LONDON — Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday faced a deepening political crisis over his relationships with tainted figures in Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, with the British leader cutting short an official visit to Africa in an attempt to stanch the escalating fallout of the phone-hacking scandal at home.
Pressure on Cameron mounted as the scandal began to resemble a Shakespearean play, with its high-profile victims strewn across Britain’s public stage. One day after the head of Scotland Yard resigned, one of his key deputies, the embattled John Yates, followed suit, with calls growing for a broader housecleaning in the 51,000-member police force.
Another power player claimed by the scandal — Rebekah Brooks, a former top Murdoch executive who was arrested Sunday and released on bail after nine hours of questioning — is to testify before Parliament on Tuesday. Joining her will be her former bosses, Murdoch and his son James, for a committee grilling on News of the World’s phone hacking of thousands of British citizens, including members of the royal family.
On Monday, Ed Miliband, head of the opposition Labor Party, stopped short of directly calling for the prime minister to resign. But he said the questions swirling around Cameron have left him “unable to provide the leadership the country needs.”
He again called on Cameron — who was forced to call a special session of Parliament for Wednesday to address the scandal — to more fully explain his decision to fill the job of communication director at No. 10 Downing Street with Andy Coulson, the former editor of Murdoch’s now-shuttered News of the World. Coulson, who resigned in January as the scandal intensified, was arrested last week in connection with illicit newsgathering.
In another development Monday, the Guardian newspaper reported that Sean Hoare, a former reporter for News Corp. papers who first alleged that Coulson was aware of phone hacking by his staff, had been found dead. Police said the death of the man identified by the paper as Hoare was “not thought to be suspicious,” the Guardian reported.
Hoare, a longtime British tabloid reporter who had worked at News of the World, was seen as instrumental in linking the scandal back to Coulson. He went on the record in a New York Times article as saying the practice of hacking at News of the World was far more common than the tabloid had admitted.
On Monday, Miliband demanded that Cameron detail his contacts with Brooks, a friend of the prime minister and the former chief executive of News Corp.’s British operations who is charged with illegal interception of communication and bribing police. Miliband called on Cameron to disclose more information about a dinner the prime minister shared with Brooks in December. The meal came two days after a pivotal decision by Cameron’s government to take oversight of News Corp.’s attempted takeover of the lucrative British Sky Broadcasting Corp. out of the hands of a minister who was highly critical of Murdoch.
Also coming before Parliament on Tuesday will be Paul Stephenson, who appeared to point a finger at the prime minister during his resignation on Sunday as chief of Scotland Yard. Stephenson stepped down after revelations that the Yard — the nickname of London’s Metropolitan Police — had hired Neil Wallis, Coulson’s former deputy at News of the World, as a media consultant despite allegations the tabloid had engaged in illegal newsgathering while both men worked there.
Stephenson seemed to suggest that Cameron’s relationship with Coulson left him at least as exposed as the police chief in the mounting scandal. Cameron fielded uncomfortable questions Monday about whether his atonement for hiring Coulson should be any less severe than Stephenson’s decision to step down.
Cameron insisted during an official trip to Africa, which he is abruptly cutting from four days to two, that Scotland Yard’s failures went deeper. He suggested the Yard was more at fault because it — unlike Downing Street — was actually in charge of investigating the crimes.
Scotland Yard declined to broaden the phone-hacking scandal after making just two arrests in 2006, calling it an isolated incident. While Wallis was working for Scotland Yard, police officials played down allegations in the Guardian newspaper that illicit newsgathering at News of the World was far more widespread.
Cameron, on the other hand, has said he believed Coulson when the former editor told him that he had no knowledge of phone hacking at the paper. Though Cameron has long defended Coulson and described him as a friend, Cameron has more recently called on him to be prosecuted if it is proved that he lied.
“The situation in the Metropolitan Police Service is really quite different to the situation in the government,” Cameron told reporters in South Africa. “Not least because the issues that the Metropolitan Police are looking at, the issues around them, have had a direct bearing on public confidence into the police inquiry.”
Yet the scandal has plunged the normally confident Cameron into his most severe political crisis since winning the prime ministership back for the Conservatives 14 months ago. Skilled in political sparring on the floor of Parliament, the 44-year-old Cameron had thus far managed to keep Miliband, the 41-year-old Labor Party chief, one step behind his coalition government.
With the phone-hacking scandal, however, Miliband has seemed to finally turn the tables.
On Monday, for instance, Miliband chided all sectors of British public life for allowing such cozy relationships between the press, politicians and police not only to exist but also to thrive in plain sight for years.
“What does this say about our country?” he asked. “How did we let this happen?”
Experts, however, pointed out that British prime ministers have faced more serious allegations and managed to survive. And no information has yet emerged, they note, indicating that Cameron is guilty of anything other than poor judgment and, perhaps, naivete. But that, they add, may yet change.
“Cameron was Teflon-coated, smooth, someone who was rather good at the job,” said Tony Travers, a political analyst at the London School of Economics. “But suddenly it’s Miliband with all the credibility, who is one step ahead of David Cameron.”
Special correspondent Eliza Macintosh contributed to this report.