LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister David Cameron will face questions at a judicial inquiry on Thursday about accusations his government tailored policy to pamper media mogul Rupert Murdoch's business interests.
Cameron's once cosy ties with Murdoch's minions mean he is under pressure to pull off a virtuoso performance before an inquiry which has sharpened the perception Britain has been run for years by an elite that fawned on the News Corp chairman.
The probe into Britain's media and its relationship with politicians has dominated headlines just as the prime minister struggles with an economy in recession and growing unease about his leadership within his own party.
"It (the cross-examination at the inquiry) could add to the impression the public may have of his being out of touch and more obsessed with hob-nobbing with wealthy, powerful people," said Charlie Beckett, founding director of the Polis think-tank at the London School of Economics.
"If (the inquiry) gives the impression of somebody who is careless, I suspect that will come as ammunition for those in his own party who are uncomfortable with his leadership style," he added.
Cameron, who once sent text messages with an affectionate "LOL" sign-off to a Murdoch newspaper executive and employed another of his editors as a communications chief, ordered the Leveson inquiry into media ethics last July when News Corp was accused of hacking the phone of a murdered schoolgirl.
Cameron has said politicians from both his Conservatives and the Labour party had ties that were too close to the Murdoch media empire and that he is determined to resolve the problem no matter how messy.
But if Cameron had hoped the inquiry might help soothe the scandal, it has done the opposite - week upon week of revelations have been served up casting British politicians as courtiers to Murdoch's king.
The prime minister has been embarrassed by his association with the so called "Chipping Norton" set, a high-powered group that included Cameron and Murdoch's star editor Rebekah Brooks who live in and around the well-heeled Oxfordshire town of Chipping Norton.
Brooks, with whose husband Cameron went horse riding, is now charged with perverting the course of justice for interfering with a police investigation into phone hacking.
The spectacle of a British leader cross-examined under oath for hours by one of London's top barristers about ties to jet-setting tycoons and editors is a daunting prospect for his advisors, who are already reeling from criticism that he is a lightweight politician out of touch with the voters.
The prime minister's aides said he was doing "a lot of preparation" and is being briefed by lawyers ahead of his appearance at the inquiry, where he can afford few mistakes given his party's slump in the polls in recent months.
Cameron is under fire for shielding Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, a fellow Conservative minister, who is accused by Labour of being far too close to News Corp while reviewing its bid for BSkyB.
Hunt was meant to be an impartial overseer of the 8 billion pound bid for the pay-TV operator, but testimony by Murdoch's executive son James at the Leveson inquiry appeared to show that Hunt's office was in regular contact with News Corp and may have given it confidential information.
Cameron's Lib Dem coalition partners abstained on Wednesday from a parliamentary vote on a motion calling for the prime minister to order an inquiry into Hunt's actions, underscoring the divides in the coalition.
Hunt's special adviser resigned over the affair.
In a sign of the concern inside 10 Downing Street, aides circulated a letter from the prime minister saying that he would outline measures to increase the transparency of special advisers and shed more light on decisions such as the one entrusted to Hunt over BSkyB.
The prime minister is also likely to be questioned about Cameron's decision to appoint Andy Coulson, former editor at Murdoch's News of the World newspaper, as his communications adviser. Coulson was charged with perjury last month for remarks he made in court over the hacking scandal.
Additional reporting by Matt Falloon; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Andrew Heavens