July 20 (Bloomberg) -- U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron will attempt today to stop the News of the World phone-hacking scandal inflicting further damage on his government as he faces the biggest crisis since he came to office last year.
Having cut short a trip to Africa, Cameron is back in London to map out the details of a judicial inquiry to lawmakers in a special session of parliament at 11:30 a.m. The prime minister needs to regain control of a deepening crisis, political analysts say. One way would be to apologize for appointing Andy Coulson, the ex-editor of the News Corp. newspaper arrested last week in the phone-hacking probe, as his communications chief in 2007. Coulson quit that job in January.
Cameron is “bleeding, and he needs to stop the bleeding,” Tim Bale, professor of politics at the University of Sussex and author of “The Conservative Party From Thatcher to Cameron,” said in a telephone interview. “He has to show that he has got a grip on the situation, and he can do that by making sure the inquiries start soon and that he is getting to the bottom of the problem.”
The scandal has so far led to the closure of the News of the World, cost two of London’s most senior police officers their jobs and triggered resignations among top News Corp. executives. It caused the company’s 80-year-old chairman, Rupert Murdoch, to declare that yesterday was the most “humble” day of his life as he was quizzed by lawmakers. Opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband has led criticism that Cameron was slow to order a probe into the affair and should have done more to stop News Corp.’s bid for British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc, now dropped.
The immediate challenges for Cameron are to stop Miliband from gaining an electoral advantage from the crisis, and to prevent his authority from being eroded within his own Conservative Party and the coalition administration. Cameron’s government needs to hold together to drive through the deepest public-spending cuts since World War II.
Almost daily shifts in events since July 4, when the Guardian newspaper reported that the News of the World hacked into the voicemail of murdered schoolgirl Millie Dowler in 2002, have prevented Cameron from drawing a line under the crisis.
As he flew back yesterday from Lagos, Nigeria, his party issued a statement saying that Coulson may have been given informal advice before the election by Neil Wallis, a former deputy News of the World editor who has also been arrested over phone-hacking.
‘Lance the Boil’
The prime minister “needs to say it was a mistake hiring Andy Coulson,” Patrick Dunleavy, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said in a telephone interview. “He could say sorry, that’s probably a good idea. It would lance the boil.”
The decision to hire Coulson has been at the center of the criticism of Cameron, though he’s also come under pressure over his friendship with Rebekah Brooks, another former News of the World editor who quit last week as chief executive officer of News International, News Corp.’s U.K. publishing unit.
“Lots of people were warning him saying this isn’t a good idea, there are really some substantial allegations about Andy Coulson,” Miliband told ITV yesterday. He said he wasn’t calling for Cameron to resign “because you shouldn’t be over the top in these things.”
The prime minister says there was no reason to doubt Coulson’s assurances that he had no knowledge of phone-hacking under his editorship. He quit the News of the World in 2007 after a reporter and a private detective were jailed. Coulson left his government job in January as allegations of wrongdoing at the newspaper mounted and was arrested on July 7.
News Corp. Links
On July 15, Cameron published details of his meetings with executives of media organizations since he took office in May 2010. They showed more than 40 percent of his contacts had been with executives of News International. Cameron also entertained Coulson in March, two months after Coulson stepped down.
Brooks, who also gave testimony to lawmakers yesterday, played down her links with Cameron, saying she’d never been to the prime minister’s office in London’s Downing Street since he took power, though she’d regularly visited his predecessors, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
Cameron decided to extend the session of parliament, originally due to end yesterday, by a day to make what he called a “big statement” on the judicial probe into the police investigation of phone-hacking and media regulation. He will also try to move beyond the story that has dominated British politics this month.
“People want us to get on with governing the country as well as dealing with hacking,” he told reporters in Lagos yesterday. “We’re not going to take our eye off the ball of getting our economy to grow and jobs for our people, making sure we’ve got strong immigration and welfare policies and doing all the things that frankly the British people are crying out for their government to get on with.”
That’s precisely what he should be doing to restore his standing, said Tim Montgomery, who runs the grassroots Tory website ConservativeHome.com.
“Cameron needs to change the conversation,” Montgomery said in an interview. “He needs to do what Bill Clinton did at the height of the Monica Lewinski affair when all the media cared about was sex and he kept saying that as president he would do things people care about, like the economy.”
So far Cameron’s standing with voters hasn’t suffered from the crisis. A YouGov Plc poll on July 17 and 18 showed 42 percent of voters saying they would back Labour at an election compared with 37 percent saying they would back the Conservatives, little changed from a July 7 survey that gave Labour a 6 percentage-point lead.
Erosion of Support
More immediately, though, Cameron must be wary of any erosion of support within his own party, according to Andrew Hawkins, chairman of ComRes Ltd., a London-based polling company.
“For the first time in this parliament there is open speculation about his position,” Hawkins said in a phone interview. “Colleagues in the House of Commons will question his judgment over Coulson’s appointment, over his handling of the crisis and over his decision to go to Africa” as the crisis was unfolding.
Even so, analysts are not expecting a longer-term hit to the Conservatives’ chances of holding on to power at the next general election, scheduled for 2015.
“The impact on the country at large I don’t think is going to be that dramatic once the poll ratings settle down,” Hawkins said.
There may be “a long-term drip, drip corrosive effect” on Cameron’s authority, said Bale. “Whether this is serious enough to compromise the chances of the Conservatives getting re-elected at the next election I very much doubt.”
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