Cameron defends Hunt, Coulson – and his Christmas with Murdoch

The Prime Minister's testimony may have contained a number of memory lapses, but what he did recall was revealing

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Indy Politics

It was the Yuletide dinner that Number 10 did everything it could to keep out of the papers. For weeks after David Cameron had pulled crackers in 2010 with Rebekah Brooks and James Murdoch – discussing only "briefly" the BSkyB bid – the meal between "friends" was accorded the status of something akin to a state secret.

Yesterday, some 18 months later, the Prime Minister used his appearance before the Leveson Inquiry to finally confirm the Christmas dinner chez Mrs Brooks and the fact, initially denied, that News Corp's bid had been raised in conversation between Mr Cameron and Mr Murdoch at a crucial stage. The meal, first reported by The Independent, was one of a succession of secret encounters between the PM and members of Rupert Murdoch's inner circle laid bare during Mr Cameron's day-long testimony. The other highlights were:

No "inappropriate conversations" over Christmas dinner

The gathering at the Oxfordshire home of Mrs Brooks and husband Charlie on 23 December 2010 came at a particularly sensitive moment in News Corp's ill-fated bid for BSkyB. Business Secretary Vince Cable had been stripped of his role adjudicating the proposal two days earlier after being recorded stating he had "declared war" on Rupert Murdoch. Mrs Brooks was now a regular fixture in the Camerons' diary. But with the storm clouds gathering over the hacking scandal, Downing Street was reluctant to confirm that Mr Cameron had attended the festive do. Mrs Brooks and James Murdoch only recently confirmed that the subject of the bid, passed to the domain of culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, had been raised. Yesterday, Mr Cameron offered his own version, insisting he had had "no inappropriate" conversations about the deal. He said: "We did discuss the BSkyB bid briefly. While I cannot remember the exact words, I believe I said that what Vince Cable had said about News Corp was wrong and I am sure that I would have said that, while I had recused myself from the decision, it would now be dealt with impartially, properly and in the correct way."

Courting The Sun

On 10 September 2009, James Murdoch used an informal drinks with the then Leader of the Opposition to reveal that The Sun would be switching its allegiance back from Labour to the Tories. To add some extra spice, Mr Cameron was told of plans to announce the switch during the Labour Party conference that month. In the event, The Sun's political re-orientation was made public with devastating effect for the eve of then Prime Minister Gordon Brown's main speech.

Taking Andy Coulson to No 10

The decision to hire the former News of the World editor as his director of communications in 2007 was, in Mr Cameron's words, always going to be a "controversial appointment". But the circumstances in which the Conservative leader obtained assurances from Mr Coulson that the phone hacking scandal would not come back to haunt him remain in dispute.

During his evidence to Lord Justice Leveson last month, Mr Coulson said the question of voicemail interception was raised only once by Mr Cameron during his recruitment in a phone call while he was on holiday in Cornwall. Mr Cameron, by contrast, insisted he had put the matter to the tabloid editor in a face-to-face meeting and then raised it at least once more following further revelations about phone hacking in 2009. Mr Cameron denied there was any discrepancy between the accounts, saying that it was clear he had sought assurances that were accepted by a host of institutions, including Scotland Yard.

BSkyB and Jeremy Hunt

The Prime Minister defended his handling of Mr Hunt's appointment to oversee the proposed take-over, denying that it was "some rushed, botched political decision". Mr Cameron told the inquiry that he had been presented with "a situation I didn't want" following the disclosure of Mr Cable's words but insisted that the decision to transfer the BSkyB bid to Mr Hunt had been made with the approval of his two most senior officials and Government lawyers. Mr Cameron said he did not remember a memo sent to him by Mr Hunt in November 2010 expressing support for the BSkyB deal but said subsequent legal advice showed it would not have made any difference.

He said: "So I accept there is controversy, but I think the backing of, as it were, two permanent secretaries and a lawyer is quite a strong state of affairs."

Deal or no deal?

Like George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he gave evidence earlier this week, Mr Cameron was at pains to dismiss as "absolute nonsense" any suggestion senior Conservatives struck a deal with the Murdoch empire to tailor policy to its needs in return for the support of News International's newspapers. In one testy moment, Mr Cameron said: "There weren't nods and winks. They were policies that I produced, that I am very proud of, came from our beliefs, values, my history... and they weren't dictated by anyone else."