Will Cameron call time on News International’s dirty dealing?

We can but wonder at the panic gripping Downing Street this morning in light of the allegations Milly Dowler's phone was hacked by the News of the World.

We can but wonder at the panic gripping Downing Street this morning in light of the allegations that the News of the World hacked into the mobile phone of the late Milly Dowler, destroying voicemail messages in the process, while the police investigation into her disappearance was ongoing.

Such loathsome conduct has today drawn criticism from across the political divide. Labour leader Ed Miliband referred to it as a “cruel and immoral act”; meanwhile, home secretary Theresa May called for the authorities to take the subsequent investigation into these latest phone hacking allegations:

“…as far as the evidence takes them.”

But it is the response of the prime minister that is most keenly watched. He is, after all, personally and intricately bound up with both Rebekah Brooks (editor of the News of the World at the time of this latest offence) and her deputy at the time, Andy Coulson – Cameron’s own former official spokesman.

Speaking in Afghanistan this morning the prime minister referred to these latest allegations as a “truly dreadful act and a truly dreadful situation”.

He added:

“What I have read in the papers is quite, quite shocking, that someone could do this, actually knowing that the police trying to find this person and trying to find out what had happened, and we all know now the tragedy that took place.”

David Cameron’s political antennae will be telling him that this latest sordid twist in the phone hacking scandal is altogether more serious than the earlier revelations which have mainly affected the political and showbiz class (for whom public sympathies are muted).

But as the BBC’s Nick Robinson pointed out this morning:

“Now Murdoch, Brooks and Cameron will be aware that for the first time the hacking story may be engaging and horrifying readers, viewers and voters.”

The Independent’s Ian Burrell was equally convinced this latest episode marked a new departure:

“No longer can hacking be written off as merely a shortcut ruse for accruing celebrity gossip. This is way more serious…Ms Brooks has largely managed to avoid speaking about hacking, avoiding successive requests from MPs for her to give evidence.

“She has some explaining to do now.”

As the Guardian reported back in February, Downing Street has previously been rather coy in revealing the exact details of the prime minister’s dealings with Brooks (a constituent of David Cameron’s in Oxfordshire). However powerful she has been in the past, the wave of genuine shock and revulsion at today’s revelations resulted in a round of desperate briefing this morning confirming that Brooks will not face the sack.

In response to the latest furore, Brooks has this morning issued a memo to News International staff saying that if the allegations turn out to be true “the devastating effect on Milly Dowler’s family is unforgivable”. For now, however, News International calculates that it will have to hold the line. Better, they no doubt think, to offer up her scalp, if necessary, at a later date.

After all, this situation may get worse. Criminal charges for tampering with evidence may yet follow.

This is all of a piece with News International’s fumbling damage limitation strategy from the start of the phone hacking scandal: ‘Concede nothing until necessary’. It is a classic legal defence, hardly the work of PR maestros.

With the decision looming about whether to grant permission for News International to buy the remaining shares in BSkyB, this latest instalment of the grubby phone hacking saga makes such a move a presentational nightmare for the government.

David Cameron can perhaps be forgiven for being worried that the unsavoury affairs of Rupert Murdoch and his minions are consuming too much of his political capital; with the prime minister’s consummate sense of personal preservation, that is a dangerous place for anyone to be.

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