PMQs today was easy. All he had to do was to appear suitably revolted by the hackers, to demand an inquiry in his sternest whine, and to resume his seat with a self-righteous quiver fading along his lips. But he did far more. He astonished everyone. He managed to turn the News International affair into a question of the prime minister’s moral judgement.
Cameron was the first to succumb. Asked by Miliband to refer the upcoming BSkyB deal to the Competition Commission, the prime minister resorted to political abuse. “He’s done a U-turn to look good in the commons.” Miliband responded with one of his favourite lines about his Etonian enemy. “He’s out of touch with millions of people. With this scandal engulfing News International, the public will not accept that the government is making a decision to let it take control of one of biggest media organisations in the country.”
Cameron tried to remove the emotional heat by referring to legal principles. “When you’re dealing with the law there’s a process called due process,” he said without much elegance. And with even less political sense. Ed Miliband: “This is not the time for technicalities. He should speak for the country. This was a systematic pattern of abuses and it happened on the watch of the current chief executive. She should take responsibility and consider her position.”
All Cameron had to do now was surpass his opponent’s show of outrage. Instead he referred angrily to procedure all over again. “Let the police do their work!” This left the field clear for Miliband to strike a pose as the man who makes power accountable to him. “I am clear - she should stand down.” Then he administered a last cutting swipe. “He’s got to accept he made a catastrophic error of judgement by bringing Andy Coulson into heart of Downing Street.” Miliband cannot have guessed how beautifully this little squib would work.
Mr Cameron’s voice dropped. His tone went cold. “I take full responsibility for everyone I employ. And for everyone I appoint,” he said in deadly tones. Sensing that his tone was wrong he switched to Princess Diana mode, “I feel so appalled by what’s happened,” he said. Then he referred to police investigations yet again. It was too late. His failure to capture the right emotional note and his unquenchable fury seemed, frankly, a bit weird.
Even weirder still – as soon as the subject changed Mr Cameron changed too. He handled backbench questions with his usual suave and competent brightness. But, just at the end, up popped Ben Bradshaw, former culture secretary, to revive the issue of BSkyB. Even as the question began, Mr Cameron’s cheeks were ripening like a time-lapse sequence of a Cox’s Orange Pippin.
Bradshaw asked why the PM was prepared to trust the assurances of News Corps over the TV merger when the News of the World, its subsidiary, had behaved like a gang of crooks. Cameron tried to resort to legal arguments again but rage tripped him up. ‘A decision made on that basis would be STRUCK DOWN in the courts,’ he shouted ruddily at the sleek and tanned Mr Bradshaw. ‘You’d look pretty for a day,’ Cameron added tartly, ‘and useless for a week!’
This should have been a statesmanlike stroll for the PM but he turned it into an uphill slog. He’s exposed himself in two areas which Miliband will be able to exploit at any time. He’s extraordinarily touchy about Rebekah Brooks-no-suggestion-of-impropriety. And he’s still deeply hurt about Andy Pandy Coulson too. Three-nil to Miliband.