The multiple perils of political friendship

The Crown Prosecution Service’s decision to charge Rebekah Brooks came as the British Cabinet met on Tuesday and will have sent an unwelcome chill through the room.

It is an occupational hazard of senior politicians that they become friends or acquaintances of individuals who attract the interest of law enforcers. Of course, these are only allegations at the moment, but sometimes the mud sticks and questions of judgment grow, sometimes not.

Brooks, the former News International chief executive, was a ferocious networker. She was on close terms with many Labour politicians, notably Tony Blair and Sarah Brown, wife of Gordon Brown. But when the music stopped her closest political friendship was with David Cameron.

The prime minister has now discovered that the allegations of wrongdoing by senior figures at News International are not just being taken seriously by news conspiracy theorists, but also by the most senior figures in the legal profession.

It also guarantees that the Brooks saga will be rearing its head in court towards the end of the year. It is an albatross that will follow Cameron for months and he cannot control how it will end. Indeed, with other cases pending, it could form a backdrop to the second half of Parliament.

Blair was dogged by the cash-for-honours saga for a year and saw one of his intimates, Lord Michael Abraham Levy, twist in the wind, waiting on a decision by the Crown Prosecution Services. But in the end it never came to court.

The intimacy between Brooks and Cameron stretches back many years and the bond has been strengthened by country sports and point-to-points. In the past six years they have met 22 times on semi-official business, including in Greece and at New Year’s Eve parties. In opposition, as Cameron courted the support of The Sun and The Times, they met no fewer than 13 times.

Their friendship became closer when she began dating Charlie Brooks, the racehorse trainer and Daily Telegraph columnist whom she married in 2009. Brooks’s family and the Camerons were friends and neighbours in the Cotswolds.

Rebekah Brooks told Lord Justice Brian Leveson on May 11 that she exchanged up to two texts a week with David Cameron during the 2010 general election campaign.

She was invited to the prime minister’s country residence, three times in 2010, prompting the Leveson barrister Robert Jay to ask: “Did you often pop around to each other’s houses?”

Personal and professional loyalty
Brooks dismissed as “ludicrous” suggestions in some newspaper columns that they exchanged texts up to 12 times a day.

Brooks also confirmed for the first time recently that she was at a Boxing Day party with Cameron in December 2010. This came three days after she entertained the prime minister at her Oxfordshire home with a dinner during which News Corporation’s £8-billion bid for BSkyB was discussed briefly.

She also disclosed that she held a conversation in 2010 with Cameron on the number of civil cases that were being pressed against News International. It is not known how much detail was conveyed.

Cameron’s office will hope that his relations with Brooks are not relevant to any court case. The issue for Cameron will be whether his personal and professional loyalty to Brooks will damage him, or just be seen as a hazard of public office.

Labour was not gloating about Cameron’s connections on Tuesday and knows it cannot seek to make any political mileage once charges have been brought. Some in the shadow Cabinet believe Ed Miliband has been pushing the issue too hard.

Labour remains convinced that the damage to Cameron will come through the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt.

The announcement by Leveson that he has asked both Hunt’s special adviser Adam Smith and former News Corp lobbyist Fred Michel to give evidence probably represents the most significant political danger to Cameron. – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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