Analysis: How Cameron survived his day at the Leveson inquiry

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Close-up analysis shows the techniques Cameron used to get through the day at Leveson
Close-up analysis shows the techniques Cameron used to get through the day at Leveson

"There are moments when you think these are hours of your life which you're not going to get back," David Cameron said at one point during his 280 minutes of evidence to the Leveson inquiry. He was talking about the tedium of media appearance after media appearance. For the more cruel-minded amongst you, the same might apply to watching the prime minister today.

Yet once you start to unpick what was actually going on in court room 73, once you start to look closer and peer into the tactics the PM used, it all gets just a little bit more interesting. The strategies deployed by David Cameron - who didn't get where he is today without being a master at the art of politicking - were pushed to the limit as he strove to avoid trouble. This grilling was a threat, but it was also an opportunity for the prime minister to make his case.

Did he succeed? That's ultimately in the eye of the beholder, but by breaking down some of his more interesting ploys we can get a sense of the way the session unfolded.

PLOY NUMBER ONE: CAMNESIA


Cameron had spent many hours preparing for today's session with lawyers. The most important thing they will have drilled into his head, given that he is under oath, is the need not to overstretch one's memory. "Just say 'I don't recall'," they will have told him. That is what he did, ad nauseam, for much of the morning.

It happened time and time again, too many to count. "I don't remember any specific pressure being put on me," he said at one point. Another, excellent out-of-content quote was: "I recall the drink, I don't recall the dinner."

This was all part of a broader strategy of doing as much as possible to avoid being specific. "Was it months, weeks, years?" Jay asked Cameron about the length of time he'd expected the Sun would switch its allegiance to the Tories. "Um, it certainly wasn't weeks," Cameron said. "More than that... I can't really give you any more than that." Very helpful.

Cameron failing to remember the publication of the New York Times article in September 2010 was just about the only time when he had a decent enough excuse. His daughter had been born that day, he said, which crowded everything else out.

PLOY NUMBER TWO: DEFENSIVE BLUSTER

Anyone who's ever watched prime minister's questions will know Cameron is an expert at talking, talking, talking his way out of trouble. All politicians are good at this, and the leader of the Conservative party has had plenty of practice. It is a fairly unsubtle tactic, really, to keep talking while hoping vainly that the questioner will forget their original question. Inquiry counsel Robert Jay is made of sterner stuff, but under pressure of time he was forced to move on rapidly.

PLOY NUMBER THREE: LASHING OUT ON THE OFFENSIVE

This has to be used sparingly, for righteous anger becomes a bit unbelievable if over-used. Cameron rolled out this with his outraged denial of Gordon Brown's accusation that the Tories and News Corp had done a deal - positive media coverage in exchange for media policies more in line with the Murdochs' views. "It is absolute nonsense from start to finish," the prime minister said. "He has cooked up an entirely specious and entirely unjustified conspiracy to justify his anger."

PLOY NUMBER FOUR: CONCEDING MINOR POINTS

In such a long session it was perhaps inevitable that there would be a few hiccups - the question then became how Cameron would deal with them. He would not have wanted them to arrive on important issues like when he'd asked Andy Coulson for reassurances that he didn't know about phone-hacking, but there you go. On these occasions the prime minister sought to downplay their significance by acting with the air of one conceding a minor point.

Actually, this is not something Cameron is particularly good at. He rather over-egged his contrition when it emerged he'd failed to mention that Rupert Murdoch was present at a meeting. ("I'm extremely sorry, I don't think that is right. I think you've spotted an error for which I'm sorry".) Then when he was asked whether he had engaged any "independent verification" of Coulson's protestations of innocence his reply was a bit like that of a teenager. "Noooo," he said, sounding miffed, "but..."

PLOY NUMBER FIVE: SUBTLE POWER PLAYS

The prime minister is just about the only witness to have taken on Lord Justice Leveson in a power play - but then, he's the only witness who set up the inquiry in the first place. For a brief moment in the afternoon session Cameron seemed to have forgotten that this was all taking place in public. He said he'd been doing some thinking about the role of special advisers and thought it might be a good idea to write to Leveson setting them out. How odd: why would a prime minister want to make recommendations to an inquiry which is supposed to be making recommendations to him? It was all a bit Yes, Minister. Leveson refused to confront this head-on - he is quite adept as a politician himself - but instead observed: "I'm not trying to ask you to straitjacket me." Cameron, sensing that the executive was treading on the toes of the judiciary, quickly retreated. "I understand," he replied meekly.

PLOY NUMBER SIX: WHERE POSSIBLE, HUMOUR

There were very few laughs in today's session, but where they came the prime minister did his best to go with the flow. Often it was Lord Justice Leveson whose interventions were laced with sarcasm and dry humour. After having remarked laconically on "the value of wives" and complaining that Cameron "didn't sound sorry at all" for having handed Leveson the "hot potato" of media regulation, the funniest moments came right at the end.

Cameron, accepting the fact that those in public life get more attention from the press, referred to the story which emerged earlier this week about him leaving his eight-year-old daughter Nancy in the pub. Ordinary people, the prime minister said, "could probably safely leave their child in the pub and not have the same attention focused on them".

Lord Justice Leveson observed that many reporters had observed that the same thing had happened to their children. So the prime minister went with it, saying he'd been surprised by the number of members of parliament who had been left in "butcher's shops" or "motorway stations". Then came the punchline: "It helped me understand my colleagues a lot better."

After five hours, this seemed extremely hilarious. It meant those attending the session left with a smile on their face over the wit of the PM, not a frown over the dodged questions. Being good at politics comes down to moments like these: they really do make a difference. 

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