Ian Swanson: Hacking row is far from over

THE phone hacking scandal has already claimed more casualties than the most bloodthirsty Whodunnit. Almost every time the television is turned on, someone else has resigned or been arrested.

Any idea Rupert Murdoch might have had that closing the country's biggest selling newspaper, throwing 200 people out of work, would put an end to the matter has proved a woeful misreading of the situation.

Since then, former News of the World editor and Downing Street aide Andy Coulson has been arrested, News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks has quit - and been arrested, former NI chairman Les Hinton has quit News Corp and the Met's two top policemen, Sir Paul Stephenson and John Yates, have also gone.

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Now there is speculation that the scandal could also claim the scalp of the Prime Minister himself.

There is said to be serious disquiet among Tory MPs about the way the affair is being handled and the effect it is having.

Some bookies were yesterday offering odds of ten to one that David Cameron would be gone by the weekend.

Hiring Andy Coulson as his director of communications must have struck Mr Cameron as a good idea at the time. His working-class Essex credentials gave him an instinct for the outlook of many Tory voters and offered a useful counter to the Old Etonians who feature so prominently in the Prime Minister's circle.

But Mr Coulson had already resigned from the News of the World after revelations of phone hacking led to the jailing of the paper's royal correspondent and a private investigator. He insisted he did not know about the illegal practices, but accepted responsibility as the man in charge.

Nevertheless, there were many who thought his appointment was not such a good idea and Mr Cameron appears to have ignored any warnings.

The Prime Minister may have breathed a private sigh of relief when Mr Coulson decided to quit Downing Street in January, saying the ongoing stories about phone hacking were making his job impossible.

But then the phone hacking allegations escalated and the questions over Mr Cameron's judgement in making the original appointment became more serious.

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The Prime Minister defended himself, saying he wanted to give Mr Coulson "a second chance" - as if Downing Street was a rehabilitation centre for fallen editors.

And Mr Cameron has had to shift ground repeatedly as events have developed - from dismissing the need for an inquiry to announcing a judge-led investigation; from describing Mr Coulson as a friend to saying he should be proscecuted if it turned out he had lied.

As the Prime Minister prepared to face the Commons today, with MPs' summer recess delayed by 24 hours so they can debate the hacking scandal, behind the scenes, Tory murmurs seemed to be growing.

Mr Cameron already has enemies inside the party, including some MPs who feel they were badly treated over expenses and others unhappy about the coalition with the Liberal Democrats.The latest crisis has fuelled their discontent.

One MP was quoted saying: "There aren't many of us who think he deserves support." Another said: "The water is lapping at David Cameron's ankles."

On the Conservative Home website, one contributor said: "The big question is whether Cameron is up to the job. The evidence so far, on many issues, suggests that he is not." And another observed: "If David Cameron is essentially a duff product, even Jim from the Apprentice won't be able to sell him - and its beginning to look as though he is."

The embarrassment, of course, is not just the Coulson connection. It is the wider issue of the closeness to the Murdoch empire. Rebekah Brooks is a friend and Oxfordshire neighbour of Mr Cameron's. Rupert Murdoch's daughter Elisabeth and her husband, Matthew Freud, are also friends.

Labour too has been guilty of cosying up to Mr Murdoch - Tony Blair famously dropped everything to fly to Australia to meet him. But the phone hacking scandal has given a boost to Ed Miliband, who became the first party leader to speak out against the Murdoch empire and called for Ms Brooks' resignation despite the unease of some of his colleagues about such a bold departure from past practice. He is reported to have received "very hostile" threats from a NI journalist afterwards.

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The scandal has also strengthened the Lib Dems' hand within the coalition. They have never had the same links to the Murdoch empire as the other parties.

Mr Cameron's supporters have been comforting themselves that the phone hacking row does not seem to have had much impact on public opinion - an ICM poll yesterday put the Tories one point ahead of Labour.

A Prime Ministerial resignation must remain an unlikely climax to the saga. But with inquiries, investigations and possible trials ahead, there is certainly the potential for further revelations, more embarrassment and deep and lasting damage.

The one thing which appears certain is that this story is not over yet.