Monday, 18 July 2011

Phone Hacking: The waves lap around the Prime Minister’s ankles

Sir Paul Stephenson’s extraordinary resignation statement last night has brought the earthquake that is phone hacking to the doors of 10 Downing Street.

The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police’s long and mostly self-justificatory statement contained, approximately half way through, a knifing in the back of the Prime Minister. Referring to his hiring of former News of the World journalist Neil Wallis, who was last week arrested in relation to phone hacking, Sir Paul made the following comments:

“Once Mr Wallis's name did become associated with Operation Weeting [into phone hacking], I did not want to compromise the Prime Minister in any way by revealing or discussing a potential suspect who clearly had a close relationship with Mr Coulson."

Sir Paul is in effect saying: “I couldn’t tell you about Wallis because you are close mates with Coulson who would have gone running back to News International to tell them all about our investigation.”

In his statement last night Sir Paul went on to say: "Unlike Mr Coulson, Mr Wallis had not resigned from the News of the World or, to the best of my knowledge been in any way associated with the original phone hacking investigation."

In other words: “I’ve got a good excuse for hiring an ex-News of the World staffer because he hadn’t been forced to resign from his previous job over phone hacking. What’s yours for hiring Coulson after he was forced to resign the editorship of the NOTW?”

There are two key issues now for the Prime Minister. Firstly, to use another Watergate analogy, is there a ‘Smoking Gun’ which points to the fact that he was asked to appoint Coulson by News International or worse forced to appoint him.

The other key issue is how the Tory press will react. Nearly two weeks ago Peter Oborne in the paper turned on the Prime Minster questioning his judgement over appointing Coulson. One veteran reader of the Daily Telegraph said to me it was “the most scathing indictment of a Conservative Prime Minister in the Telegraph since the paper turned on Anthony Eden over the Suez Crisis”.

Many Tory supporters are worried. Last night Tory blogger Iain Dale questioned whether the Prime Minister, indeed the Government, could survive this.

If the Prime Minister is not careful the waves currently lapping around his ankles will be up to his neck.

We live in extraordinary times.


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