Whatever the outcome of the Coulson saga, Cameron's serial gullibility raises the question, is he fit to lead Britain?
So now we hear that Andy Coulson was paid hundreds of thousands of pounds by News International for several months when he was working for David Cameron's Conservative party. This despite the fact that he let the Commons culture committee believe that he'd had no secondary income.It seems everyone in the Tory party is now running for cover. Nobody knew of anything untoward. Everyone is categorical in their denial.
But what they surely cannot deny is that they never really did due diligence. This was a man who had resigned from the News of the World under a cloud. One of his employees had gone to prison for hacking phones, along with a commissioned freelancer. Did anybody ask whether Coulson was still being paid by News International when he arrived at Conservative Central Office? If not, that would be culpable negligence on the side of the accounting officers at the Conservative party in my book.After all, it is claimed that a senior member of staff at the Tory party in effect received a hefty subsidy of tens of thousands of pounds. If so, Coulson could be considered during his time to have been on a News International secondment, which should have been declared to the Electoral Commission as a donation to the Conservative party. And if that's the case, for all its denials, the whole party would be as liable for the compromising position in which Coulson put himself as News International is for the conduct of its staff. Ignorance is simply no defence if you haven't even been curious enough to ask the blindingly obvious questions.
Some have said this also poses questions about Cameron's own judgment. I think that misses the point. The real problem is not Cameron's judgment but his personality. What the Coulson story shows is a Tory leader far too childishly eager to please his soignée News International neighbours to bother with details; a man too naive to suspect that a friend of his could possibly have committed a crime that really mattered. In short, a man too easily fooled, guilty of serial culpable gullibility.
Cameron is fast becoming the blind-eye prime minister. We already know he gets irritated by detail, but when it comes to appointing ministers or dealing with international leaders like Vladimir Putin, whom he is meant to be visiting in a few weeks, the last thing Britain needs is a gullible leader.
There are other specific questions that need to be answered. How much was Coulson paid? Were there any further payments when he went to work at Downing Street? Did he ever provide information the News of the World had garnered illegally to help the Conservative party?
Coulson told the Commons culture committee when asked about his pay-off from the News of the World that it was a private matter that he was happy to explain privately to the chairman, Tory MP John Whittingdale. Did that conversation ever take place? If not, why not? If so, what did Coulson tell Whittingdale and why has it not been made public?
Which brings me to another point. Parliament is going to have to tackle the specific matter of whether action should be taken against those who may have lied to it. Thanks to the way parliamentary privilege works, neither the courts nor the Leveson inquiry can question proceedings in parliament. But if the Commons is to do its job bringing the powers of the land to book, it has to be confident in its own ability to gather evidence and take action where necessary. In the US evidence is taken on oath and lying to a senate or house committee can constitute perjury. Surely it is time parliament brought in similar rules?Someone suggested the other day that there will have to be a film about the phone-hacking scandal. I fear we are still only in act three of a five-act play. It's far too early yet even to draw up the full dramatis personae. One thing I am sure of, though, is that Cameron's Conservative party deliberately set out to woo Rupert Murdoch and failed to blanch when problems arose. The former was a mistake that others have made, the latter may yet prove to be something far worse.