After the dramatic collapse of trust in the two other great institutions of British life, the media and the police, Prime Minister David Cameron is struggling to keep a third, his Conservative Party, insulated from the scandal that threatens to jeopardize his government, if not his leadership.
After an emergency parliamentary session in which the Prime Minister, 44, answered a record 138 successive questions about the scandal without revealing much about his party's specific involvement, or appearing terribly flustered, the hard work now begins as a lengthy judicial inquiry will probe the links between media, police and political figures.
After the arrest or resignation of a dozen top figures in Scotland Yard and in Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation - including the arrest on phone-tapping charges of Mr. Cameron's former spokesman Andy Coulson - the Prime Minister struggled to buy himself some time and credibility by fending off the crisis that seems to place his leadership at the apex of a triangle of allegedly corrupt institutions.
What began as a media scandal involving the eavesdropping on telephone voice mail messages by the now-defunct News of the World tabloid has quickly exploded into a far wider scandal involving, at its heart, efforts by figures within News Corp. to wield influence within the highest ranks of policing and government - including packing both institutions with figures loyal to the company.
The scandal has numerous ties to the Prime Minister's office. Mr. Cameron has yet to explain fully why he has had 26 meetings over the last 15 months with News Corp. executives, including some who are now under arrest; why he ignored warnings as early as 2009 that Mr. Coulson, a former News of the World editor-in-chief, had been involved in criminal activity; to what extent he was influenced by his close friendships with News Corp. executive Rebekah Brooks, now under arrest at the centre of the scandal, and other officials; and to what extent he attempted to influence Mr. Murdoch's effort, subject to government regulation, to purchase the remaining 60 per cent share of his British broadcasting company.
The scandal has now become fundamentally political. Despite his bravura performance, Mr. Cameron failed to address two serious new allegations that emerged from the benches on Wednesday: First, that Mr. Coulson was aware last year, after taking office as spokesman, of a News Corp. campaign then taking place to hack the phones and plant humiliating stories about an unnamed senior official; and second, that Mr. Cameron actively discussed Mr. Murdoch's broadcasting bid with News Corp. executives at 10 Downing Street.
As Parliament reached an explosive conclusion and MPs left for their summer recess, it appeared that Mr. Cameron hoped those hints of scandal would sink beneath the waves, to be replaced in the autumn by other news.
One of his MPs, Nick Boles, tried to dismiss the scandal as "a little local difficulty," borrowing a phrase from another scandal-plagued Tory prime minister, Harold Macmillan - a line that probably deserved the roar of derision it attracted from the other benches, given that the phone-hacking scandal has become a global event.
Still, suggestions that Mr. Cameron will be forced out of office by the scandal appear exaggerated. Late Wednesday night he faced an emergency meeting of his party's closed-door, backbencher-dominated 1922 Committee, usually seen as a punishing affair for prime ministers. Instead, he received a minute-long standing ovation from the MPs, and he reportedly left them in a buoyant mood by suggesting that he had successfully batted away the scandal. He focused his attention on the European Union and the American financial crisis, suggesting that these become the party's focus of attention.
Even though some British bookmaking shops are now offering 50-50 odds on Mr. Cameron stepping down before the end of his term, the prospects of him being voted or driven out of office by his own party are extremely slim, even if Mr. Coulson is convicted and other unsavoury connections to Mr. Murdoch's empire come to light.
Some suspect that Boris Johnson, the popular mayor of London and Mr. Cameron's long-time leadership rival, is trying to use the scandal to build his own profile. He has denounced News Corp.'s political influence, and has pointedly declined to say that the Prime Minister shouldn't resign. But unlike the Labour Party in the Gordon Brown years, there is no major faction of backbenchers or ministers seeking Mr. Cameron's ouster.
And the Opposition Labour Party has largely failed to whip up parliamentary outrage against the Prime Minister. While it was individual Labour MPs who turned the scandal into a political affair with a hearing two weeks ago, Labour Leader Ed Miliband's attacks on the far more eloquent Mr. Cameron seemed limited in their scope and power.
More worrisome for Mr. Cameron is the effect the scandal is having on his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. As Mr. Cameron spent three hours batting off questions from MPs, in the seat beside him Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, sat blank faced, impassive and utterly silent, an exercise in nonchalance that must have been exhausting.
For the Liberal Democrats are in a terrible position. As the only party that has never had intimate relations with Mr. Murdoch and his underlings (because they have never been in power), Mr. Clegg's party could be cleaning up at a moment like this: But as the junior partners in a government whose larger party has been caught with the Murdoch empire in its offices and bedrooms, Mr. Clegg could not possibly say anything.
That frustration, if the scandal widens under the glare of an inquiry and threatens to drive voters away, could turn into something more menacing. Mr. Cameron may have managed to use rhetoric and charm to regain the confidence of his party, but the thickening web of connections to the most corrupt branches of police and media could end up undermining the confidence of his government, if not that of the voters themselves.