry, which Mr Cameron ordered last year, follows the disclosure of 161 pages of emails submitted to Leveson – but unseen by ministers – detailing how a News Corp lobbyist was given a running commentary by Mr Hunt's office on the progress of its takeover of BSkyB.
Granting the application, Lord Justice Leveson, who accepted that Mr Hunt had been disadvantaged, said: "A witness who is likely to be the subject of potentially damaging evidence, which will generate what may well be legitimate public commentary, ought also to be aware of the broad nature of that evidence in advance."
Mr Cameron and his colleagues are braced for further negative headlines next week when Ms Brooks, the former chief executive of News International (NI), and Mr Coulson, the Prime Minister's former head of communications and an ex-editor of the News of the World, give evidence to the inquiry.
Ms Brooks, who is understood to have retained dozens of texts and emails from Mr Cameron over the years, which may be published by the inquiry, could lift the lid on how close the relationship between NI and senior politicians became after more than a decade as one of Rupert Murdoch's key go-betweens with the British establishment.
Mr Coulson, who along with Ms Brooks has been arrested in connection with alleged phone hacking and illegal payments to public officials, presided over the NOTW at the height of its voicemail interception activity.
The Independent revealed yesterday that Mr Cameron, who is expected to appear before the inquiry at the end of the month, is receiving tutoring from lawyers as the fallout from the scandal moves uncomfortably close to No 10.
The other ministers giving evidence in person are Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Business Secretary Vince Cable, Education Secretary Michael Gove and Home Secretary Theresa May. Mr Osborne, who reportedly played a key role in recommending the recruitment of Mr Coulson, has been asked to provide only a written statement.
Downing Street sources indicated that events of the past two weeks, including the revelations about Mr Hunt, had prompted them to apply for core participant status. No 10 officials were particularly concerned they had been blindsided by accusations – later withdrawn – from Labour MP Chris Bryant that Mr Cameron had met Rupert Murdoch on more occasions than admitted.
Core participants, who include several national newspaper groups as well as individuals, including Ms Brooks, receive advance copies of evidence submitted by witnesses as well as being granted the right to ask for questions to be put to witnesses and for relevant documents to be redacted.
The Treasury Devil: Counsel's cameo
Known in legal parlance as the Treasury Devil, James Eadie QC's last-minute appearance before the Leveson Inquiry yesterday was one of the more unusual jobs undertaken by the Government's barrister. After failing in his initial attempt to seek core participant status for the Government as a whole, the Treasury First Counsel found himself arguing for individual ministers to be granted access to the inner sanctum of the inquiry which it ordered – and whose recommendations it will be charged with enacting. Mr Eadie said the application arose not out of concern about the conduct of ministers, but out of a desire for them to "find some time in their busy schedules" to ensure evidence is accurate.