Cameron’s Cabinet Distracted From Governing by Hacking Probe

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U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron
David Cameron, U.K. prime minister. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

David Cameron and his ministers are braced for weeks of unrelenting media attention, with a third of his Cabinet putting their day jobs on hold and preparing to testify under oath to the U.K.’s inquiry into press ethics.

One government aide described the situation as a nightmare, with ministers getting ready to face hours of questioning from a trial lawyer, all broadcast live. Another official said Cameron’s office had been forced to compile a list of every journalist the prime minister had met since 2005, when he became Tory leader. The officials declined to be named because they weren’t authorized to disclose the details.

Education Secretary Michael Gove and Home Secretary Theresa May were the first ministers to face questioning today. The hearings before Judge Brian Leveson are a distraction as the Cabinet tackles a double-dip recession, the fallout from a possible Greek exit from the euro area, and the security and transport challenges posed by this summer’s London Olympics.

“Inquiries are time-consuming, they are distracting,” Peter Goldsmith, a former attorney general who testified at probes in 2003 and 2004 into the events surrounding the Iraq War, said in a telephone interview. “It makes it very difficult to get on with the business of government.”

Hunt’s Future

After journalists, the police and Rupert and James Murdoch, politicians are starting to come under the spotlight of the Leveson Inquiry, set up last year by Cameron as he tried to distance himself from News Corp. following the phone-hacking scandal at its News of the World tabloid. The future of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who testifies on May 31, depends on his convincing the inquiry he behaved properly in adjudicating on News Corp.’s bid for British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who gave evidence in public and private to the various Iraq War probes, told Leveson yesterday he’d never done a deal with Rupert Murdoch to drop planned media legislation in return for favorable coverage.

It was a less intense grilling then the one he faced at the 2003 inquiry led by Brian Hutton into the death of a government scientist who’d been identified as the source of a leaked story on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. That could have cost him his job, and in his memoir, Blair described “an audible collective sigh of relief” in his office as they read the conclusions.

‘Declared War’

Business Secretary Vince Cable will be questioned tomorrow about his initial handling of News Corp.’s 7.8 billion-pound ($12.2 billion) bid in 2010 to buy the portion of BSkyB that it didn’t own.

Unlike many ministers from his coalition partners in Cameron’s Conservative Party, Cable won’t be asked if he was too close to the company: the Liberal Democrat was stripped of responsibility for deciding on the deal in December 2010, after two undercover journalists recorded him saying he’d “declared war” on Rupert Murdoch. Cameron asked Hunt to review the bid instead.

While no schedule for the Leveson Inquiry has been released beyond this week, Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg have both said they’re ready to appear. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne may also be called, having been cited frequently in evidence as close to Rupert Murdoch and his lieutenants.

Communications Chief

Cameron will be questioned about his decision to employ as his head of communications Andy Coulson, who had resigned as editor of the News Of The World in 2007 after one of his reporters was convicted of phone-hacking.

Coulson, who quit his job in Cameron’s Downing Street office at the start of 2011, was arrested last July after the police widened their investigation. He’ll also be asked about his relationship with the Murdochs and with former News Corp. executive Rebekah Brooks, charged with perverting the course of justice earlier this month.

In today’s testimony, May told the inquiry she hopes new national guidelines will bring “common sense” to relations between police and the press. The rules have been drafted by the Association of Chief Police Officers, following accusations that some police got too close to reporters. London’s Metropolitan Police are investigating allegations that News Corp. made corrupt payments to officials in return for stories.

Lobbyist E-Mails

It is Hunt who faces an immediate threat. The government was blindsided in April as the Leveson Inquiry began hearing extracts of e-mails from News Corp. lobbyist Fred Michel that appeared to quote Hunt as privately supporting the BSkyB bid while he was supposed to be adjudicating impartially.

As calls from the Labour opposition began for Hunt’s resignation, he and his officials were unable to see what he was supposed to be responding to. The following morning, his adviser Adam Smith, whom Hunt had appointed as the contact person for Michel, resigned, saying he’d got too close to the lobbyist.

‘Daddy,’ ‘Papa’

The government has since joined the list of celebrities and news organizations granted early, private access to Leveson evidence. While that’s more work for the small number of aides who’ve signed the confidentiality agreement and can see the documents, it meant they were ready on May 25 when text messages between Hunt and Michel were released that showed them referring to each other as “Daddy” and “Papa”; they’d met in 2010 when their wives gave birth in the same hospital.

Matthew Taylor, who was chief adviser on political strategy for Blair when the Hutton Inquiry’s report was published, said most ministers aren’t under the pressure Hunt faces.

“How distracting is it? It’s only quite distracting,” he said in an interview. “I don’t think in Downing Street things will not be being done because of Leveson. I suspect that Jeremy Hunt is feeling the kind of pressure we felt during Hutton.”

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