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Family friendships make for uncomfortable day for Cameron

David Cameron facing the Leveson Inquiry. Credit: Pool

You didn't need a political analyst to score David Cameron's appearance before the Leveson Inquiry this morning because his shoulders and demeanor did all the talking anyone was ever going to need.

When it came to that already infamous text ('Yes he Cam!'), he knew the damage he was going to sustain.

And he was quite incredibly uncomfortable when asked just how often he had seen Rebekah and Charlie Brooks down in Chipping Norton.

He left us with the impression that it was pretty much every weekend and it took his wife's steely intervention in the lunch hour to set the record straight (it was only every six weeks, apparently).

There is no doubt how he got himself into this pickle.

In the early days of his time as opposition leader, Samantha was very careful to keep some distance between them and the Murdochs. She essentially seems to view the world her husband inhabits as a threat to the integrity of their family life, which she is determined to preserve at all costs.

Former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks leaves after giving evidence to the Leveson Credit: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth

She never seemed to much like the way Rebekah and the Murdochs always wanted more and more and more (as she saw it) and she certainly makes a careful distinction to this day between 'personal' and 'political' friends, which is all part of her grand masterplan to get her husband out of Downing Street in a sane condition.

As we know, this cannot be taken for granted.

It was Rebekah's marriage to Charlie that changed all this. Dave always liked Rebekah, but Charlie was an old family friend.

With this marriage, the personal and professional fused and the gap that Samantha liked to preserve disappeared.

I don't know but am prepared to bet that she had doubts from time to time as to the wisdom of it, but to her husband it must have seemed like an unavoidable and mostly helpful development.

The Prime Minister's relationship with Rebekah Brookes and the Murdochs Credit: Reuters/POOL via Reuters TV

You could argue that the guilt by association argument is unfair, but he knows this is academic, which is what explains his shiftiness as the questioning today drifted into this area.

None of it is fatal. There has been no game changer here. But it is worth remarking upon because the decline in David Cameron's personal standing is one of the few developments this year that may turn out to have long term impact.

Let us invent for the purposes of considering this a simple measure for judging leadership standing that ranges from 'exceptionally positive' (Blair in his pomp) to 'exceptionally negative' (Michael Foot).

At the start of this year, most journalists and MPs of all parties (speaking honestly in private, of course) would have awarded the Prime Minister a 'very positive' rating, on the grounds that many people in the country viewed him as the natural leader of the moment, even if they did not agree with his policies.

By contrast, Ed Miliband was certainly still in 'very negative' territory, with people often describing him as weird, wonkish and weak.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair at the Leveson Inquiry.

But since then, things have changed. The omnishambles budget and the sense of incompetence tarnished his reputation as the effortless 'chairman of the board'.

He has come across as thin-skinned and touchy in the Commons too often (Blair always looked like the natural boss, even in his final days) and shows flashes of Flashman more frequently than is good for him.

In other times, a reputation for 'chillaxing' might be a postive (we like to be led by people who are recognisably human), but right now we want to feel that our leader is working night and day to save us from the catastrophe that may be about to roll out of the Eurozone. David Cameron is actually a pretty good economist, but you'd never guess it.

Lecturing European leaders from afar has clearly got us nowhere and it says something that political hacks can now occasionally be heard wondering aloud if we wouldn't be better off with Gordon back in charge. In short, I think he has slipped to positive and one might argue he is perilously close to neutral.

Labour leader Ed Miliband steps up the game Credit: Reuters/Parbul TV via Reuters TV

Ed Miliband has been on the reverse trajectory. I don't think it is true to say that enough people can yet really view him as Prime Minister to win, but there is no doubt that his performances on television and in the commons have been much more confident and fluent (and at times moderately impressive).

He has taken some risks and showed considerable chutzpah and I think you can say he has reached 'neutral.' This a really decent improvement for a new leader who still has three years left to run before he faces the electorate. You certainly don't hear Labour MPs talk about the 'leadership issue' any more.

There is still a long way to go until the next election and a lot can happen in that time. To my mind, Ed still sometimes displays odd strategic judgement (such as going on and on and on about Hunt when there are so many more important things happening in the world) and despite yesterday's opinion poll giving Ed Balls the lead on the economy, I don't think it is yet certain that Labour has laid to rest the doubts on its economic competence.

The Tories have the reins of power. If the economy is recoving by 2015, there is every chance the election will be about how to share out the proceeds of the recovery (you've had the pain, now let's talk about the gain), which should play to their natural instincts. They can probably recover much of the Tory press by coming out clearly against press regulation (which Gove and Osborne have already done).

But the blunt truth is that David Cameron used to have a clear advantage on the leadership question and that is no longer so obviously the case. You can argue about much else that has happened this year and what it is really going to mean in 2015 (not much, probably), but this development should worry Number Ten more than it appears to.

Tom Bradby reports on the personal friendship and shared professional aims of the Prime Minister and the Murdoch newspaper boss, Rebekah Brooks, which were further exposed at the Leveson inquiry.

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