The week in politics: The never-ending omniscandal
The crystal meth of political scandals continues to claim more victims. Can even Ed Miliband's summer holiday kill it?
By Ian Dunt Follow @IanDunt
A few hours before parliament finally went into recess, a group of online journalists were chatting in the lobby. "Is it… is it over then?" one said, the veins in his eyes peculiarly visible. Everyone seemed tense and damaged. Omnigate is the crystal meth of political scandals. And it's not over yet.
The week began with a Sunday evening resignation. It's just not done, to resign on a Sunday evening. It's absurd, like coming home at seven at night to find your partner in the bath eating cereal. It’s not exactly socially unacceptable, but it is odd behaviour.
Top cop Sir Paul Stephenson, as no-one calls him, has developed a laughable post-resignation reputation as a tower of respectability. It was not always thus. In fact, it wasn't thus even one hour beforehand, when no-one would say anything about him except 'he has questions to answer' (parliamentary code for 'get your coat, mate, you're done'). They asked Nick Clegg, who has so much spare compassion he even found time to defend the prime minister this week. Alas, he thought Sir Paul had 'questions to answer'. They asked teenage Home Office minister James Brokenshire (the porn star name is presumably a construction). He replied rather ominously, suggesting his boss (Towering Theresa May) would make a statement the next day in the Commons.
She did too. Except that by the time she got to the Commons she had nothing to say about Neil Wallis, the PR man whose web of personal and professional relationships spreads itself across Scotland Yard, Fleet Street and No.10 like some ominous cloud. Instead, she was full of emphatic praise for Sir Paul's high-minded respectability. Labour, whose attack on David Cameron relied on the premise that a decent copper had had to resign because of his conflict of interest with Andy Coulson, took the same approach.
Sir Paul's underling, massively unconvincing John Yates, went next. It was so predictable that journalists would return from the toilet asking nonchalantly: "Yates gone yet?" Unless they had particularly over-active bladders, the answer was yes. By Tuesday both coppers were in front of the home affairs committee enthusiastically landing Downing Street in it.
Sir Paul's carefully worded resignation statement set up the trap by saying he couldn't bring the Wallis situation to Cameron's attention because of the Coulson situation. He cheerfully insisted the press were over-analysing it – as preposterous a statement as any he has given. He then opened the trapdoor by suggesting someone in No.10 made that call for him. Whoever could it be? Not for him to say, he told MPs. That, along with everything else in the Met's catalogue, was relegated to John Yates, a sort of political dumping ground for potentially troublesome past actions. Review of the original phone-hack case? Give it to Yates. Due diligence on Wallis? Give it to Yates. Bringing a spectacular conflict of interest between the Met and the very people it was supposed to be investigating to Downing Street's attention? Give it to Yates.
It turned out the No.10 official in question was Ed Llewellyn, Cameron's chief of staff. By this point the scandal was more than touching the prime minister, it was rubbing its grubby hands all over his pants and not bothering to say thank you. In full-on crisis mode – a crisis so bad Ed Miliband was being talked about in the same sentence as 'prime ministerial' – Cameron cut short his Africa trip, went straight to the Commons and pledged: 'I'll apologise…. if it eventually turns out Coulson lied to me'.
In a response which says really rather a lot about the political inclinations of Britain's journalists, this was written up as a success for Cameron, even though it easily constituted one of his most slippery and evasive Commons performances to date. What was the name of the firm that security checked Coulson? Nope, not going to answer that. Did you ever talk about the BSkyB deal with Rebekah Brooks and James Murdoch? Nope, not going to answer that.
To make matters worse, several Tory MPs seemed to have misunderstood the distinction between cause and effect. They defended Llewellyn's decision to stop any discussion of phone-hacking between Yates and Cameron as operationally sound (correct) but misunderstood the argument that this situation only pertained because of Cameron's error in hiring Coulson in the first place.
Regardless of the analysis, Cameron's 'break in case of emergency' Commons statement barely bandaged a gaping wound. By the next day, questions were already being raised about why Coulson received a lower security clearing than any of his predecessors, successors or underlings. Seems dodgy, doesn’t it? You know what they saw: where there's smoke, there's probably an evidential trail of deep-seated institutional corruption. Furthermore, his refusal to answer questions about his picnics with Brooks and the subjects of conversation which might have arisen during them were somewhat undermined by media secretary Jeremy Hunt, who inadvertently let slip that, yeah, surprise surprise, they had talked about BSkyB after all. In an entirely honourable way, of course.
Oh, the Murdochs appeared in front of the media committee by the way. James Murdoch talked an awful lot without saying anything at all. Rupert Murdoch didn't seem to be fully awake. The dark silence of conspiracy theorists was replaced with something resembling pity. The highlight, as you already know, was the satisfying and efficient violence of Wendi Deng, Murdoch's secret service agent… I mean wife. Days later, two of the Murdochs' own senior allies had issued a statement accusing them of lying to parliament. That’s the thing with former employees. They're less likely to stick by you when you start flailing about blaming everyone but yourself.
The only thing that can kill omnigate now is the forthcoming holidays of the shadow Cabinet. But even that might not do the trick.