The prime minister’s big mistake yesterday was to dodge question after question about whether he had discussed the BSkyB bid with executives from News International. His reply – that he had not had any “inappropriate” chats – hinted strongly of conversations, albeit “appropriate” ones. (Because the PM had removed himself from the decision-making process on the bid.) On 11 occasions he supplied the same evasive answer.
According to Clegg this issue is “semantic and irrelevant”. Others would strongly disagree.
“He (Cameron) was very open, he said no inappropriate decisions took place”, said the Lib Dem leader. “I can’t start providing a running commentary on that commentary.”
Clegg is right to say that the PM “played no role” in the bid decision. In that case, why did Cameron not just come straight out yesterday and say that yes, certain executives had raised the issue with him but any such conversations had been brief and – because of his technical detachment – they were not inappropriate.
We reported on Sunday that Lib Dem backbenchers are uncomfortable about Clegg’s failure to play much of a major role in the political response to the hacking scandal.For example, he could have called for Brooks’ resignation earlier than he did:
One senior Lib Dem MP said: “We have looked too slow, we could have moved faster on this. That is something we need to learn.” He added: “We are tainted less than either of the other parties in terms of contacts with the Murdochs, so should have been in the strongest position.”
Then again, this could be a tactical move by the party, with tacit authorisation for Lib Dem backbenchers to criticise the Murdoch empire and its links with the Tories – while allowing Clegg to keep his hands clean by remaining loyal to Cameron in public.