Voters ask: who is the real David Cameron?
A week is a long time in politics. It seemed that David Cameron had overcome public distrust of his Etonian and PR background. Now, his 'straight guy' reputation is under fire.
David Cameron’s world has been turned upside down. One week ago, he was a Teflon prime minister, sailing through U-turns and furious policy rows with the calm certainty of a man born to lead. Ministers like Andrew Lansley (health), Kenneth Clark (justice) or Caroline Spelman (environment) ran into flak but Cameron, at their head, moved serenely on, coming through it all with his reputation unscathed.
That was until last week, when the news broke that a paper run by News International, with which Cameron has had strong links, hacked into the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. Since then, a stream of revelations have shaken Cameron’s unflappable calm.
Responding to questions on the scandal – and in particular on why he hired the disgraced News International executive Andy Coulson to join his political team – he appeared red-faced and flustered. How much did he know about Coulson’s role in phone hacking, he was asked. Why did his advisors ignore warnings from The Guardian newspaper and from his Lib Dem allies that Coulson was tainted by the scandal? What moral price did Cameron pay to use Coulson as a link to the UK’s most powerful media group?
While Cameron stalled and sputtered, his Labour opponent Ed Miliband was enjoying a rare moment of success. Miliband has endured a difficult nine months as Labour leader, condemned as weak and ineffectual by MPs of both parties. Now he has suddenly found his voice, relentlessly grilling Cameron on his association with News International at yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions.
Miliband also played a strategic masterstroke, proposing a Parliamentary vote to condemn the attempt by News International’s parent company to take over the broadcaster BSkyB. In the face of overwhelming public anger, Cameron ordered his Conservative MPs to swallow their pride and support the Labour motion, an extraordinary and almost unprecedented act.
It will have been painful to let Labour score such a victory – but the alternative was worse. The News International brand is now politically toxic and Cameron, who once courted the company’s staff, must now desperately try to avoid being seen to support them.
Back in January, Conservative commentator Peter Oborne felt on safe ground calling Cameron ‘a pretty straight sort of guy’. Voters were persuaded that the Tory leader was essentially an honourable man.
Now, that same commentator says it is impossible to believe that Cameron has ‘a decent set of values’. He is now, writes Oborne, ‘a profoundly damaged figure’, who has been ‘dragged into a sewer’ by his News International friends.
- Is Cameron really damaged by this scandal? If so, is that fair?
- The main problem for Cameron is that he hired Andy Coulson, who turned out to have been deeply involved in the scandal. But how much should people be responsible for the past behaviour of their employees?
- Watch Ed Miliband and David Cameron sparring in the House of Commons yesterday. Hold a vote to see who you think was most convincing.
- Can a bad man be a good Prime Minister? Can a good man be a bad Prime Minister? Write a short piece explaining your thoughts on these questions.
Some People Say...
“Prime ministers should be judged on their policies, not their personalities.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- So it’s been a big week in politics?
- Very. We’ve seen a Conservative prime minister forced to support a Labour motion in parliament and even supporting Gordon Brown, the PM whom Cameron ousted at the last General Election.
- Wasn’t Gordon Brown targeted by journalists?
- He was indeed. He made a thunderous speech in the House of Commons yesterday in which he accused News International of ‘law breaking on an industrial scale’ and using ‘links to the criminal underworld’.
- How close was Cameron to News International really?
- There were two key connections: Andy Coulson, who was Cameron’s director of communications, and Rebekah Brooks, the News International chief executive. Brooks was a frequent dinner guest of the Camerons as part of the so-called ‘Chipping Norton set’.
- A brand name for a non-stick material used on saucepans. Some leaders get called 'Teflon' because nothing sticks to them.
- Sudden changes or reversals of policy are sometimes unkindly called U-turns, after a manoeuvre in driving.
- News International
- The most powerful media group in Britain, ultimately controlled by Rupert Murdoch. It owns The Times, the Sunday Times, The Sun and – until it was shut down – the News of the World.
- Prime Minister's Questions
- A regular event at which MPs are allowed to quiz the Prime Minister on any subject they like. This week the questions were almost all about News International.