In Depth

Another Cameron gaffe: judge hits out over Coulson apology

Jury fails to reach verdict on two other charges faced by Coulson after Cameron's premature apology

David Cameron's competence is again in doubt – and this time it's the judge in the hacking trial who's on the warpath. Why, he asked today, did the PM launch into his apology for hiring Andy Coulson as director of communications when he had yet to be sentenced?

Today, Mr Justice Saunders discharged the jury after they failed to reach majority verdicts on two remaining counts – that the former News of the World editor had conspired to commit misconduct in public office by paying police for royal phone books.

Judge Saunders said the Crown Prosecution Service would decide by Monday whether it wants a retrial on these two charges.

Downing Street defended Cameron, saying he took legal advice and indeed had a law officer in the room with him when he faced the cameras at Number Ten yesterday.

But speaking on Radio 4's World at One programme today, Ken Clarke, the former Justice Secretary, agreed with the judge and said Cameron had been “unwise” to make his statement.

Cameron went ahead with his apology immediately after the jury found Coulson guilty of conspiring to intercept phone messages - but was still considering two misconduct charges.

Judge Saunders said in court: "I asked for an explanation from the Prime Minister as to why he had issued his statement while the jury were still considering verdicts.

"My sole concern is to ensure that justice is done. Politicians have other imperatives and I understand that. Whether the political imperative was such that statements could not await all the verdicts, I leave to others to judge."

Coulson's lawyer, Timothy Langdale, said Cameron's premature intervention was extraordinarily ill-advised. It was, he said, designed only to avoid political damage and it would be "impossible" for the jury to ignore. "It strikes at the heart of justice," he said.

Also piling the pressure on Cameron today was Ed Miliband, who took advantage of Prime Minister's Questions to raise the intriguing question of whether Lord [Gus] O’Donnell, the former Cabinet Secretary and head of the Civil Service, had warned the PM against hiring Coulson.

Cameron ducked the question, choosing to hide behind the Leveson Inquiry. "Gus O’Donnell has made that very clear in the evidence he gave to the inquiry," said Cameron. "What he [Miliband] is trying to do is go through all the old questions that were answered by the Leveson Inquiry.

"He wanted to try and prove some cooked-up conspiracy between the Conservative Party and News International. He cannot manage to do it because the Leveson Inquiry cannot find it."

In fact, O’Donnell made no such thing clear before Leveson. And anyway, the inquiry was into much wider questions about the misdemeanours of the press – it was not an inquiry into Coulson’s fitness to work at Number Ten.

After Miliband failed to get a clear answer at PMQs, a Labour backbencher also asked Cameron whether O’Donnell had warned him against hiring Coulson. Again Cameron hid behind Leveson, saying: "A number of civil servants gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry. The whole process of Andy Coulson, the vetting of Andy Coulson, each and every one of the questions were dealt with by the investigation."

As the Labour MP Ben Bradshaw tweeted: “Three times Cameron fails to answer: was he warned by head of Civil Service or any other senior civil servant about employing Coulson?"

Cameron's evasive replies suggest that Labour knows the answer. If Gus O’Donnell did warn Cameron, it would add to the mounting suspicion that Cameron didn’t probe too deeply into Coulson's possible involvement in the hacking scandal because he didn’t want to know the truth and was more intent on exploiting the direct route to the Murdoch empire Coulson's appointment offered.

Nick Robinson, the BBC's political editor, called the Prime Minister’s use of the Leveson Inquiry as a shield the “Hutton defence” -used by Tony Blair every time he was asked a question about the death of Dr David Kelly and/or allegations of “sexing up” the Downing Street dossier on Saddam’s mystery weapons of mass destruction.

The fact is, Cameron tried to spike Miliband’s guns by getting his “full and frank apology” for hiring Coulson in first before the Labour leader could raise awkward questions – and it has clearly backfired.

However strong yesterday's apology from the PM - "I take full responsibility for employing Andy Coulson" - it did not prevent Miliband issuing an equally strong rejoinder: “He will always be remembered as the first Prime Minister in his office to have brought a criminal into the heart of Downing Street."

The Labour leader added: "The truth about this is that the charge is not one of ignorance – it is wilful negligence at the heart of this scandal." He said Cameron had ignored warnings about Coulson from Nick Clegg, from The Guardian and from the New York Times.

Miliband also pressed Cameron today about whether Coulson was positively vetted. He should not get too obsessed about the vetting question because ultimately, the Mole reckons, it is going to take him down a cul-de-sac. No one is suggesting that Coulson used insider information to assist terrorists.

The Labour leader would do better to concentrate on Cameron's questionable competence – which is going to come up again this week when his dubious strategy for blocking the appointemnt of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission looks set to backfire just as spectacularly.

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