Mary Ann Sieghart: And the real winners will be ...

This scandal – which will run for years – is much better news for Labour and the Lib Dems than it is for the Tories

Share
Related Topics

"This was the week we lost the next election," said a senior Tory gloatingly to me last Thursday. Admittedly, he is a senior Tory who has never much liked David Cameron, which explains (a) why he was gloating and (b) why he was probably exaggerating. But it's fair to say that politics is in greater flux than it has been since the last election. And the party leader who has most to lose is Cameron.

Sir Paul Stephenson's resignation doesn't affect him as much as Rebekah Brooks' arrest. "I'm not going to pretend it's not bad," said a close Cameron ally to me yesterday. "It's the tarnishing moment. Not as bad as Westland but worse than Ecclestone." During the Westland crisis, Margaret Thatcher was hours away from resigning. When Tony Blair was caught accepting a £1m donation from Formula One's Bernie Ecclestone and then arguing for Formula One to be exempt from the tobacco advertising ban, there was no question of resignation, but it wrecked his early reputation for being straight with voters.

Cameron has looked defensive and rattled over the past 10 days. At each stage, Ed Miliband has made the running and the Prime Minister has been forced to trot along behind to catch up. That's an extraordinary position for a Leader of the Opposition to be in. Normally, opposition leaders can't shape events, but can only respond to them. Yet Miliband has managed to achieve a judicial inquiry, Rebekah Brooks' resignation, and the dropping of News Corp's bid. All in just over a week.

Cameron was already in trouble over the hiring of Andy Coulson as his communications director. Says a former member of his Shadow Cabinet, "I'm baffled as to why David Cameron appointed him in the first place. And I'm baffled as to why he took him into government. It was a massive error of judgment."

Cameron knew the risks but still judged them to be worth taking. Soon after the appointment, the Conservative leader explained himself at an internal party meeting, saying, "Andy Coulson's the man who invented the line 'hug a hoodie'. If he can do that much damage to me, think how much damage he can do to the Labour Party!"

Now think how much damage Coulson might yet do to the Prime Minister if he ends up being convicted of perjury or corrupting the police. Did Cameron ever get to hear the warnings about Coulson passed on by Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, and others? It's possible that he didn't. They were given to Steve Hilton, Cameron's director of strategy, who was involved in such a bitter feud with Coulson that the two men hadn't spoken for months and Hilton was refusing to go to meetings at which Coulson was present. So you can imagine what sort of reception Hilton would have got from Cameron's chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn, when he looked as if he were trying to dish the dirt on an old enemy. Llewellyn was more likely to dismiss the claims as bile than write a serious note to his boss about them.

All the same, there was enough in the public domain about Coulson's time as editor of The News of the World for Cameron to have had second thoughts about giving him a second chance. Now the Prime Minister is going to be dogged by that relationship for years to come. Between now and the next election, there will be prosecutions of police officers, who will blab about their relationships with journalists. Then it will be the journalists' turn in the dock, possibly for crimes more serious even than phone hacking. After that, there will be an open public inquiry with reporters, editors, policemen and politicians giving evidence under oath – much of which will be as embarrassing to Cameron as the Chilcot Inquiry was to Blair. Accompanying all of this will be endless photos of Cameron with Coulson, various Murdochs and Rebekah Brooks.

Now that she has been arrested, the Prime Minister's cosy relationship with the former News International chief executive has become all the more embarrassing. That he should have brought her into his weekend social life as well as his professional life – even when his Government was making huge commercial decisions about her company – looks very bad. And some voters, who already suspect he is too privileged, too elitist, too concerned with his rich and powerful friends, will only have their prejudices confirmed.

News Corp's tentacles spread more broadly through the Conservative Party. Take John Whittingdale, chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, who is due to interrogate the Murdochs tomorrow. As politicians go, he is likeable and engaging, but he is hardly impartial on this subject. Back in 1996, he voted against his own government by supporting an amendment that would have allowed a publisher with more than 20 per cent of the national newspaper market to buy an ITV company. He must have thought News International's interests were more important than his job as a PPS, from which he was forced to resign for this rebellion. More recently, when his select committee was conducting an inquiry into the BBC, guess who Whittingdale appointed as the committee's specialist advisor? None other than Ray Gallagher, former director of public affairs and senior advisor at BSkyB, and a sworn enemy of the BBC.

The only party that comes out unequivocally well from this scandal is the Liberal Democrats. They opposed the power of News International when it was a brave thing to do. Labour has been only a recent convert. On the last day of coalition negotiations after the general election, a desperate Gordon Brown offered Nick Clegg a Royal Commission on the future of the media. But it was too late.

Still, Miliband's personal ratings have leapt up since he took on Murdoch. His Shadow Cabinet, which had been rather ignoring him, is full of admiration. He now has a chance to capitalise on his new-found authority. Today, he is giving another speech on responsibility, in which he will link bankers, politicians and journalists as powerful vested interests that have acted irresponsibly. He could take that further by challenging another powerful vested interest: the trade unions. At this year's party conference, he'd do well to propose a rewriting of party rules so that unions have less say over the election of the leader and the policy of the party. He needs to show that he is not in their pocket.

Conservatives are secretly quite pleased that Miliband's position has been cemented, as they think he will be easy to beat at a general election. They may still be right. But this scandal – which will run for years – is much better news for Labour and the Lib Dems than it is for the Tories. One veteran Labour politician has been saying, with as much hyperbole as the Conservative at the beginning of this column: "There were three things I never thought I'd live to see: the fall of the Soviet empire, the end of white rule in South Africa and the collapse of Rupert Murdoch's power."

If he were a TV darts commentator, he'd be shouting: "ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY!"



m.sieghart@independent.co.uk



React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician / Helpdesk - 2nd / 3rd Line

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Application Developer

£20000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in the centre of Glasgow,...

Recruitment Genius: Production Engineering Manager

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Joinery Shop Foreman

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Joinery Shop Foreman is required to join a p...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

For the sake of the millions of girls who miss vital schooling during their periods, we must dismantle the 'menstrual taboo'

Emily Wilson Smith
 

Rick Santorum’s presidential bid isn’t funny, it’s terrifying

Sirena Bergman
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada