John Rentoul: Cameron exposed, but not at risk

The promise of a public inquiry was hailed as a triumph for the Leader of the Opposition, but the PM has won again
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The Independent Online

It may be the end of the World, but David Cameron seemed quite cheerful at his Downing Street news conference on Friday, announced at only 7.50 that morning. Once again, the Prime Minister showed that he is a last-minute crammer who works best in a crisis. There was an air of panic in Cameron's phone calls as he returned from Afghanistan on Tuesday night. He did not decide until Wednesday morning, just before he faced the Commons, that the way to limit the contamination of himself, his party and his government by the phone-hacking scandal was to announce an inquiry.

So when Ed Miliband, at last relishing the chance to do a bit of opposing, demanded that reliable first resort of the opposition, a FIPI, a "full, independent public inquiry", Cameron was able to say: "Yes, we do need to have an inquiry – possibly inquiries – into what has happened." This was hailed as a triumph for the Leader of the Opposition, although the Prime Minister had won again. After that, Miliband's questions were irrelevant: he asked for a pause in Rupert Murdoch's bid for the rest of BSkyB, which Labour had previously accepted was separate from phone-hacking; why Rebekah Brooks had not been sacked, which is a good question, but not one for the Prime Minister; and a rhetorical one to put "catastrophic judgement" and "Andy Coulson" into the same sentence.

The BSkyB business is complicated, because the Murdochs already have a controlling share in it. They presumably want to be able to cross-subsidise within their empire, and have agreed in return to reduce their influence in British news reporting by floating off Sky News. But such technical details have been lost in the clatter of pitchforks as the yeomanry rise up against means of production (of the filthy gossip that they buy in their millions). So it was that Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, decided that it would take him a very long time indeed to read all the 100,000 submissions to the consultation and that he had better take them on holiday with him.

I am reminded of the words of Alan Sugar in the 1980s, when customers complained that the souped-up version of his green-screen personal computer overheated. "It doesn't need a fan but if the customers want an effing fan I'll stick an effing fan on it." The BSkyB bid has nothing to do with anything, but if voters and the media hue and cry want an effing fan, put it off until September.

As for Brooks and Coulson, it is quite easy for Cameron to dodge the demand that he should ask her to "consider her position". For one thing, it is a silly phrase, that Miliband seems to think is a serious, prime ministerial way of saying someone should be sacked. Miliband actually did gravitas quite well in the Commons last week, but he was much better when he said: "I know that this is difficult for the Prime Minister." That drew blood. The Prime Minister cannot go around telling media companies who their executives should be, but he is exposed by his personal friendship with Brooks, and by his decision, long ago, to hire Coulson.

Exposed, but this is not the end of the world for Cameron. Some of the commentary has been a little overheated. Peter Oborne of the Telegraph, fresh from declaring in May that Cameron had "risen to the level of events" and could be a "great prime minister", has now decided that Cameron has fallen to the level of the sewer and has tarnished himself for good. Ladbrokes yesterday briefly suspended betting on Cameron being the "next minister to leave the Cabinet". Talk about the markets overshooting.

Actually, as bad a decision as the continued employment of Coulson was, it was hardly the most terrible thing that has happened in postwar British politics. When the questions at Friday's news conference focused on Coulson, the worst of the story, for the Prime Minister, was over. It was outrageous, of course, for Cameron to say that employing Coulson was "very different from taking money from a tobacco advertiser or starting a war". He supported the invasion of Iraq, after all. It is politics, I know, but sometimes we could do without it. The important thing is that Coulson doesn't work for him any more. Nor does anyone believe that Coulson was solely responsible for delivering the support of the Murdoch titles in the election.

That takes us to the nub of the politics of this. For many anti-war liberals, Cameron's crime was to be too cosy with the Evil Empire of Rupert Murdoch. It was Tony Blair's crime before him and even Gordon Brown's crime, although he was not so good at it. Some of Ed Miliband's supporters have been carrying him shoulder high last week (metaphorically), for calling for Brooks to go. For them, this means he has broken free from Murdoch's tyranny and the right-wing cloud of fear that has lowered over British politics.

The theory goes like this: in return for allowing Murdoch to extend his monopoly of the British media, pumping right-wing poison into the brains of the masses, Blair and Cameron have enjoyed the endorsement of the Sun-god. There is only one thing wrong with it, which is that it is untrue. Murdoch's supposed domination of the British media has been in decline since 1997. He was slow to get online, put up a pay wall around his quality newspapers and is now planning to divest himself of Sky News.

The accusation therefore has to be scaled back to this: Blair was and Cameron still is quite successful at ingratiating himself with media proprietors, editors and journalists. Dog bites man. Politicians try to get good media coverage so that they can win votes. Small earthquake, not many hurt.

What most voters care about is that the News of the World has been up to no good and the Prime Minister, sounding suitably outraged, has announced an inquiry into it. For them, the world will keep turning.