Steve Richards: Cameron's immaturity lies exposed

His errors in this affair are part of a pattern of policy making. They are not fatal but they damage him

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The Murdochs fly out and David Cameron flies back from his trip to South Africa that he wisely did not cancel. The spotlight moves from once-powerful non-elected media executives to the elected Prime Minister who is not as powerful as he can seem.

There are five issues that relate directly to Cameron in this long-running drama, his appointment of Andy Coulson, his extensive contacts with News International, the activities of his chief of staff Ed Llewellyn, his role in the BSkyB deal that almost came to spectacular fruition and his response to the firestorm of the last three weeks, the first crisis in which he, rather than Nick Clegg, has been the centre of attention. How damaging are each of the issues and is there more to come?

On Coulson, Cameron has opted for candour. He could do little else. The Prime Minister could hardly deny there was no issue when his former senior adviser had been arrested. I respect Cameron for insisting that Coulson is innocent until proven guilty and understand why he has found it difficult to establish distance from a close colleague. Leaders are human. He has been expansive about his personal responsibility in the appointment and the almighty apology, in a form yet to be specified, that he will give if Coulson is found guilty. The association damages Cameron permanently, as it roots him so vividly in the old, dying era of subservience to a media empire and raises questions about judgement. But the steps of this particular Cameron/Coulson dance are familiar and will not change until the final legal verdict on his former press secretary.

Cameron's many meetings with News International executives are not especially surprising. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were equally assiduous. Not for the first time, the attack of the current Labour leadership is stifled by the precedent set by New Labour. The precedents mean there is limited space for any effective Labour attack about Cameron's excessive meetings with Rebekah Brooks and others.

Such gatherings will diminish. In one of many revealing exchanges yesterday, one MP reminded Cameron of Murdoch's semi-joke on Tuesday that he wished prime ministers would "leave me alone". Cameron almost whispered in response that Murdoch and others would be left alone from now on. He sounded relieved. The severing of links is a big change in itself.

Cameron addressed convincingly questions about the intervention of his head of staff Ed Llewelyn who, in an email asked the then Assistant Commissioner John Yates, not to discuss the hacking investigation during a prime ministerial meeting. In another easily-missed aside, Cameron argued that Llewelyn was guiding the police towards not acting improperly. In terms of the PM's future this is a non-story going nowhere. But in contrast to Cameron's expansive answers on Coulson, the number of meetings with media executives, his relations with the police, he was strikingly evasive about his discussions on the BSkyB deal. The evasiveness is much more significant precisely because he had been painstakingly transparent on all other issues. It was deliberate. He had a formulaic answer about having no "inappropriate" conversations but refused to explain what "appropriate" exchanges had taken place. Instead he cited Brooks' response on Tuesday in which she said there were no discussions that could not have taken place in front of the committee.

From these cryptic responses we need to decode, a need that is in itself illuminating. It is clear the BSkyB deal was discussed when Cameron met NI executives. Cameron recognises this is embarrassing or he would have been more specific. The similarity of the formulaic responses of Brooks on Tuesday and Cameron yesterday to this point suggest it is even possible there were discussions between both sides on how to handle it, although this could not have happened given the explosive nature of any contact in the current climate.

Brooks's neatly imprecise answer gives her the space to have made any point to Cameron in relation to the bid. Cameron had "appropriate" discussions, but offered no definition of the term, so he could have said quite a lot too. This part of the story is not over. Cameron is a sharp reader of the rhythms of politics. He knows this could land him in trouble or else he would have stuck with the strategy of transparent candour applied on other fronts.

Cameron has received most criticism, not least from other Conservatives, for his response to the crisis over the last fortnight. On the whole that is unfair. He was stuck with his decision to appoint Coulson, a decision from which there is no escape. It cannot be unmade. When he realised how big this had become he moved fast, so fast that when he met Ed Miliband last week to discuss the terms of the judicial inquiry he agreed to every suggestion made by the Labour leader. Some of his responses have been puny in their desperation such as the unfounded onslaught on Miliband's adviser Tom Baldwin, disgracefully implying equivalence with Coulson, but he has kept afloat in the storm.

The crisis will not bring Cameron down and should not do so. Nonetheless there are always reasons why events erupt around a Prime Minister. The deepest reason is that Cameron and George Osborne are not yet fully formed political leaders. They acquired power at a relatively young age and with no previous ministerial experience. Their political strategy is still derivative rather than fresh and authentic. In this case they wanted an Alastair Campbell to get them close to the tabloids in the same way they could not in the end resist a return to economic policies that led Margaret Thatcher to landslide election victories. Even this week Cameron's entourage seemed to be partly performing on the basis of Tony Blair in a crisis. When Boris Johnson appeared to be unhelpful they briefed "Boris is Boris" in the same way that Blair used to declare with a resigned smile "Peter is Peter". It does not feel wholly original.

Cameron and Osborne are the equivalent of a talented young footballers picked to play in a World Cup Final. They acquired power, New Labour style, in their party (did they consult colleagues widely about the appointment of Coulson?) and implement power in government New Labour style (did Cameron consult widely about the wisdom of meeting NI executives as the BSkyB deal loomed?).

To make sense of the Blair leadership it is important to appreciate that he had no previous ministerial experience. Cameron is a young Prime Minister in a much more epic context, a hung parliament and a deep economic crisis. His errors in this affair are part of a pattern in policy making. They are not fatal, but damage him. He has risen to the top very quickly and he must hope that in the new architecture that will emerge from recent crises he will have no choice but to grow into a very big, authentic leader or risk being swept away by events.





s.richards@independent.co.uk;

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