The Andy Coulson affair appears to be opening up divisions within the Coalition, albeit ones which have so far done no more than simmer beneath the surface. Several Liberal Democrats have let their negative opinion of the Cameron's Head of Communications spill out into the public sphere.
The Andy Coulson affair appears to be opening up divisions within the Coalition, albeit ones which have so far done no more than simmer beneath the surface. Several Liberal Democrats have let their negative opinion of the prime minister’s head of communications spill out into the public sphere.
The Lib Dem MP Adrian Sanders, a member of the Commons select committee which originally investigated the phone tapping allegations, has called for a formal enquiry into the matter.
“If the allegations in the New York Times are substantiated there is a real case for the police to investigate. Under police investigation they may be able to get more information out of Mr Coulson than we were in a select committee.
“I think he would feel the need to elaborate a little more than he did in our committee.”
To No 10’s embarrassment, Chris Huhne’s Guardian article of last year has been exhumed. In it, he criticised David Cameron’s ‘misjudgment’ in hiring Mr Coulson, as well as announcing that he had complained to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, because:
“…there is a clear public interest that the Met reopens this inquiry, so that we can establish whether there have been systematic and illegal invasions of privacy. Nothing else will ensure that they stop.”
He directly compared Mr Coulson’s actions to those of Damian McBride. The energy and climate change secretary was said to be ‘looking sheepish’ during discussion of the issue in parliament today – as were his fellow Liberals, James Forsyth at CoffeeHouse observing:
“Perhaps, the most noteworthy element of the proceedings [at Home Office questions today] was how a particularly glum looking Ming Campbell and Simon Hughes kept whispering to each other with concerned expressions on their faces. Neither man appeared to be happy with May’s answers.”
Earlier, on this lunchtime’s Daily Politics programme, Lib Dem MP Jeremy Browne was left squirming in his attempt to defend Coulson. He tried to brush away the issue, insisting “MPs from all parties have looked at this already,” but this failed to obscure his clear discomfort.
These squeaks of discontent are likely to represent a general feeling of dislike towards Coulson amongst Lib Dems. It was, after all, he who appears to have been behind a smear campaign against Nick Clegg in the run up to the election. The tactical silence over Coulson will strike some Lib Dems as one of several unsavoury consequences of coalition, and it comes at the same time as the news that they will probably have to vote against Caroline Lucas’ amendment calling for PR. Once again, it is a case of Coalition before conscience.
It’s not just Clegg’s party who are reacting against Coulson. According to the Independent, a ‘senior figure’ amongst the Conservatives said the issue was “causing unease across the party, particularly as to whether the Prime Minister had been wise to keep Mr Coulson on his staff.”
In a press release today Ed Balls criticised David Cameron for not ordering
“an inquiry when [the] new evidence came to light. By not taking the lead he has left his Home Secretary in a vulnerable and defensive place as her answers to MPs showed. As I said on Saturday, this now raises questions both about the integrity of our politics and the judgement of the Prime Minister.”
However, any sparks of discontent were well quashed in the Commons today. Although some Liberals may have appeared uncomfortable, they refrained from vocalising their discontent. With the exception of Sanders, only Labour figures pushed for an immediate judicial enquiry. Theresa May remained defiant. She insisted that the government would not act until the Metropolitan Police had decided to undertake their own investigation.
There is a chance this will not take place. The Met insist they will not investigate until they have been presented with new evidence. The New York Times, perhaps attempting to protect their sources, have refused to provide them with this. Bill Kellner, the executive editor of the NYT, said today
“Scotland Yard has declined our repeated requests for interviews and refused to release information we requested months ago under the British freedom of information law. After our story was published, Scotland Yard expressed renewed interest in the case and asked us to provide interview materials and notes; we declined, as we would with any such request from police. Our story speaks for itself and makes clear that the police already have evidence that they have chosen not to pursue.”
The Police, however, deny this. On Sean Hoare, one of the NYT’s only named witnesses, the Met said:
“This is the first time we have heard of Mr Hoare or anything he has to say… He has come from nowhere. We are surprised that the New York Times did not alert us to this information earlier than they did.”
In the short-term, the Coalition appears to have braved the storm of the Coulson affair. And his offer to talk to police has been viewed as a PR success. But this is unlikely to be the last of it.
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