Monday, July 18, 2011

Stephenson's Rocket

If the now former head of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Stephenson, was trying to resign his post in a way calculated to avoid embarrassment to the government, he has failed spectacularly.

His statement contains some very thinly-veiled criticism of the Prime Minister - essentially stressing that he hired Neil Wallis for some consultancy work for around a year and that Wallis had at that point not been fingered in any inquiries into the hacking scandal. This clearly contrasts with Cameron's appointment of Coulson when he was already tarnished by rumour and the subject of direct allegations from various sources. Ironically, Wallis was hired specifically because of his contact with Coulson in the hope that this would give the Met a direct lobbying line to Downing Street, but it is hard to mark Stephenson too hard over the Wallis contract, although the whole earlier investigation by 'Yates of the Yard' happened on Stephenson's watch and that debacle has yet to be fully played out.

Adding to that parting shot is the timing. Not only did the Met only give Downing Street 30 minutes notice of the announcement - on a Sunday - it was also timed to coincide with Cameron's departure for a planned visit abroad, leaving him unable to respond in all but the most general terms.

Indeed, the timing of that foreign trip is looking awkward. It puts Cameron out of the country as the hacking scandal continues to mount and just as Brooks, the Murdochs and Stephenson are all scheduled to be questioned by parliamentary committee on Tuesday. Rather than looking the statesman, bestriding the world stage, he looks to be on the run from bad news. Just as Ed Milliband has had a good scandal, so Cameron's experience and performance has been lacking over the same period. He is undoubtedly on the ropes - his judgement in appointing Coulson despite advice to the contrary and despite the evidence of common sense is deeply flawed and the Stephenson resignation draws unwelcome parallels between a leader taking an apparently honourable stance to resign and Cameron, clinging on despite worse failings in judgement.

For as countless dictators will tell you, it is when the leader is out of the country with his acolytes that the real mischief is done - that's when coups happen. But we don't have to look to a tin pot dictator for a lead - remember that a Cameron predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, was fatally damaged by her absence in 1990 at a European conference in Paris. She was unable to rally her backbenchers and her lieutenants were asleep while her support crumbled. Will there be disgruntled Tories plotting in the back rooms of Westminster over the next few days? While Cameron is down, he is not yet out, but it is no longer madness to talk of the crisis claiming him as a victim as the scandal spreads. The rumbling isn't going to go away any time soon and Cameron is looking like badly damaged goods.