Gothic gloom of the House of Commons committee corridor is a baleful place for Conservative leaders; it was here that Margaret Thatcher was despatched by her own treacherous MPs in 1990. But on Wednesday night against the odds David Cameron was greeted like a hero. Stick it up em, carry on, and it will be all right, he told his exultant party.
This has been Camerons worst period since he became prime minister in May 2010. For two weeks he has struggled to contain what he calls the firestorm of the News of the World phone hacking scandal, as revelations pile up about his intimate links with Rupert Murdochs embattled media empire.
The scandal follows his shambolic retreats on plans to reform the cherished National Health Service and on prison sentencing policy, and his impulsive intervention in Libya. The economy, which flickered into life last autumn, is flatlining. Yet as Cameron concluded his final pep talk before parliaments summer break having cut short a trip to Africa to deal with the escalating hacking affair Conservative MPs pounded their oak desks in support.
It was the end of a typical day in the life of a leader who appears to draw strength from his role as the countrys leading political escapologist. Indeed Cameron acknowledged as much, recounting the words of stately Tory MP Sir Peter Tapsell: In my 52 years in parliament, I have never known a prime minister more adept at getting out of scrapes but I have never known a prime minister who got into so many scrapes.
But the scandal has trained a particularly harsh spotlight on concerns that have been building for years that Cameron is too cavalier in his approach, slapdash in his attention to detail, too close to a powerful elite.
He has made a career out of an ability to emerge victorious in the most unlikely circumstances. He came from nowhere to win his partys leadership in 2005; in 2007 he held his nerve as Gordon Brown, then prime minister, threatened to annihilate him with a snap general election. When he failed to win an expected Commons majority in 2010, Cameron surprised everyone with his big, open and comprehensive coalition offer to the Liberal Democrats.
His decision to hire former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his media chief in 2007 has dogged him for years. Coulsons arrest this month over hacking allegations put further pressure on the prime minister notably in an emergency Commons debate on Wednesday, only a day after a parliamentary grilling of Mr Murdoch to explain why he took him into the heart of his Downing Street operation. Ed Miliband, Labour party leader, called the decision a catastrophic error of judgment. Coulson was the Sunday tabloids editor when hacking was said to be at its height, and Cameron simply ignored all the warnings about the risk he was taking.
Further evidence of Downing Street connections with the Murdoch empire has emerged this week. It turns out Neil the Wolfman Wallis, Coulsons former deputy at the News of the World, exited the newsroom and went on to work both for Camerons election campaign and for the Metropolitan Police also growing more ensnared in the scandal.
Meanwhile Rebekah Brooks dined with the Camerons last Christmas in Oxfordshire at a time when the bid by Mr Murdochs News Corp to take full control of BSkyB was a hot political issue. Ms Brooks, News of the World editor when hacking took place, was until her resignation this month over the scandal, chief executive of News Corps UK subsidiary and News of the World publisher, News International.
One by one, Coulson, Mr Wallis and Ms Brooks were arrested. Two senior Metropolitan Police officers resigned after they were sucked into the hacking affair. Cameron, by contrast, defended his position in a parliamentary tour de force, even if the affair has tarnished his reputation and retains the power to reignite at any moment. But can his luck last? Miliband admits he has failed to catch his quarry for now. There is acceptance in the Labour camp that the public has not yet rumbled him. He looks like a prime minister and acts like a prime minister, but hes not a very good prime minister, says a senior Labour official.
For all the wall-to-wall media coverage of the hacking affair and the public outrage that the News of the World hacked into the phone of a murdered schoolgirl Labour MPs admit that the public has started to tune out. Westminster lost touch with the real world about a week ago, says one frontbencher.
However, Miliband believes the scandal will continue to resonate because it reflects fatal flaws in Camerons premiership that will become apparent to voters. According to the Labour leaders team, the prime minister suffers from a deficit in three Ds: detail, diligence and direction.
Miliband says Cameron built a wall of silence around him to protect him from details of Coulsons alleged wrongdoing at the News of the World. He then failed to carry out due diligence on the appointment. If you havent thought through how you staff your office or how you reform the NHS, how can we be sure Cameron has thought through his economic strategy? says one aide to the opposition leader.
Meanwhile Miliband argues that Camerons willingness to conduct policy U-turns a sign of strength, according to the prime minister is evidence that he lacks any political anchor and that his coalition has no sense of direction.
Furthermore John Healey, shadow health secretary, argues that the scandal is not over, and that little mines will explode under the prime minister as a raft of inquiries by the judiciary and the police reveal further details about the links between Downing Street and the Murdoch empire.
There is also the question of Camerons image. The hacking affair has shone a spotlight on a side he tries to keep concealed, including cosy weekends with media executives at his official country home and the intimate goings-on of Cameron and his high-powered friends in the chi-chi Oxfordshire town of Chipping Norton. There is a sense that he, Brooks, Coulson and the rest all floated in these circles above the rest of us and that the normal rules didnt apply, says one senior Conservative MP.
Certainly the affair will have done little to endear the prime minister to the approximately two-thirds of the electorate who did not vote Conservative at the last election, particularly those in the north and in Scotland, for whom Chipping Norton is a geographically and culturally remote concept.
Though the affair may have accentuated his entitled Eton-and-Oxbridge image, another Tory MP says most people have already formed their view. People who didnt like him still dont like him. People either think hes a good operator or a bit flash, the MP said. I dont think this has changed much in that respect.
Conservative support in the polls throughout the hacking affair has remained in the mid-30s, close to what Cameron achieved in last years election. Tory strategists believe that Labours modest poll lead will evaporate once voters are presented with a choice between the prime minister supposedly a cool head in tough times and the rookie Miliband.
That confidence is underpinned by Camerons certainty that the coalition has made the right choice on the countrys most pressing problem: the economy. The government has embarked on an aggressive deficit reduction programme that has made Britain a safe haven in the sovereign debt crisis battering the eurozone. Even as growth stalls, the coalition remains united in its determination to apply tough fiscal medicine.
George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer, believes most of the other squalls will pass. People trust the governments economic policy and trust the big judgments it is making, he told the Financial Times this week. Public support for what we are doing is overwhelming.
But much of Camerons confidence about the future is innate. His mentality often described as born to rule combines what he calls his optimistic nature and his belief that he can get out of almost any problem. However, even he can see that with the phone hacking scandal and the health debacle, he has been pushing his luck.
I dont think hes arrogant, says one Conservative MP who saw him in action behind closed doors on Wednesday night. He said he was sorry for what he has put us through and promised to be more risk-averse in future. But Cameron seems to relish the gasps of the political crowds as he extricates himself from seemingly impossible positions, often of his own making. Can he change? Even those who thumped their desks in appreciation on Wednesday believe he must tread with more care. As the final exchanges of the political season subsided, one Tory MP said he hoped Cameron would reflect during the summer break on the lessons of the hacking affair: I would like to think this is the slap around the face that wakes up the patient. Financial Times