Labour MPs Fail To Tackle David Cameron During Phone Hacking Debate

Parliamentary Sketch: Limping Off For The Summer

Maybe they're tired and secretly wanted to go home yesterday, but Labour MPs were surprisingly subdued at today's emergency debate on phone hacking. The consensus at Westminster is that Ed Miliband failed to land serious blows on the prime minister, and in general, today's recall of parliament felt like a bit of an anti-climax.

MPs started out nonplussed with David Cameron's lineup of the great and the good, who will assist Lord Justice Leveson in his phone hacking inquiry. There were some stifled groans at the prospect of hearing even more of Shami Chakrabati, and there was faint surprise at the mention of Elinor Goodman, the former Channel 4 political editor. MPs were more enthused at the veteran political reporter George Jones.

Ed Miliband's best line was when he accused Cameron of being "compromised by Mr Coulson, hamstrung by a conflict of interest". That got a big cheer but most of Ed Miliband's long-winded series of stabs in the dark failed to rouse the troops.

By contrast the Tories, three-line whipped into attending the debate, were noisy and determined to get behind their wounded leader. Cameron told MPs: "You live, you learn, and believe me, I have learnt".

Cameron has changed his tone regarding Andy Coulson in recent days. Last week he was palpably angry with his former head of communications, this week the PM chose to reveal himself as bruised and hurt, but determined to get over it, and stop it from happening again.

This made it tough for Ed Miliband to find the appropriate responding tone, and he didn't cut it. Miliband called it a "catastrophic error of judgement" but there was a whiff of the ignoble about it - when someone's apologised and appears chastened it doesn't entirely work just to carry on with the invective.

Veteran Labour MP Dennis Skinner was more probing. He asked the prime minister whether he'd ever discussed the BSkyB takeover with people at News International. Cameron could only reply: "I never had one inappropriate conversation", and Labour MPs loved that.

David Cameron mentioned Ed Milband's press man Tom Baldwin a few times, that always pleases his backbenchers. But many are wondering where Cameron's going with this. If the Tories have something on Baldwin, wouldn't they have released it by now to take the heat off their own boss?

Tom Watson, Keith Vaz and John Whittingdale were all given cross-party cheers when they spoke, as was Tory Nicola Blackwood, who shone during yesterday's Home Affairs Committee grilling of senior Metropolitan police staff.

Yet some MPs on the Culture Committee privately feel they let the Murdochs run rings around them yesterday afternoon. There's a sense that by the end of yesterday afternoon James Murdoch had some of them eating out of his hands.

There are questions about whether MPs on the committee really got their ducks in a row before the session started. Were their questions asked in an organised manner, or did some members exercise a bit of self-flattery, knowing every English language TV news channel was carrying their evidence?

As Rupert Murdoch's Gulfstream took off from Luton, MPs were finishing off urgent business and thinking about leaving the building. Most of them are shattered after a demanding few weeks, half of which have been spent trying to keep up with a monster of a news story which changes every hour. They liked "hackgate" when it started, because finally the journalists were even further in the gutter than MPs, but now they're sick of it.

They're aware that Cameron has created a beast of an inquiry in response, and they're going to spend much of the next 12 months fielding questions about it. Many will spend the next six weeks wishing the whole thing would just go away.


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