Ali Gokal is Deputy Editor of The Student Journals and in his final year of university, reading Law at City University.Follow @aligokal
We all love a bit of soap opera. Continental Europe’s faffing about over the sovereign debt crisis (see particularly stress tests that didn’t consider the possibility of a Greek default (duh?) is almost as pathetic as our dear neighbours across the Atlantic, where Republicans and Democrats can’t find common ground to raise the US debt ceiling. The handling of both situations are as ludicrous as they are risible and grave. But, not to be outdone, we’ve had our own little drama here at home.
The shocking revelations of the phone hacking scandal, documented on this site, go right to the heart of public institutions and the people that shape our democracy. Few of the leading figures have not felt the aftershock of the almighty tsunami of the last fortnight. This is no truer than of leaders of the three main parties. In this piece I examine how they have reacted to this furore and score their performances.
David Cameron: Pictures of the prime minister rubbing shoulders with the woman at the heart of this rumpus, Rebekah Brooks, have been splashed across the front pages of many papers. It is well known that no person has taken No. 10 without the backing of kingmaker Rupert Murdoch since the black and white days of Harold Wilson in the 60s. And Mr Cameron has done his fair share of smooching up to News Corporation since becoming Tory leader in 2005. His judgment and character came into serious question following the arrest of Andy Coulson, Mr Cameron’s former communications guru. Despite very public warnings from the Liberal Democrats, Mr Coulson was soon at the heart of the prime minister’s operations; Cameron’s very own Alistair Campbell clone - though the similarities with the smeared Damian McBride are all too evident for the prime minister’s liking. It has also emerged Mr Cameron met top News Corp executives some 26 times in the 15 months after he took office last year. Inviting Coulson to Chequers post-scandal may have been another error. What’s more, his trip to Africa was poorly timed, allowing critics to accuse the PM of dodging the issue - though many allies are, perhaps rightly, calling the affair a storm in a teacup.
Yet with questions over his judgment on the line, Mr Cameron has shown he was – as ever – the man for a crisis. The prime minister displayed his battling qualities, coming out with robust and detailed ripostes to predictable probes into the affair at PMQs last week – even asking the speaker John Berwow for extra time to reply before launching into vigorous counter-attack. Surely one of Cameron’s best qualities as a politician is his ability to hit the right tone at times of intensified pressure or crisis. Last week he remarked that “We’ve all been in this together”. However, this discreet mea culpa wasn’t enough to appease opposition MPs baying for blood.
On the corollary, little can mask that he has been playing catch-up, with Ed Miliband leading the debate on public inquiries, demanding Brooks’ resignation and speaking with the shock and disgust that manifestly reflects the public’s mood. While the Labour leader can take his stand – his relations with the Murdoch empire have been lukewarm, at best (he has always preferred the more ideologically aligned Guardian editors), Cameron cannot point fingers at News Corp easily without accusations of double-standards hurtled back his way. And seeing coalition partner Clegg singing the same tune as opponent Mr Miliband in proposing changes to media regulation will take some swallowing. So certainly a painful week for the PM, who surely would have preferred talking about the sovereign debt crisis which vindicates his economic policy. Nonetheless, Cameron has responded stoically to the first questions of integrity during his premiership. 6/10
Ed Miliband: Mr Miliband’s time as leader of the opposition has been more patchy than pulchritudinous. Since emerging victorious from a fractious leadership scrap with elder brother David – which read like something penned by Coronation Street’s writing team –Miliband has always appeared somewhat on the back foot. Many perceive him to have less style and verve than adversary Mr Cameron and less substance than predecessor Gordon Brown. But - as the aggressor vehemently condemning News Corporation and calling for change - he has arguably had his strongest week as Labour leader. If the mark of a successful opposition leader is in setting the political pace, then the rare occurrence of the Prime Minister supporting an opposition motion epitomises that Miliband has outmanoeuvred David Cameron on this major issue.
Some have criticised Miliband for demanding the inevitable - calling for Brooks’ resignation, the break-up of News Corp’s media empire and a public inquiry - and taking the credit for it. But the reality is that at the time the story broke, many commentators regarded such calls as excessive and premature. What will be most interesting is whether Mr Cameron will cede to his opponents’ calls for an apology to the House.
Deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman lauded Mr Miliband for his approach: "It was testament to the overwhelming power that Murdoch had that neither the Labour Government nor the previous Tory Government took the action that was needed to be taken... There was just a sense that it was too difficult to take on the Murdoch empire because it was too strong. Now Ed Miliband has just broken through all of that and just said 'this needs to be done’. He's the first political party leader to do that and I think it's going to bring very positive change."
Whether you call him decisive and daring or a mere populist and serial bandwagon jumper, Mr Miliband has displayed the gumption that many doubted was in his armoury. As he slowly gains momentum in the polls, Mr Miliband must show post-recess that this week’s bounce has long-term bite. Only time will tell. 8/10
Nick Clegg: Nick Clegg will be watching on with green eyed envy – he too has always remained at a distance from News Corp. And, aside from the lack of a Murdoch courtship, which Andrew Marr all but mocked the Liberal Democrat leader for on Sunday, Clegg has seen trusted Lieutenant Vince Cable scarred by scraps with the media, further weakening his opportunity to attack.
The polls show Mr Clegg rebounding from the horrific lows of unpopularity he faced following last year’s election. Nothing is a remedy for low political esteem like finding someone else to castigate. And he found his prey – News Corp. But the shackles of coalition government have chained him to his seat next to Mr Cameron. There can be no ‘I told you so’. For now, he must find content in talking about trivialities, such as whether he does the school run.
Fripperies aside, his response, though not as vociferous as supporters would like, has struck the right chord. He is calling for greater press accountability, independent and impartial, and is resolute that ‘phone hacking must not happen again’.
The Guardian reckon now is the time for Clegg to release himself from the coalition. This seems highly unlikely. But the stakes are high. Perhaps the best Clegg can hope for is not to be tarnished with the same brush of disapproval Cameron will be. 5/10
Wendi Deng Murdoch: Don’t let the heels and designer suit fool you. Mrs Murdoch can certainly pack a punch, slugging her husband’s attacker at today’s committee hearings. She could probably teach one David Haye a few things. Where was the security though? 9/10
Jonnie Marbles: Self-professed comedian who assaulted Mr Murdoch (senior) with a foam pie. But there was nothing funny about Marbles’ actions: if nothing else, headlines will now be about this minor incident and not on the substance of the hearings. Poor show. 2/10
In all, it has been a mixed week for the three leaders. For Miliband, he needs to ensure the momentum of the last fortnight bears fruit. David Cameron must win back the news cycle and Nick Clegg must sure this firestorm doesn’t hamper his political revival. But with inquiries on the horizon, arrests and a suspicious death to boot, this soap opera is sure to drag on for months to come.