When previously secretive spin doctors break a self-enforced vow of silence there is usually more than one political agenda at play and that certainly seems to be the case with the unexpected foray by Andy Coulson into the current uncertainties within the Conservative Party.
By firing a well-aimed broadside across the bows of Boris Johnson – accusing the Mayor of London of wanting to see David Cameron “fail miserably” in the 2015 general election – Coulson has more than repaid the respect which the Prime Minister has continued to show for his former Downing Street director of communications.
But why would Coulson, ex- editor of the defunct News of the World – who is due to stand trial in September over conspiracy allegations relating to the hacking of voice mails – choose this moment to come out into the public arena after spending so long in the political shadows.
Since his initial appointment as the Conservative Party’s top spin doctor in May 2007 (within months of his resignation from the News of the World), Coulson has rarely uttered a word in public about his behind-the-scenes role spinning for Cameron both in the run up to the 2010 general election and then during the first seven months of the coalition government.
In my own book Campaign 2010, I made the point that Coulson’s great value to Cameron was that unlike his infamous predecessor in Downing Street, Alastair Campbell, he was not addicted to self publicity; Coulson always kept the lowest possible profile, had no intention of becoming “the story” and did not get caught up in feeding the news media with speculative stories.
Therefore I have to admit I was taken aback by Coulson’s splash in the GQ magazine (July, 2013) in which he reveals his “ten point plan for saving David Cameron and stopping Labour in 2015.” Coulson’s choice of GQ is itself a deft touch, opting for a platform not known for its political commentary but seeing itself as an influential magazine with an aspiring readership.
When trying to work out Coulson’s motives, there can be no doubting where his loyalties lie, and equally how annoyed he must have become at seeing the wilful disregard of the Conservative Party’s hierarchy for the tightly-controlled political messages which he had helped to formulate and manage in both opposition and government.
Another potential irritant for Coulson is that the task of reviving the Conservative Party’s political fortunes has fallen to the Australian election strategist Lynton Crosby who masterminded Boris Johnson’s re-election as Mayor of London in 2012.
Crosby is currently working one day a week for Cameron but there is pressure from within the party for him to be hired full-time from the autumn, six months earlier than planned. Coulson has beaten him to the draw with a closely-argued strategy for the long haul to the general election.
Cameron’s mid-term slump in popularity does not augur well. UKIP could easily de-stabilise Cameron still further by pushing the Conservatives into second place in the 2014 elections to the European Parliament.
And, long term, there seems less and less likelihood of George Osborne’s faltering stewardship of the economy providing a convincing life-line for the Tories come polling day in May 2015; Coulson fears another sustained economic dip will leave Cameron on the “prime ministerial precipice”.
Whatever happens on the UKIP front, Boris Johnson continues to be Cameron’s greatest threat; the Mayor of London’s ample helping of political stardust shows no immediate sign of waning and he knows only too well that next year’s European elections could present a make-or-break moment for the Prime Minister.
Hence the deadly aim of Coulson’s pre-emptive strike in GQ. He based his assertion that Johnson “desperately wants to be Prime Minister” – and that Cameron had known this “fact longer than most” – on what took place in July 2007 when he passed on a message to Cameron that Johnson wanted to stand as Conservative candidate for Mayor of London.
Cameron, who had been elected Conservative Party leader in December 2005, remarked somewhat ruefully: “Well, if he wins, he’ll want my job next.”
Although Coulson had not previously breached the confidence of his conversations with Cameron, his anecdote certainly strengthened his prediction of Johnson’s likely tactics should the Conservatives lose in 2015:
“Stabbing David, or anyone else for that matter, in the back would be distinctly off brand – just not very Boris. He would much prefer to see David fail miserably in the election and ride in on his bike to save the party and the country.”
Coulson goes even further in spinning a line that reinforces Johnson’s political cunning; he warns Cameron that he should keep the Mayor of London at arm’s length because he was “too smart” to play the bad guy. “Number Ten’s Boris strategy should be simple. Support for good ideas, advise privately on the bad ones, but only engage publicly if absolutely necessary – and celebrate Boris’ considerable success.”
Publication of Coulson’s personal blue print for the Conservatives’ pre-election game plan is perhaps an indication of his frustration at no longer having a strategic role in Downing Street.
Lynton Crosby and the rest of the Downing Street team have certainly been supplied with a comprehensive checklist of future tactics: Samantha Cameron should be encouraged to play a more public role as she was “badly needed in the trenchers” and Cameron should indicate immediately that the televised leaders’ debates would be “very much on” during the 2015 campaign because in Coulson’s opinion the 2010 debates “sealed the deal on the question of him being seen as PM material”; Samantha Cameron should be encouraged to play a more public role as she was “badly needed in the trenches”.
(GQ went to press before the furore over David and Samantha Cameron’s holiday in Ibiza and newspaper front pages questioning whether the Prime Minister should have gone on a family holiday so soon after the Woolwich murder of soldier Lee Rigby).
Coulson’s continuing loyalty to Cameron is not in doubt, just as he could not be faulted on the discretion he has exercised about what took place during the long lead-up to the 2010 general election or during the negotiations that established the first coalition government for sixty years.
Despite all the unfavourable publicity which surrounded Coulson’s final resignation from Downing Street in January 2011, the subsequent appointment of the Leveson Inquiry into the News of the World scandal and his own arrest for conspiracy over phone hacking, Cameron has continued to express his appreciation for all that Coulson achieved in directing the Conservatives’ media strategy.
Cameron has also made a point of always insisting that no complaints were ever made to him about Coulson’s work in Downing Street. He had offered him a job in the first place because he believed the ex-editor deserved a second chance and during the time they worked together they became good friends – a position the Prime Minister has steadfastly maintained despite keeping his distance while Coulson awaits trial in the autumn.
Judging by the publicity which Coulson has attracted for his ten-point plan to rescue the Conservative Party – and the opportunity it has given him to take a pot shot at the Labour Party – I would not be surprised if we hear more from the formerly secretive spin doctor.
Lynton Crosby seems comfortable with his high public profile and does give the occasional media interview; Damian McBride, Gordon Brown’s former spin doctor is busily writing his account of life in Downing Street and Coulson only has to think of Alastair Campbell’s diaries to see the potential for retelling the inside story of his own four years helping Cameron transform himself from an uncertain party leader to an established Prime Minister. Who knows, perhaps another book is in the offing?
Illustrations: GQ, July 2013; Daily Mirror, 27.5.2003; Sun, 27.5.2013)