David Cameron was left flustered as he came under intense pressure during questioning on his relationship with ex-News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks as their friendly text messages were revealed to the Leveson Inquiry.
The Prime Minister accepted politicians and the Press had become “too close” and said a “better footing” was needed as he gave evidence to the inquiry into media ethics yesterday.
He also admitted the decision to appoint former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his spin chief after he resigned from the now defunct Sunday tabloid when phone hacking allegations first emerged had “come back to haunt” him.
Mr Cameron appeared uncomfortable as the inquiry’s counsel Robert Jay QC grilled him on the content of one particular text message from Mrs Brooks.
In it, the former Sun and News of the World editor told the Prime Minister “we are in this together” in an apparent reference to the Conservative campaign slogan, as she gave him a pep talk ahead of a major speech he was to give.
Mrs Brooks, who was in court on Tuesday accused of conspiring to pervert the course of justice by hiding potential evidence from police investigating claims of phone hacking and bribery of public officials at her former newspaper, also invited him to a “country supper”.
Sent on the eve of the 2009 Conservative conference, just days after The Sun switched its support to his party from Labour, her message said: “I’m so rooting for you tomorrow not just as a proud friend but because professionally we are definitely in this together. Speech of your life? Yes he Cam!”
The last three words were the headline of The Sun’s coverage of his speech the next day.
Asked to explain the message, Mr Cameron said: “The Sun had made this decision to back the Conservatives, to part company with Labour.
“The Sun wanted to make sure it was helping the Conservative Party put its best foot forward with the policies we were announcing, the speech I was making. That’s what that means.”
He added: “We were friends. But professionally, me as leader of the Conservative Party, her in newspapers, we were going to be pushing the same political agenda.”
Mr Cameron said he saw more of Mrs Brooks after she began seeing her husband Charlie, a neighbour and former Eton schoolfriend of Mr Cameron, and moved into his Oxfordshire home.
He repeatedly said he could not be certain how frequently they met or spoke by telephone, but after consulting with his wife Samantha, who contacted him with information from her diary during the lunchbreak, he concluded they probably did not see the couple more often than once every six weeks or so.
Mr Cameron told the inquiry he discussed appointing Mr Coulson as Conservative communications chief with Mrs Brooks, but it had ultimately been his decision and he made it in good faith, having sought assurances from Mr Coulson he had known nothing about phone hacking at the News of the World. “If someone had given me evidence that he knew about phone hacking I wouldn’t have employed him and I would have fired him,” he said. Mr Coulson resigned from his Downing Street role last January as the phone hacking furore intensified.
Mr Cameron also dismissed ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s suggestions of a Conservative deal with Rupert Murdoch as “conspiracy theories” and defended his handling of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who he put in charge of the media mogul’s BSkyB bid.
He said he hoped the inquiry would result in an independent Press regulation system with “real teeth” to punish offenders.