Pressure grows on Tory communications chief

Author: By Jane Merrick, Political Editor

Mr Coulson will be the key witness at an emergency hearing of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee on Tuesday, alongside the Sun editor Rebekah Brooks (née Wade) and former News of the World managing editor Stuart Kuttner.

The Tory spin-doctor, who resigned as the paper’s editor two years ago over the affair, will be asked to put on the record a categorical denial that he knew nothing of the illegal activities of journalists on his former paper.

The committee will also focus on whether Mr Coulson can remain as one of Mr Cameron’s closest aides in Downing Street, because the phone-tapping scandal happened on his watch. Until last week, Mr Coulson had refused publicly to deny knowledge of the activities of the then royal editor of the paper, Clive Goodman, and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire.

While there is no suggestion Mr Coulson has misled MPs or done anything wrong, some Tories are concerned that the continuing affair could be damaging to the Conservatives and their relationship with the Royal Family, which was the target of major hacking activity by Goodman.

Members of the select committee are also angry that evidence given to them during their investigation into the affair two years ago by other News of the World executives appeared to stop short of the full story.

Les Hinton, at the time News International chairman, told the committee in 2007 that Goodman had been acting alone. Yet an investigation by The Guardian this month claimed the practice was widespread. News of the World chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck, who will also be called by the committee, is alleged to have been involved in illegal activity. One committee source said yesterday: “There are some members who believe that the wool was pulled over their eyes when they first investigated this in 2007.”

Mr Cameron and his inner circle have so far stood by Mr Coulson. But there were new questions last night over whether Mr Cameron and George Osborne, who was involved in Mr Coulson’s recruitment, properly checked whether the former editor knew of the scandal.

In an interview with The Independent on Sunday, Mr Osborne refused to repeat Mr Coulson’s denial. And in remarks which could trigger speculation that the Tory leadership could pull support from Mr Coulson if his story evaporates, Mr Osborne referred to his colleague in the past tense. Asked whether Mr Coulson had denied to him at the time any knowledge of phone-tapping, Mr Osborne said: “I’m not going to go into my private conversations with Andy Coulson, but I will say this ? I think he’s been an absolutely excellent communications director for the Conservative Party. I think he’s conducted himself in that job in an entirely proper and correct way.”

Asked if he was concerned that Mr Coulson did not know what was going on under his watch, Mr Osborne said: “The police have thoroughly investigated this. I thought it was significant that on the day The Guardian made its allegations that the police came out and said this had been thoroughly investigated and that there was no new evidence, as far as they were concerned, that was worth investigating. I think that speaks for itself.”

One News International insider said Mr Coulson was still a candidate to succeed Ms Brooks as editor of The Sun in September. The fresh revelations of phone-tapping had damaged his chances slightly, but the source added: “Andy is still the golden boy. If things didn’t work out with Cameron, he could have the job if he wanted.”

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