British hacking scandal to haunt Cameron: analysts

AFP , Wednesday 20 Jul 2011

Cameron faces tough questioning in emergency parliament session over phone-hacking scandal

Britain's phone-hacking row will cast a shadow over the rest of David Cameron's premiership and make it tough for him to enact planned reforms, even if it is unlikely to force him from his job, analysts said.

Cameron faced a barrage of questions over the crisis in an emergency parliament session on Wednesday that focused on his decision to hire former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his media chief.

While he may get some respite as lawmakers start their summer recess Thursday, with a police investigation and a public inquiry ongoing the crisis is not going to go away.

"This is something that will come back and haunt David Cameron periodically for the next couple of years," Tim Bale, professor of politics at Sussex University, told AFP.

The Conservative leader hired Coulson in 2007, just months after the journalist resigned as editor of Rupert Murdoch's News of the World tabloid, which has since been shut down.

Coulson quit after the paper's royal editor Clive Goodman and a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, were jailed for hacking the phones of people including members of the royal household.

After helping Cameron win the election last year, Coulson resigned in January citing pressure over the scandal.

He was arrested on July 8 on charges of intercepting mobile phone voicemails and illegally paying police for information.

In a damaging further revelation, it emerged that Coulson was advised by his former deputy Neil Wallis, who was also arrested this month and whose subsequent employment by Scotland Yard led to the resignation of the force's chief.

Opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband has repeatedly called on Cameron to apologise for hiring Coulson.

Cameron on Wednesday said that with "hindsight" he would not have hired Coulson but said he would only say sorry if his former press chief was found to have committed a crime.

"To be honest, Cameron is damaged goods," said Roy Greenslade, a professor of journalism at London's City University, wrote in The Guardian, the paper that helped break the story.

"He dithers and he dissembles. And the mud will stick because this story isn't going to go away in the coming months, even years, because of the various inquiries."

Analysts said the scandal would be a distraction from the 15-month-old coalition government's radical programme of austerity measures, which it is pushing through in a bid to cut Britain's record deficit.

Victoria Honeyman, a lecturer in politics at Leeds University, said Cameron's premiership had not been fatally damaged by the scandal -- yet.

"I think at the moment as it stands, David Cameron can recover," she told AFP.

"If Andy Coulson is convicted that might change the situation. If it continues to get worse and if it continues to pull more people in, David Cameron is going to struggle to maintain his own innocence."

One problem was the "drip-drip" effect with further stories emerging in the scandal, possible criminal trials and the public inquiry which is not set to report for at least 12 months, she said.

"You could be talking two to three years before you see the end of it," she said.

Honeyman said she saw no immediate threat to Cameron's coalition with the Liberal Democrat party.

British voters were more likely to be concerned about the fragile economy, jobs and other issues affecting their day-to-day lives, she added -- echoing remarks made by Cameron himself, who has vowed not to lose focus.

Greenslade said however that the centrist Liberal Democrats could seek to regain the political capital they lost by joining a coalition with the centre-right Conservatives and abandoning their support of Cameron.

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