Comment: Why hackgate is an opportunity for the Lib Dems

By Aled Thomas

The political fallout of the News of the World affair has, in general been presented a something of a good week for Labour, the opposition, and a tricky one for the government.

But it could prove quite a good week for part of the government: the Liberal Democrat part.

The government's discomfort with its links to the Murdoch press is a problem for the Conservatives, and specifically David Cameron and George Osborne.

The Lib Dems were not thought significant enough to get very close to Wapping, and when Britain had a brief spasm of Cleggmania in April 2010 (remember that?) the right-wing press, including Murdoch's Times, worked him over.

More than Cameron, more than Miliband, Clegg and his party are not associated with this specific scandal and also over general concerns about politicians being too cosy to press barons and their minions.

And this gives Clegg just a chink of a hope of possibly rehabilitating both his reputation and his party's.

Until now it has been received wisdom that the only hope the Lib Dems have of minimising electoral meltdown (for they have no hope of avoiding it) was to stick with the coalition and cross their fingers.

They had to hope the government ran five years, that its economic policies worked, and that they could claim some credit for any of their policies and for moderating Tory ones, such as NHS reforms.

That was based on the belief that only a Conservative majority would result from a snap election (the Lib Dems are reviled and running at nine per cent in the polls, Labour has no money and Miliband is not inspiring the public).

That has changed. Prime minister Cameron is damaged, maybe not fatally, but badly.

If an election was called tomorrow he would face repeated questions about his friendship with Rebekah Brooks, his employment of Andy Coulson. What he knew, what he didn't know, what he should have known.

It would be a desperately uncomfortable campaign for a man who, let us not forget, failed to win a majority last year.

Cameron now needs the support of Clegg. Who must still be bruised after the AV campaign.

And it is interesting to read that both Clegg and Lord Ashdown have told the press they warned and questioned Cameron over his appointment of Coulson, a case of getting your retaliation in first?

Now Clegg can demand greater influence over policy, can try to do something about the cuts that cause its MPs and supporters such anguish; he could, conceivably bring down the government which would lead to a rapprochement with Labour.

The lesson of the astonishing seven days just past is that political hacks should not predict anything further than their next meal; but I can't help feeling there is one party leader, who was having a rough time of it, is maybe now feeling slightly less hacked off.

Aled Thomas is a freelance journalist

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