PMQs: It would be a mistake for Miliband to ask about Coulson, so Coulson it was

The voters are not that interested in the small print of the phone hacking story, especially if the Leader of the Opposition fails to land a blow

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The worst idea for Ed Miliband would have been to ask all six questions about Andy Coulson, the Prime Minister’s former director of communications. The British public are much less offended by phone hacking than the non-Murdoch press and the non-Tory parties like to pretend.

Journalists are low-life, and eavesdropping is what they do. Most people probably thought, if you had bothered to ask them in 2007, when David Cameron hired Coulson, whether Coulson knew what was going on at the News of World when he was editor: Of course he did. Do they think less of politician low-life for hiring journalist low-life? Not really. Are they impressed by Miliband “standing up to Rupert Murdoch” by demanding the Leveson inquiry? Not much. They don’t think he showed leadership, they think he was like a year 11 boy who was bravely sarcastic once to a feared teacher.

The second-worst idea for Miliband would have been to ask his first question about Coulson, and then to move on to something about which the voters care. It might have been a bit rhetorical and party point-scoring, but he could have asked the question asked this morning by Ed Balls, the shadow Chancellor: what is the Prime Minister afraid of in refusing to allow the Office for Budget Responsibility to assess the parties’ election promises?

But no. What would Cameron want me to ask about, Miliband must have asked his PMQs prep team. “Coulson,” they chorused. So Coulson it was, for all six questions. The cliché count was a reliable indicator of the weakness of the opposition leader’s case. Cameron had “wilfully” ignored “multiple” warnings about hacking on “an industrial scale”. (On what scale was it? “An industrial scale.”)

Only by the time he got to question five did Miliband think he had hit on his “did you threaten to overrule him” question. Had Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, raised concerns about Coulson’s appointment? Cameron seemed to slide sideways a little in answer to that one: “Lord O’Donnell was very clear in his evidence to the Leveson inquiry.”

Miliband was full of toothy glee. Lord O’Donnell had not had not been asked about Coulson at the Leveson hearings, he exclaimed triumphantly. The Labour leader had caught the Prime Minister out. This bit of the conspiracy theory did not fall apart until after the session was over, when journalists looked up Lord O’Donnell’s written evidence to Leveson and found that he had in fact said: “I was not involved in the process of appointing Mr Coulson.”

But Miliband’s political failure was obvious long before he had sat down. The Tory heckle machine had started taunting him with cries of “weak” and he responded by telling Cameron he was weak for “failing to stand up for the right thing”. Cameron’s return was deadly: “Weak is holding up a copy of The Sun and apologising a few hours later.”

The Prime Minister reminded him that he had demanded a full, independent, judge-led inquiry into the hacking scandal and that it had failed to find the conspiracy between the Conservative Party and the Murdoch business for which Miliband had hoped. The Prime Minister did not point out that Miliband was supported in this venture by Nick Clegg, doing his mute statue routine on the bench next to him. Nor did he point out that Leveson’s remit specifically excluded court cases such as Coulson’s. But Miliband had already lost.

A more lawyerly performance from the leader of the opposition and Cameron might have been in trouble. You could imagine John Smith or Harold Wilson, with a little forensic precision and a little wit to carry the House, giving him an uncomfortable 11 minutes. 

But it was a mistake to have raised the Coulson appointment in the first place. Not a single vote will change hands by rehashing old news. Indeed, some votes may have been lost by such an abject failure to score even a debating-society point.

 

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