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Monday, July 18, 2011 

The best laid plans...

You know, having written about nothing other than the phone hacking scandal for the last fortnight, I'd resolved to try and minimise the number of posts this week dedicated to it. It also looked on Saturday as if the real action of the week would be tomorrow, after which parliament was due to go into recess, with the silly season commencing in earnest.

The other problem was that even then, the number of ways in which you could describe the unexpected developments was beginning to diminish. There are only so many times you can claim astonishment, be stunned, staggered or rocked by the twists and turns of a couple of weeks that have been quite unlike any in recent years. The equivalents have to be either the loans for peerages debacle, or the death of Dr David Kelly, and neither of those cases, while deadly serious at the time, managed to bring down so many establishment figures as have fallen on their swords thanks to the original persistence of the Guardian.

The resignations of Sir Paul Stephenson and John Yates from the Metropolitan police were clearly the right decisions. Like some others, I originally felt Yates had been somewhat harshly treated by the Home Affairs committee last week. Certainly, his reviews of the original phone hacking investigation in 2009 and last year were woefully lacking, with it being obvious that he had no interest whatsoever in making things difficult for himself with the wider press he'd courted assiduously during his investigation into the Labour loans scandal. That though seemed more down to the general attitude within the Met which was dismissive towards the Guardian, as they've since documented, than to do with any potential conflict of interest or allegations of impropriety. Some Labour MPs have never forgiven Yates for daring to arrest Ruth Turner as they would a common criminal, raiding her house at dawn, or for his relentless but in the end fruitless pursuit of wrongdoing concerning Lord Levy and friends. The calls for his resignation had to be seen in the context of potential revenge being sought.

Now we know of just how close his relationship was with Neil "Wolfman" Wallis, and how he neither he, nor his boss nor the Met's director of public affairs Dick Fedorcio felt it necessary for anyone outside the force to know about his subsequent employment as a PR it's little wonder that there's been as Yates put it in his resignation statement, a "huge amount of inaccurate, ill-informed and on occasion downright malicious gossip" published about him. The announcement that the Independent Police Complaints Commission is to look into allegations that Yates "inappropriately" helped Wallis's daughter get a job at the Met just puts everything even further into perspective. Regardless of what he now says, Yates must have known that to reopen the phone hacking investigation when it was in his power to do so would have exposed his friend, deputy editor of the News of the World while Andy Coulson was helming it, to at the very least the unpleasantness of suspicion by association. At worst, it would have meant having to arrest him, as indeed happened last Thursday. There was nothing to stop him passing the decision over to someone else, citing his potential conflict of interest as the reason; instead he wasted no time in dismissing there being any new case for the NotW to answer.

Likewise, a similar error of judgement on the part of Paul Stephenson has ultimately led to his downfall. Having faced down politicians, and knowing he was going to be criticised today in the Commons by the home secretary for having failed to tell them that he had hired Wallis, it was obvious once the story emerged that he had enjoyed a gratis stay at Champneys, the health spa Wallis also just happens to do PR for that he couldn't possibly stay in his position. Accepting hospitality when you're just a constable is questionable enough; when you're the commissioner and it would have cost £12,000 he really should have known better, whether or not Champneys is owned by a family friend. Like with Yates though, it seems that he imagined firstly that no one needed to know about their relationship with Wallis, despite the renewed questions about the NotW while he was there, as Nick Davies outlines, and secondly that he saw nothing wrong with employing someone so closely associated with a newspaper which was being portrayed of law-breaking on a grand scale, even if Wallis had nothing to do with it. Combine the two and Stephenson's protests in his statement come across as insincere to say the least.

Last Thursday I somewhat mocked the "senior Met insider" who suggested that if David Cameron could employ Andy Coulson as his spin doctor, then why shouldn't they have employed Wallis. True is it as that the Met ought to have higher standards than an opposition politician for obvious reasons, Stephenson's pointing towards Cameron and Coulson in his resignation statement, especially that he did not wish to "compromise the Prime Minister in any way by revealing or discussing a potential suspect who clearly had a close relationship" with the latter could hardly be more serious. Cameron can claim all he likes that the two are not comparable, and he'd be right in that when he initially gave Coulson a job, handing him a now infamous "second chance", no one had evidence which suggested the phone hacking had gone further, but he can hardly say the same when he installed Coulson as head of media at Number 10. As well as the Guardian reports, we know he was warned and advised against doing so by a number of editors and fellow politicians, all of whom he ignored.

And where is Cameron as all of this is going on? Rather than turning back last night when he heard of the Met commissioner's resignation, he carried on to South Africa, only to "cut short" his four day mission when once again Ed Miliband led by calling for parliament to sit for an extra day, something he's got increasingly used to over the past two weeks. Previously my view was Cameron's position would only by threatened if Coulson was eventually charged; now it's no longer inconceivable that he could be forced out without any such drama. Last Wednesday it also looked as if he'd finally realised the seriousness of the scandal and began to lead the response; now he's back reacting to the demands of others. On Wednesday he needs to go beyond taking responsibility for hiring Coulson, he has to admit he was wrong to ignore what others told him and apologise for it. Then he might just find himself ahead of the curve.

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