In the late 1950s, a journalist asked incumbent British prime minister Harold Macmillan what he considered was most likely to blow his government off course. In an answer that has gone down in history — perhaps as much for its Edwardian construction as its content — Macmillan replied, “Events, dear boy, events.” This response hits at a fundamental truth, and one that can be combined with Harold Wilson’s most famous aphorism: “A week is a long time in politics.” Things do change overnight, and when one is least expecting them to do so. David Cameron must be drowning in these sentiments at the moment.
Until the News of the World scandal broke, his Conservative-Liberal coalition was coasting along happily. It had not all been plain sailing — recent massive strikes had hinted at the class warfare of the 1980s, something any British prime minister rightly dreads — but the knocks were set within the context of a weak alternative. In a gift to the Conservatives, last September opposition leader Ed Miliband won the contest to lead the Labour party by less than a percentage point, gaining the critical votes of the unions to overcome his more impressive, experienced, and telegenic brother, David. All signs were pointing to Labour having chosen another unelectable leader with a tendency towards socialism too pronounced for the British palate; a leader in the mold of Neil Kinnock or Michael Foot (author of the 1983 Labour Manifesto, otherwise known as the “longest suicide note in history.”) Miliband, who reportedly had surgery to try and correct his nasal voice, was trying to throw off the inescapable charge that it was absurd to blame the current government for the poor economy, given that his own party had been in power for 13 years. He must have wondered what he could do to turn things around. Reports of discontent in the Labour ranks had started to surface, if indeed they had ever gone away after the close election.
And then the scandal hit. It is hard to imagine a scandal that could have been more opportune for the British Left. First off the bat, the Murdoch press, their bête noir, has lost a vital organ in the News of the World, and more importantly, it has been generally discredited. And to their delight, the prime minister is increasingly personally linked to the scandal. First there was Andy Coulson, the former editor of the News of the World who had served as Cameron’s director of communications for four years. Then, over the weekend, his successor, Rebekah Brooks, who is a personal friend of the prime minister — David Cameron attended her wedding in 2009 and has invited her twice for social visits to the prime ministerial retreat, Chequers — was arrested. For those who charge that the Cameron government has been too cosy with News International, the story is a doozy: Cameron appears to have demonstrated poor judgement in hiring Andy Coulson and getting into bed with Rebekah Brooks, and, in turn, the key endorsement of Mr. Cameron in the Murdoch press in the 2010 election taints the prime minister by association.
All of this has handed Ed Miliband an easy play. He can ignore the fact that his government did untold damage to the British economy, and that he has no serious alternative plan for fixing it, and stand up as the representative of the people against “the man.” Previous exchanges across the despatch boxes in the House of Commons have been mostly to Cameron’s advantage, a man vs. boy scenario. But now the prime minister looks cowed, and has little alternative but to acquiesce. Meanwhile, according to the Independent (which is anything but), the polls have turned in Miliband’s, and Labour’s, favor. If anything, Cameron will have to out-condemn his opposite number to stay afloat. Either way the Labour party wins. If Cameron defends News International, then he looks complicit and out of touch. If he joins with Ed Miliband in his crusade, he damns a large portion of the very press that helped him get to Number Ten.
It would be hyperbolic to suggest that the scandal could bring down the government, but this is certainly a turning point. The Conservative-Liberal coalition is a much as marriage of convenience as it is a meeting of minds, and it wouldn’t take too much for it to collapse. More worrying for the Conservatives, however, is that this could be the making of Ed Miliband. His leadership of the Labour party had been chalked up as an asset to the Tories, but they hadn’t counted on one thing: events, dear boy, events.