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A mortal sting in this summer's tales?

Phil Vellender reflects on the subtext of a tumultuous summer and recalls another scandal mistakenly dismissed as a 'non story' back in 1972.

This summer has been one long series of tales of the unexpected. Few dreamt they would see the News of the World shut down or the shifty Murdoch's hamming humility in Parliament. In an eerie replay of 1981, first a prince married a wealthy commoner then an England cricket team completely thrashed India - the erstwhile best team in the world - while Britain's cities burned.

How many of those watching that smarmy, ex-PR consultant Cameron during the July phone-hacking debate realised the significance of a phrase that will surely come back to haunt him: 'I had no inappropriate conversations with News International.' Some of us were instantly reminded of that seminal moment in Clinton 's presidency when he finally spat out his desperate denial of impropriety to the American people 'I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.' Or at least, not 'inappropriate' ones. So, with the summer over, just how endangered is the Tory Coalition and can the unravelling Murdoch scandal mire Cameron's smarmy army in its own, very British, Watergate?

While pessimists gave the Tory Coalition a full term in office, underneath the surface the fissures of instability have always been there. But few, not even the Guardian, quite predicted the violence of the News International eruption when it finally came nor foresaw the recent riots, (Clegg warned us of course!). Although both these narratives in different ways represent threats to the 'British way of doing politics', there is little doubt this summer's News International scandal has the real potential to do severe damage the country's political class.

We can expect to see both the Tory (and - naturally - Labour) party spin doctors working overtime to encourage media stories from September onwards stressing how bored we all are with Murdochgate, as it regularly re-erupts. The recent riots were a reminder that the British polity enjoys the same potential for instability as any other 'advanced democracy'. But the disturbances also provided Parliament's many tarnished reputations with a welcome lifeline to 'business as usual'.

For in MPs' slavering denunciations of the August 'looters' we were treated to the spectacle of them baying in sanctimonious unison in the Riot Debate, doubtless buoyed by the prospect of quaffing rivers of holiday expenses-fuelled cheap alcohol from the Commons bars. No attempt was made to offer any serious analysis. Parliament unites best when, as with the recent vote on Libya , it is going to war 'consensus regained'. Now it was off to war on the yobs.

But it was more than that. The riot invective was also about launching 'Project Collective Amnesia', because the Coalition et al have so much for us to forget. The need to bury the memories too many still have of the 'high spirited', restaurant wrecking antics of the Bullingdon Boys the Cameron clique's original nasty 'party'. Memories of Gove taking Murdoch's shilling and his 'flat flipping'. Of Blears et al 's casual, 'ooh, silly me' mistaken expenses claims and of the queues of shamed and named MPs lining up to write some hasty 'mea culpa' cheques.

Just as the expenses scandal had faded Murdochgate reminded us, they're still all in it together! Yes, all that consensual, riot-related baying rhetoric was, brazenly, aimed at lulling us back to sleep in the hope that all those News International connected bungled police investigations, police corruption and complicit cover-ups would vanish into the ether too. Hopefully, we would hardly notice it was business as usual as George Osborne's risible Project Merlin banking pact assisted the passage of £14 billion worth of bonuses into the off shore accounts of our hard pressed bankers. Just to be certain that the law and order rhetoric had done its job, Osborne even floated the axing of the 50% top rate of tax.

So will this self-serving sophistry exploiting post riot public disquiet do the trick? It might not. The response by police leaders to the Coalition's 20% cut in their budgets, at the time of writing, threatens to derail the Tory Coalition's entire cuts policy (the Guardian , 13/08/11 ). The appointment of the new Met commissioner is no longer a shoe-in with Johnson, May and Cameron all scratching away at each other.

The unprecedentedly vocal opposition by ACPO to interference in 'operational matters' has caused a clear split between the Coalition parties (the LibDems attacking Cameron for 'short termism' and 'knee jerk reactions') and within them (Boris Johnson attacking police cuts). George Osborne's 'no Plan B' has run up against a robust blue line of ACPO defiance in Orde's message to the public briefly paraphrased as 'Tory Coalition cuts to police resources are a threat to your safety'.

Cameron faces a crisis management problem of significant proportions because, however desperately the Tories hope that the News International story will run out of steam, they know that their Heaven sent, riot story smokescreen will fade rioters do tend to stop rioting - eventually, although with the increasing severity of current Tory cuts even this cannot be a given. Someone should ask Clegg.

Once the Select Committees' and Cameron's other public inquiries start, the pace of the drip, drip, drip of leaked, damaging and embarrassing information regarding Cameron's relationships with News International will quicken - all of which the Tories will struggle to control. The police investigations may also fail to be 100% watertight as Scotland Yard knows perfectly well the political class will want to stick as much Murdoch mud to them as possible. Indeed, after all the Yard's 'inappropriate conversations' with News International, just how it will retain its current level of public support when Murdochgate returns to the front pages will be a fascinating subplot.

Is News International Cameron's Watergate? The parallels are certainly there. But we should remember that with most scandals it is the cover-up, rather than what's being buried, that brings the leading players down. Watergate took a long time to reach the Oval Office, but that's how it got there. The News International scandal is there already. Neither Murdoch nor Nixon employed a moral compass. Nixon resigned. But no Murdoch resignation would bring closure for Cameron, as Nixon's did for America 1974, because the trickle of information might just become a torrent at any time. Whereas Nixon's scandal was born of subterfuge dictated by the political necessity to conceal the illegal bombing of Cambodia , aimed at forcing the Vietnamese to the negotiating table, Murdochgate is about the naked pursuit of influence to consolidate vast corporate power with the apparent conniving of the government.

It has often been argued the British political class is far more resistant to openness and transparency than the equivalent competitive elites that run the USA, and that therefore no Watergate-style unmasking of the British ruling class could ever happen here. Today all the key pillars of the crown are self evidently at each other's throats, so much so that even the Daily Telegraph columnist, Peter Oborne, damned MPs' hypocritical response to the riots in an excoriating attack (11/08/11). He demonstrated just how many of those that made the most passionate speeches attacking the rioters had themselves cashed in handsomely during their sustained looting of tax payers' money, yet got off scot-free. Morality, he argued, applies only to the poor, concluding that the whole system required a root and branch 'moral reformation'.

The true significance of the unravelling News International scandal is therefore that it threatens to reveal all the nasty machinations of that interlocking matrix of power that is Britain 's constitutional settlement. And since 'they are all in it together' those who manage the vital interests of the class Cameron is batting for might decide to protect their turf first and 'nudge' him into doing the honourable thing - Dodgy Dave may yet have to morph into a clean shaven Tricky Dickey and exit.

Peter Oborne strikes a chord precisely because Murdochgate's exposure of corrupt journalists, politicians, police and a ruthless business elite has begun to dissolve the much vaunted probity of the British state apparatus, like an Aspro in a glass of water, so subverting the cherished myths of British innate 'good governance' which were supposed to mark us out from the coarse, pork-barrel approach to politics of our American cousins. Thus, having lived through 'pre-riot' Murdochgate we are now entering the 'post riot' phase of the scandal. For all the Tories' branding of those 'feral gangs of mindless looters' as symptomatic of a 'sick' and 'broken' society, as Murdochgate gains momentum (as Watergate inexorably did) it may dawn on Cameron, reflecting on those many 'entirely appropriate conversations' held with his many entirely unsavoury News International friends, that this 'very British Watergate' could yet provide the country with the mortal sting at the end of all this summer's unexpected political tales.