LONDON – Prime Minister David Cameron's friendships with two suspects at the heart of Britain's phone hacking scandal will come under spotlight this week in what may be some uncomfortable hours for the country's conservative leader.
Two former editors of the scandal-tarred News of the World tabloid — Rebekah Brooks, Cameron's friend and neighbor, and Andy Coulson, his former communications chief — are expected to take the stand Thursday and Friday at a British inquiry into media ethics.
The inquiry is examining the often too-cozy relationship between British politicians and the country's press.
Speculation is rife about what the pair will reveal about their relations with Cameron and his Conservative Party, whose popularity is already at a low amid economic uncertainty and unrest from grass-roots activists.
Last week, the Daily Telegraph's chief political commentator, Peter Oborne, said he'd been told that Brooks had "retained the text messages she received from the prime minister, which I'm told could exceed a dozen a day."
"These may now be published," he said. "A horrible thought."
Oborne, whose paper has close ties to the Conservative Party, did not immediately return an email seeking additional information. But his account of text-swapping was backed up by a front-page story in The Times of London on Wednesday that spoke of a supportive message sent by Cameron to Brooks before her resignation in July.
The Times, citing an updated biography written by political journalists Francis Elliott and James Hanning, said Cameron had written to Brooks asking her to stay strong as the scandal over her paper's illegal behavior was raging around her. Days later, Brooks resigned from her post as CEO of Rupert Murdoch's News International unit and has since been arrested on suspicion of phone hacking and obstruction of justice.
Both she and Coulson deny any wrongdoing.
The Times, which is published by News International, did not provide direct quotes of any part of the text message and a publicist for Elliott and Hanning did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Still, the possibility that a trove of embarrassing texts could soon hit the Internet is buzzing around London.
Kelvin MacKenzie, a former editor with Murdoch's The Sun newspaper, predicted that, if published, the texts could be potentially fatal to Cameron's career.
"Considering what might be in this correspondence, I asked (betting shop) Ladbrokes to give me odds on Cameron not being prime minister by the end of November," he wrote in his column in the Daily Mail newspaper. He claimed to have bet 1,000 pounds (about $1,600) on the 10-to-1 odds he was given.
Cameron has already been embarrassed by his relationship to Brooks, particularly over the fact that he used to go riding on a police horse lent to the former tabloid editor in the well-to-do Oxfordshire area of Chipping Norton. Opponents have seized on the equine episode as symbolic of the intimate links between Britain's police, press and politicians.
Opposition leader Ed Miliband wasted little time ribbing Cameron on the expected revelations in their weekly debate Wednesday in Britain's House of Commons.
"He hired the editor, he sent the texts, he even rode the horse!" Miliband said.
Brooks and Coulson will be testifying before Lord Justice Brian Leveson, who is leading an inquiry to sift through the fallout of the hacking scandal, which has rocked Britain's establishment and rattled Murdoch's News Corp. with revelations of widespread journalistic malpractice at the News of the World.
The inquiry has heard from reporters, police and public figures about the misdeeds of the country's media to understand why nothing was done to stop the phone hacking for so long.
Earlier Wednesday, the inquiry heard that local British police suspected more than 10 years ago that a missing schoolgirl's phone had been hacked by people associated with the News of the World.
Police lawyer Neil Garnham said at least one officer with southern England's Surrey Police believed in April 2002 that missing girl Milly Dowler's phone had been hacked — the latest example of police's failure to investigate the rogue tabloid.
Victims' lawyer David Sherborne said Wednesday that many phone hacking victims might have been spared "if Surrey Police had prosecuted this activity in 2002."
He quoted Milly's parents as blaming "police neglect" and police deference to the nation's powerful press for the lack of action.
Last year's revelation that the News of the World had violated the privacy of the 13-year-old Milly, whose disappearance had drawn national attention, ignited the scandal. That prompted the paper's closure and lead to dozens of arrests, more than 100 lawsuits and hundreds of millions of pounds (dollars) in legal costs for New York-based News Corp.