In His Own Defense: Cameron Zigs, but the Opposition Follows

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Parbul TV via Reuters TV / Reuters

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, flanked by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (left), speaks about phone hacking to parliament in a still image taken from video in London July 20, 2011

"Hackgate" has battered Rupert Murdoch's media empire, rocked Scotland Yard to its foundations and dominated the UK news agenda for weeks. And on Wednesday, 20 July, the scandal came knocking on the door of 10 Downing Street as prime minister David Cameron attempted to extricate himself from the web of scandal that is threatening to seriously undermine his premiership.

Cameron cut short a trip to Africa in order to rush back to Britain to deliver an emergency statement to parliament and ready to offer the closest he has yet come to an apology for appointing Andy Coulson, the former editor of the News of the World at the center of the phone hacking affair, as his communications chief in 2007 and taking him into Downing Street after the election in 2010. Coulson quit the job in January 2011 as the scandal and questions over his alleged role in it refused to die down despite his persistent denials he was aware of the practice.

In a highly-unusual sitting of the House of Commons, which should have closed for legislators' summer break the day before, the prime minister faced an opposition Labour party which smells blood. "With 20/20 hindsight and all that has followed," said Cameron, "I would not have offered [Coulson] the job and I expect he wouldn't have taken it. But you don't make decisions in hindsight you make them in the present. You live and you learn and, believe me, I have learnt." He added: "Of course I regret, and I am extremely sorry, about the furore it has caused."

For two weeks opposition party leader Ed Miliband has boosted his own wobbling leadership by focusing on the scandal and demanding action and answers from the government. One of his key political demands, beyond calls for judicial inquiries and a media and police clean-up, has been for Cameron to confess to a "catastrophic error of judgement" in appointing Coulson and ignoring a series of warnings from colleagues and advisers over the appointment. Indeed, the Prime Minister came quite close to that on Wednesday. If it was found Coulson had lied about his ignorance of hacking, said Cameron, "that would be a moment for a profound apology and in that event I can tell you I will not fall short." Coulson was one of several individuals arrested by the police over recent days and questioned over the affair.

Wednesday was supposed to be Cameron's moment to turn the tide. So, along with fresh details of the judicial inquiry and the release of details of meetings he had had with Murdoch execs, he offered that apology. But, as is so often the case with such carefully-crafted and staged events, it failed to convince. As one Labour MP said immediately after the statement: "What he actually apologised for was the furore the appointment caused, not the appointment itself. It's not good enough."

There was equal annoyance from Cameron's political opponents that he refused to offer the guarantee they had sought — that is, that he had never discussed Murdoch's now-aborted bid to take control of BSkyB satellite broadcaster during any of his meetings with executives including former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks who quit her job last Friday and has also been arrested and questioned by police. (The UK government must approve of any such takeover.)

Cameron has insisted he took himself out of the decision-making process over the BSkyB bid precisely to avoid any apparent conflict of interest. But Miliband and a number of opposition MPs demanded to know whether the prime minister had ever discussed it with Brooks, or any other Murdoch executive Once again, it was all in the wording of the response. "I never had any inappropriate conversations," he said. Cue howls of protest from MPs who then attempted to pin Cameron down over what might be an appropriate conversation over BSkyB. They got nowhere.

Similarly there were attempts to pin Cameron down over his alleged links, through Coulson, to former News of the World deputy editor, Neil Wallis, who was recently arrested over the scandal, and over an officials' rejection of an offer from a senior police officer to brief the prime minister on the phone hacking investigation in 2009. They too failed to bring any revelations but, instead, saw Cameron accusing the opposition party of engaging in "pathetic conspiracy theories." He did, however, agree to investigate a claim from former minister Nick Raynsford that a senior government official had been illegally hacked during Coulson's time in Downing Street.

Outside the Commons chamber the row showed no signs of dying down. Former minister and alleged hacking victim Chris Bryant claimed he knew officials from Buckingham Palace had raised concerns over Coulson's appointment with No 10, an allegations dismissed as "rubbish" by Downing Street. Scotland Yard was found by a parliamentary committee to have presided over a "catalogue of failures" over their investigations into hacking; and News Corporation said it had terminated payments for ongoing legal costs to the private investigator, Glen Mulcaire, jailed in 2007 for his role in hacking for the News of the World.

On Thursday, Britain's parliamentarians will finally pack their bags for that delayed summer break. It is unlikely, however, there will be much rest and recuperation for the prime minister. Cameron may have delivered a robust defense of his position but, as is being discovered on a daily basis, this scandal still has plenty of momentum left in it and the opposition party leader is not about to stop asking those remaining unanswered questions.