Moments like the current one in Westminster are like sudden klieg-lights beaming down on otherwise crepuscular institutions. All the sharp shadows form; you see character tested; you see cliques revealed; you see the press divide. And in all this, you learn. One thing I’ve learned is that David Cameron is not to be under-estimated. His performance a short time ago today in the Commons was commanding. Yes, he has what the English call a “sticky wicket.” There seems little doubt to me that he hired NOTW editor, Andy Coulson, as an adviser precisely as the Murdoch press was indifferent to him and, mirabile dictu, Coulson, with his deep hackish connections, turned the situation around. There’s no getting around this – or the cool and more cunning hand of Chancellor George Osborne behind it. But the formula Cameron has adopted in defense of his position has been exactly the right one given the facts:
Mr Cameron said that if Mr Coulson had lied about phone hacking at his time at the News of the World then he should face “severe” criminal charges. He added: “If it turns out I have been lied to that would be a moment for a profound apology, and in that event I can tell you I will not fall short.”
He acknowledged that if he had known when he appointed Mr Coulson what he knew now, he would never have offered him the job. “Of course I regret, and I am extremely sorry about the furore it has caused. With 20:20 hindsight and all that has followed I would not have offered him the job and I expect that he wouldn’t have taken it,” he said.
“But you don’t make decisions in hindsight, you make them in the present. You live and you learn and believe you me, I have learned.”
Pitch perfect to my ears. And more candid than his Labour predecessors about the Murdoch swamp. One of the things least appreciated – but brought to light yesterday in the Murdoch hearings – is that Blair but most especially Brown were much, much closer to Murdoch than Cameron. Murdoch’s own remarks about his broken friendship with the former prime minister were almost touching yesterday. But Cameron definitely succumbed to – after first resisting – the fear of Murdoch’s power. He did what he had to do to get elected. It may not have been necessary. But it reveals the glint of ruthlessness in Cameron usually clothed in suave Etonian honor. The most successful scions of the English aristocracy – I think of my old friend, John Micklethwait who edits the Economist – have a brutal Thatcher-style spine to them. Cameron is in exactly that tough toff category. Behind the plummy vowels, there is steely ambition.
And to his credit, he has not run away from the decision to hire Coulson and has taken full, almost fulsome, responsibility for it. In the Commons, the opposition leader, the adenoidal wonk, Ed Miliband, has had a good scandal, but today he seemed somewhat deflated. There was a persnicketyness about his questioning that seemed somewhat small up against the prime minister’s candor and aggressive setting up of various inquiries. And for the first time, you could feel in the Commons a nagging sense that maybe they were getting carried away, and that most Brits really don’t care about this at all, and barely understand it. This is an elite scandal which the elite is obsessed by. It has not broken through to the public, except briefly over the Milly Dowler affair. If Miliband seems too petty, he will start losing. But Cameron has gone big and gone long. Smart politics.
Who is this man? I’ve spent much of the last fortnight asking people who know him. I need to ask some more before I get a real grip. But this is clear: his Etonian background is definitely part of him, and of a piece with the classic socializing in what is now being called the Chipping Norton set (an area in Oxfordshire where everyone in one clique in the British elite parties with everyone else). But what many do not see in Eton – the great public (i.e. super-private) school that has long dominated British public life – is that it does imbue many of its alums with a deep sense of social responsiblity.
In this sense, Cameron is much more the classic Tory PM than either of his two predecessors, working class John Major and aspiring bourgois handbagger, Margaret Thatcher. He is more MacMillan, with a touch of Baldwin. That he is so obviously posh has not pushed him outside mainstream middle class public opinion but has forced him to engage it more assiduously. The words one hears most often about him are “decent” and “sincere.” Of course those are not synonyms for completely clean. But with his current performance, total cleanliness is unnecessary. They’re all dirty in the Murdoch and tabloid drama, from right to left. But “the clock stopped on my watch,” as he put it. He seems quite prepared to put things right. Far from weakening him, I suspect his robust response to this crisis could help him.