Cameron faces call to resign amid phone-hacking chaos

By Ian Dunt

Labour stepped up its attack on David Cameron for employing Andy Coulson today, amid signs the phone-hacking scandal is spiralling out of control.

An increasingly desperate prime minister cut short his trip to Africa and requested an extension of the parliamentary session as he tried to prevent the row from overrunning his administration.

Developments came thick and fast throughout the day, triggering the resignation of Britain's most senior policemen and putting various political figures – from Boris Johnson to Mr Cameron – on the back foot.

Sir Paul Stephenson's decision to resign over the Met's relationship with Neil Wallis, a former News of the World deputy editor who later did communications work for Scotland Yard, threw Mr Cameron's relationship with Mr Coulson into sharp relief.

During a stormy Commons session Labour MP Sir Gerald Kaufman said Mr Cameron should "consider his position".

Fellow Labour MP Dennis Skinner said: "There is a raging inferno around the government's head. When is dodgy Dave going to do the decent thing and resign?"

In an impressive and resolute performance, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the prime minister had been "compromised" by his relationship with Mr Coulson.

The Labour attack was spearheaded by leader Ed Miliband, who has been widely credited with capitalising on the political effects of the row.

"Twelve days ago I said to Cameron 'you must now apologise for the catastrophic error of judgement you made in hiring Andy Coulson'. He didn't do so," the opposition leader said this afternoon.

"It's the failure to do that draws the sharp contrast between his actions and the honourable actions of Sir Paul Stephenson.

"He seems unable to provide the leadership the country needs and that's because he didn't come clean when I asked him all those days ago and apologise for hiring Andy Coulson."

Asked whether mr Cameron should resign, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said: "Absolutely not, of course not. Let's keep some perspective here."

But London mayor Boris Johnson, who is often touted as a possible challenger to Mr Cameron, refused to say that Mr Cameron should not resign.

"This is a matter you must frankly direct to Number 10 Downing Street, and I suggest you ask them," he said during a bruising press conference at City Hall. 

Questions about Sir Paul's position started last week after Mr Wallis was arrested over phone-hacking. His connections to the Met prompted anger in Westminster and forced Mr Cameron to call an emergency meeting with the commissioner.

But Sir Paul's barbed resignation statement yesterday argued that he had been unable to bring the Wallis issue to Mr Cameron's attention due to the prime minister's relationship with Mr Coulson.

It was doubly damaging to the PM in that Sir Paul chose to resign over similar allegations to those facing Mr Cameron.

Some observers have suggested that Sir Paul felt it appropriate to employ Mr Wallis because Mr Cameron had sent a signal by employing Mr Coulson.

Speaking at a press conference in South Africa this morning, Mr Cameron tried to argue that there was an operational difference between his decision to hire Mr Coulson and the Met's decision to hire Mr Wallis.

"In terms of Andy Coulson, no-one has argued the work he did in government in any way was inappropriate or bad," he told reporters.

"He worked well in government, he then left government.

"There's a contrast with the situation in the Met, where clearly the issues have been around whether the investigation has been pursued properly. I don't think the two situations are the same in any shape or form."

Pressed on the issue, he added: "The situation in the Met is really quite different to the situation in government, not least because the issues the Met are looking at have had a direct bearing on pubic confidence into the police inquiry, the News of the World and the police themselves."

Mr Cameron will have been horrified at the timing of his South Africa trip when Sir Paul's statement was released last night, instantly prompting questions about the prime minister's position.

"Once Mr Wallis' name did become associated with Operation Weeting, I did not want to compromise the prime minister in any way by revealing or discussing a potential suspect who clearly had a close relationship with Mr Coulson," Sir Paul said as he stepped down.

"I am aware of the many political exchanges in relation to Mr Coulson's previous employment – I believe it would have been extraordinarily clumsy of me to have exposed the prime minister, or by association the home secretary, to any accusation, however unfair, as a consequence of them being in possession of operational information in this regard."

Mr Cameron gave in to demands for parliament to be extended by 24 hours today, meaning Mr Miliband will be able to quiz him on his approach to the row on Wednesday.
In the meantime he is adrift in Africa while Mr Miliband presses home his advantage at home.