Throughout his years in power, Blair had regular secret meetings with Murdoch, many abroad, and was in regular telephone contact. Price has gone as far as to claim that Murdoch “seemed like the 24th member of the cabinet”.
Blair insisted no record was ever kept of the meetings or calls, so they were totally deniable. Cherie Blair has said that her husband’s decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003 was a “close call”. So it was – and there is evidence that the final decision was taken only after Murdoch’s encouragement was received and his blessing given. Blair talked to the media tycoon three times on the telephone in the 10 days before the US-led invasion. Details obtained under freedom of information show Blair called Murdoch on 11 March, 13 March and 19 March 2003. British and US troops began the invasion on 20 March, with the Times and Sun voicing total support.
To begin with, [David] Cameron was wary of Murdoch. His first meetings with the tycoon went badly. After one meeting, a senior News International figure complained to me: “We told David exactly what to say and how to say it in order to please Rupert. But Cameron wouldn’t play ball. I can’t understand it.”
Cameron had made the deliberate decision to gain power without Murdoch’s assistance. Urged on by his senior aide – and probably his closest political friend, Steve Hilton – the future prime minister kept his distance.
But this strategy led to disaster in the polls. David Cameron was mocked and ridiculed in the Labour supporting Murdoch press, and by the summer of 2007 matters reached a crisis. There was talk that Gordon Brown, newly elected as Labour leader and Prime Minister, would call a snap election that autumn which he was widely expected to win handsomely.
It was at this point that George Osborne, then shadow chancellor and also Cameron’s closest strategic advisor, entered the fray. The immensely ambitious Osborne – who was already cultivating his own links with News International – made the case that Cameron should hire Andy Coulson.
Coulson was a brilliant News of the World executive, hand picked by Murdoch himself to go to the very top of the News International organisation. But his career had met with a setback a few months previously when he had been forced to resign as editor after the royal reporter Clive Goodman was sentenced to jail for hacking into the mobile phones of members of the royal household.
Cameron accepted Osborne’s view that there was no need to worry about this blot on Coulson’s record. This turned out to be a fatal miscalculation. Disastrously, Cameron imported Coulson into his inner team of advisors. In the short term, Coulson proved to be an excellent decision. He gave sound strategic advice, which helped Cameron see off the threat from Brown and enjoy a remarkable recovery in the opinion polls. But Coulson also performed one other function. He helped draw Cameron deep into the inner circle that surrounds Rupert Murdoch. In particular Cameron allowed himself to become a member of what is now known as the Chipping Norton set, a group of louche and affluent Londoners who centred around Rebekah Brooks’s Oxfordshire home, barely a mile from Cameron’s constituency residence.
Soon News International, through Coulson, had a key say in Conservative Party decision-making and even personnel appointments. It was News International, once again acting through Coulson, which effectively ordered Cameron to sack Dominic Grieve as his shadow home secretary in the autumn of 2008. Grieve was duly reshuffled in January 2009, after less than a year in the job. The irony of that decision is bitter today, for the decision given by News International for wanting Grieve out was that he was too soft on crime. Finally Cameron’s friendship with News International delivered the ultimate prize – the support of the Sun in the 2010 general election.