There is no doubt that David Cameron’s premiership is in trouble following yesterday’s testimony to the Home Affairs Select Committee and its aftermath: while the appearance of Met Police chiefs did not have the attention and the drama of News International execs appearing before the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, it did result in the release of the exchange between John Yates and Ed Llewellyn, Cameron’s Chief of staff (see the entry at 15.59 here for the most complete transcript I’ve come across).
This, on the same day as the revelation that the same man (Neil Wallis) who caused Sir Paul Stephenson and John Yates to resign was also advising Andy Coulson – albeit informally – while Coulson was working for Cameron on the Conservative election campaign, around April last year (according to the Indy).
There are, of course, other questions that remain – particularly in relation to any discussion of the BSkyB takeover that the PM might have had with NI executives, especially his friend Rebekah Brooks. But, assuming that he weathers the stormy exchanges that he’s likely to have in the Commons and before the 1922, Cameron will need to do something to regain the initiative as MPs head off on their summer holidays, albeit a day late.
Dangers real and imagined
The only way Cameron might realistically not weather the storm – at least in the short term – is if there is a coup against him from within the Tory party. Labour cannot do any more than just shout from the opposition benches – that is the nature of opposition – but the longer they keep talking about it, the more damaged the PM will become; hence the very sensible suggestions from a former Blair advisor writing to Cameron in the Telegraph on Monday. The Lib Dems’ polling numbers would still make anything other than electoral slaughter unlikely should an election be called, and pulling the plug on the Government would lead to one (especially since the Fixed Term Parliaments bill still hasn’t been passed): Roy Greenslade’s call in the Guardian on Monday for Nick Clegg to bring Lib Dems over to the Labour benches is as fanciful as the idea that a Labour-Lib Dem coalition would have worked in May 2010.
So it is the Tory ranks where the biggest potential danger for Cameron lies. Such danger is unlikely to manifest itself openly in the short term (although the briefings against George Osborne that Newsnight reported happened on the plane back from Nigeria, as well as the Chancellor’s conspicuous absence from screens or microphones, bring back some memories from the Blair/Brown days); but the longer the scandal goes on with Cameron on the back foot, the more likely a coup becomes. Whether a summer recess is conducive to plotting is, of course, debatable – away from Westminster, MPs are less likely to become involved in a coup attempt in numbers large enough for a coup to be effective (see the various failed plots against Blair and Brown), but it also makes small gatherings of key plotters less conspicuous (ditto).
Whose head is next to roll?
Aside from the possibility that Dick Fedorcio, the Met’s communications chief (who appears to have been the one to have actually signed off on the hiring of Wallis), will add to the list of former Met employees, the next casualty of the hacking scandal is, I think, likely to be someone within the No 10 staff and/or the Cabinet.
No 10 has been quick to point out that Ed Llewellyn had cleared, with the Permanent Secretary, the email exchange that led to information on the hacking investigation not being discussed with the PM in September 2010. Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, also rushed to say that no ministerial rules had been broken by the exchange. Both those things suggest that, in the absence of any other revelations, Ed Llewellyn’s job is safe. However, Tim Montgomerie reported hearing that Sayeeda Warsi’s job as Chair of the Conservative Party may be less secure.
All of which leads me to (albeit many months later!) take up Nick Thornsby’s challenge of considering what might happen if a reshuffle does happen. This has been the most stable government so far since January 2001 (Peter Mandelson’s second resignation), as both Blair and Brown had to deal with resignations, or carried out reshuffles, on a less-than-annual basis; that alone means that a reshuffle may well have been on the cards.
Some reshuffles are more equal than others
It could be that Sayeeda Warsi’s removal – if that is indeed what happens – is a simple sack-and-promote job, with the Baroness returning to the red benches and someone coming in from either the red or the green benches to take her place. Whoever takes her job must surely be someone who isn’t a natural “Cameronite” – which rules out most of the new intake, who would probably lack the gravitas and authority required anyway. If Cameron could persuade Sir John Major to come out of retirement, he might well fit the bill, but more realistically, perhaps someone like Bill Cash could be elevated to appease the right-wing Tory backbenchers.
More likely, in my view – because of the need to dramatically change the focus of the story, and because one of the reasons so few Cabinet members have been on air in the last few days might have been because they’d been busy laying the ground for a reshuffle, – is that there is a wider reshuffle. This might end up with Baroness Warsi keeping her Cabinet seat, but in a different role; her symbolic importance as a female Muslim cabinet minister is irreplaceable. A different potential ‘sacrificial lamb’ might be Ken Clarke, who is hardly beloved by the Tory right; whether the Baroness could (let alone should) replace him is a different question.
It could, of course, go further than a couple of swaps or replacements. Whether, for instance, the Chancellor is moved would perhaps be telling of the extent to which Cameron is prepared to shake things up in a way Blair never dared to. I could see a situation where, for instance, William Hague is put in charge of the Party machine (taking Baroness Warsi’s job), with Osborne put at the Foreign Office; Osborne might then be replaced by Clarke (who was, after all, quite a success as Chancellor in the mid-1990s, if my history is right).
Incidentally, I don’t think any changes are likely with the Lib Dem team. Any percieved strengthening of the junior coalition partner would play very badly with the Tory right, and some potentially welcome moves (like bringing David Laws back) would probably be percieved in that way. But nor are demotions likely, since these would upset the delicate balance between the two coalition partners, which is still recovering from the AV fiasco and the outcome of this year’s local elections. So I’d go with preserving the status quo, for now at least, in that respect.
I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point today David Cameron ends up apologising for hiring Andy Coulson – something which, according to Labour, he has not done – given yesterday’s revelations. But I would be surprised if he doesn’t then try to shift the media attention away from the story with something like a reshuffle – the question then becomes, how extensive that reshuffle will be. Of course, the continuing Eurozone crisis, if not the events elsewhere in the world (sadly, we seem unlikely to be easily diverted from the #hackgate saga by something like a famine in Africa anytime soon) might do it for him. Whether Cameron continues to be led by events or seizes the initiative will help to define what sort of Prime Minister he really is.
PS: although I agree with Nick Thornsby’s call for Nick Clegg to make the most of the hacking scandal in principle, I don’t really see how the DPM can actually do more than remind people he and other Lib Dems had raised concerns about Coulson and that those concerns had been ignored, while stressing that he is continuing to work to address the big issue of the day – the Eurozone crisis – and pursue the longer-term goals (reforming the way media, politics and police inter-relate; constitutional and other reforms, etc) which the Coalition was created to pursue.