Allegations of a secret, now-concluded “affair” that reportedly left Prime Minister David Cameron “stunned” and threatened to derail the government’s agenda were published by the Mail on Sunday. “This revelation is dynamite. None of us could believe it when we first heard it. Then we just thought, ‘What a complete mess,’” a source told the Mail. “Such disclosure could ‘blow out of the water’ any major political set pieces planned by No. 10” according to the newspaper. Citing “legal reasons,” the paper describes the affair’s participants only as “middle-aged figures” whose relationship has now concluded.
A Downing Street spokesman denied any “crisis talks” but not the rumour itself. Coming on the heels of the resignation of Conservative M.P. Patrick Mercer last week following a cash-for-questions investigation by The Telegraph and the BBC’s Panorama, and the arrest of Deputy Speaker Nigel Evans last month over allegations of sexual assault, Cameron’s administration has been beset by mounting accusations of sleaze.
Ever since Cameron approved earlier this year the recommendations of Lord Justice Leveson to set up an independent press regulator under a royal charter, he’s suffered a torrid time at the hands of Britain’s famously feral press.
The Leveson Inquiry into press ethics was set up after the hacking scandal engulfed Rupert Murdoch’s News International and led to the resignation of senior executives and the arrest of nearly a hundred News International journalists and their informants. The high-profile trials of senior executives, including Cameron’s neighbor and friend Rebekah Brooks and his former press supremo, Andy Coulson, are due to begin in September and are the focus of intense pretrial hearings.
Last year Cameron’s coalition experienced a series of crises, mainly due to Britain’s sluggish economy and mishandling of government policy. But his close circle was also the target of a number of investigative stings. The Sunday Times produced an undercover scoop claiming a Tory party chairman offered access to senior ministers in return for party donations—a claim that is disputed and now subject to legal action. Meanwhile the daily tabloid Sun claimed that his chief whip, Andrew Mitchell, had called police officers guarding No. 10 “plebs.” Mitchell resigned his post, but that allegation is hotly disputed and is currently the subject to a police investigation. A source close to the scandals last year told The Daily Beast that senior newspaper editors had been given a blank check by proprietors to target Cameron and his circle since the Leveson Inquiry and hacking scandal broke.
In the light of forthcoming trials and royal charter legislation, the timing of the new media-fueled rumors appears highly suspicious. Not only do they destabilize Cameron at a difficult time when he’s low in the polls, and his right flank is threatened by Tory rebels and the rise of Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party, but also legally questionable revelations could undermine forthcoming court cases by publishing material that has not yet been called in evidence and lead to trials being abandoned for technical reasons.
It looks like a high-stakes game of chess is being played at the highest levels of media and politics, but mainly behind the scenes. Once again, the British press looks less like it’s holding politicians to account and more like it’s holding them hostage.