Call Scotland Yard: Britain’s Prime Minister Is in Deep Trouble

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British Prime Minister David Cameron holds a press conference with South African President Jacob Zuma following their meeting at Union Building in Pretoria, South Africa, on July 18, 2011. (Photo: Jerome Delay / AP)

David Cameron presented himself to British voters as the candidate of change. He certainly hasn’t let them down. The Prime Minister can claim personal responsibility for triggering a series of unexpected and convulsive changes to public life in Britain that have left Britons, in the words of one habitually understated government official, “gobsmacked and agog.” Over just two weeks, the turbulence has toppled Britain’s top cop and thrown London’s Metropolitan Police Service (widely known as the Met or Scotland Yard) into crisis, shuttered the nation’s biggest Sunday newspaper, led to the arrests of some of the most prominent names in journalism, revived the moribund career of Labour opposition leader Ed Miliband and shaken a global media empire to its foundations. And this is only the beginning as questions mount over the damage to Cameron’s own credibility.

It all goes back to a single decision taken by Cameron in 2007: to make Andy Coulson, a former editor of the now defunct tabloid the News of the World from 2003 to 2007, his communications supremo. Coulson had resigned from the News of the World after the prosecution of Clive Goodman, its royal editor, and Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator retained by the newspaper. The pair had hacked into the phones of the royal princes and their household. Coulson accepted “full responsibility” for what happened on his watch but has denied knowledge of illegal activities during his editorship or at any other time during his Fleet Street career. “There have been rumors about that kind of activity, I suppose, and media commentators have written about it,” he told members of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee in 2009. “It has been in the ether of the newspaper world for some time, but no, I have never had any involvement in it at all.” Cameron deemed such assurances sufficient to give Coulson “a second chance,” and upped the stakes on this gamble by bringing Coulson with him to 10 Downing Street after scraping into power at the head of the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010 — this despite the emergence of fresh evidence that suggested the number of hacking victims might extend into the thousands and well beyond palace walls. Coulson’s second chance expired this January when he left his Downing Street post; he was arrested on July 7 by police investigating allegations of voicemail interception and corrupt payments to police.

(PHOTOS: Inside the World of David Cameron)

Coulson and the nine others arrested so far in relation to these two separate police inquiries must be presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty by law. In overriding others’ advice to appoint Coulson, Cameron must be presumed naive or arrogant or unduly focused on schmoozing with the tabloid press and especially Coulson’s former bosses, Rebekah Brooks and Rupert Murdoch and his son James. If Coulson had not provided such a tempting target, Britain’s Guardian newspaper may not have pursued its investigations with such diligence and backbench critics of the Prime Minister probably wouldn’t have kept up their pressure to reopen inquiries into the News of the World. Even when the allegations that the tabloid commissioned the hacking of messages left for murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler surfaced, Cameron could have responded to the shocking development with calm and authority. Instead he has found himself playing catch-up to Miliband, his novice opponent suddenly transformed into a caped crusader against what he calls “a culture of irresponsibility” that underpinned not only #hackgate but also the banking crises and the scandal over MPs’ and peers’ expenses. In the latest demonstration of Miliband’s newfound power, the Labour leader planned to use a speech on July 18 to call for Parliament to delay its summer recess to discuss the hacking affair and its extraordinary repercussions. Before he stood up to speak, Cameron used a press conference during a long-planned visit to South Africa to say he was inclined to extend the parliamentary session.

That is likely to mean a rambunctious Commons debate on July 20, which should have been the day MPs packed their Speedos and headed for the beach. But the highest drama may take place 24 hours earlier, in the modern annex to the Palace of Westminster called Portcullis House. Both Murdochs are preparing to be grilled by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on July 19. The parliamentarians had expected to quiz Brooks, who stood down as chief executive of News Corp.’s U.K. subsidiary News International on July 15, but her arrest two days later raised doubts over her ability to testify. The latest reports from the BBC suggest that she will.

(LIST: Six Salacious News of the World Scandals)

Meanwhile, the Home Affairs Committee has called on outgoing Scotland Yard commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson, who resigned on July 17, to explain his links with Neil Wallis, the former deputy editor of the News of the World, who was arrested on July 14. The commissioner employed Wallis as a freelance public-relations adviser and speechwriter, and accepted free hospitality at Champneys, a health spa that retained Wallis for p.r. In his resignation statement, Stephenson denied any impropriety regarding his spa sojourn and said:

In 2009 the Met entered into a contractual arrangement with Neil Wallis, terminating in 2010. I played no role in the letting or managment of that contract. I have heard suggestions that we must have suspected the alleged involvement of Mr Wallis in phone hacking. Let me say unequivocally that I did not. I had no knowledge of the extent of this disgraceful practice and the repugnant nature of the selection of victims now emerging; nor of its apparent reach into senior levels. I saw senior figures from News International providing evidence that the misbehavior was confined to a rogue few and not known about at the top.

Beware of resignation statements. Margaret Thatcher’s ouster was initiated by the resignation speech of an embittered, long-serving Cabinet minister, Geoffrey Howe. Stephenson launched a barely veiled broadside against Cameron as he defended his association with Wallis:

Unlike Mr Coulson, Mr Wallis had not resigned from the News of the World or, to the best of my knowledge, been in any way associated with the original phone hacking investigation.

As the plea that a rogue few were responsible for any illegal activity at the News of the World comes under fresh scrutiny, Stephenson and other high-ranking officers will be called on to explain why they failed to sift through the masses of relevant evidence already in their possession and whether their professional and social contacts with former employees of the newspaper clouded their judgment. Assistant commissioner John Yates, the head of counterterrorism at Scotland Yard, who decided against reopening the hacking inquiry in 2009, followed Stephenson’s lead and stood down on July 18. Officers are also investigating whether bribes were paid to their colleagues for information — and they are not alone in this inquiry, with both the Serious Fraud Office in Britain and the U.S. Department of Justice taking a preliminary look at this most serious of allegations. Less than a year from the London Olympics and the huge and complex policing operation that entails, confidence in the police — and within the force — is at rock bottom.

(VIDEO: Candid Cameron: TIME Interviews the British Prime Minister)

Many of the same questions — about the scope of the hacking and bribery, and about who knew it and when they knew it — are likely to be posed to Rupert and James Murdoch by the select committee, providing television at least as compelling as anything their broadcast networks have ever produced. The board of British Sky Broadcasting is reported to be mulling whether to ask James Murdoch to stand down as its chairman, at least “until News International has been stabilized,” according to BBC business editor Robert Peston.

But the biggest cliffhanger is this: Will the Prime Minister, who assiduously courted their favor, be irreparably damaged by their travails? Two weeks is a very long time in British politics. The next few days could be even longer.

Catherine Mayer is the London bureau chief at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @Catherine_Mayer or on Facebook at Facebook/Amortality-the-Pleasures-and-Perils-of-Living-Agelessly. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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