The main political problem for Cameron is his appearance of coziness with News International executives, who formed part of his social circle. The rebuttal here is accurate but not particularly reassuring: Former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were even cozier with Murdoch's minions. All this snugness is a testimony to the skill of Murdoch's engagement in British politics. Other newspapers are reliably in the pocket of one party or another. Murdoch's papers are the media equivalent of a swing vote. Because their support can go either way, News International executives get special courting from British politicians.
Cameron's advisers seem to understand the long-term risks associated with the current scandal. The British public is in a disillusioned funk, and has been for some time. Before Cameron's election as prime minister last year, seven of 10 Britons agreed with the statement: "People who play by the rules always get a raw deal." Note the "always." Britons broadly believe that both bankers and welfare abusers get all the breaks. This frustration has led to a loss of faith in mainstream politicians and a long-term drift toward fringe parties, which gained about 10 percent of the vote during the last election.
Since becoming prime minister, Cameron has been an impressive budget cutter. He has frozen public salaries, increased education fees and boosted the value-added tax, while convincing most Britons that such austerity is not a choice but a necessity. The crisis of other European economies, particularly Greece, has aided in the job of persuasion.
An austerity agenda, however, does little to address British fears about the fundamental unfairness of their own society. Cameron had planned an emphasis this fall on education and welfare policies that would provide better value for taxpayer money. But a scandal of political, police and media elites with dodgy ethics complicates this message, reinforces the appearance of a rigged system and undermines a return to optimism.
Even if it is not Cameron's scandal, it has become his problem.Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson(at)washpost.com. (c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group