David Cameron’s spin was straight from the pages of the New Labour text book on media manipulation: the Sun switched its support to the Conservatives ahead of the 2010 general election because its readers had already started abandoning Gordon Brown – precisely the same argument advanced by Tony Blair who claimed that the Sun switched to Labour ahead of the 1997 general election because its readers were already deserting John Major.
Like Blair before him, Cameron was giving a spin doctor’s gloss on the “chicken and the egg”: their spin was that Rupert Murdoch had no alternative but to respond to what the Sun’s readers were telling the editor and the switch would have taken place anyway, without the help of Andy Coulson – or in Blair’s case, without the efforts of Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell.
In Cameron’s case it wasn’t only readers but also the reporters who forced the pace on Murdoch: “You could see what was happening under my leadership of the Conservative party. Sun readers were coming over to the Conservative Party and Sun journalists told me they thought their newspaper was out of tune with its readers.”
Although Cameron agreed in response to Robert Jay QC, counsel for the inquiry (14.6.2012), that Andy Coulson had given advice on how to win over the Sun the Prime Minister insisted that was not the reason why he was appointed the Conservative Party’s director of communications in May 2007.
Regrettably Jay did not pursue the point and Cameron was not pressed on Coulson’s role in the three years leading up to the 2010 general election and his success in reconnecting the Conservatives to the news agenda of the Sun and the News of the World.
In his evidence Cameron singled out the News of the World’s campaign for Sarah’s law – the campaign which Coulson saw to fruition during his editorship and which forced the government to change the law to allow parents access to information on paedophiles.
Coulson’s success from 2007 in undermining support for Prime Minister Gordon Brown – by promoting Cameron through Sun-style campaigns – made him indispensable and helped explain why the Prime Minister had no hesitation in taking a former News of the World editor with him into Downing Street.
Under Coulson’s guidance Cameron could not have done more to endorse Sun campaigns such as support for “Our Boys”, the sacking of Sharon Shoesmith over Baby P and the attacks on the “bloated BBC” and the broadcasting regulator Ofcom.
This was the day-to-day currency of a developing relationship which culminated in the Sun abandoning Brown during the Labour Party’s 2009 party conference.
Jay asked Cameron directly if he had tried to develop a strategy as to see how the Sun might be won over. “No I think we developed a strategy about how to explain the policies we believed in and how to spread them as far as we can. You talk about policies which appeal to Sun readers such as a freeze in council tax.”
But Cameron accepted that Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks had a strong personal relationship with Gordon Brown and it had not been easy. “We did have our work cut out to win over the Sun. What we had on our side was that Sun readers were coming to us...leaving Labour and coming to us...and my aim was to get the Sun back into the fold of Conservative Party supporting newspapers.
“I assumed Rupert Murdoch would have a big say...and I sensed if we could say Sun readers were moving in our direction we would have a good chance.
“I think there was a growing picture of disenchantment with the Brown government and the Conservatives getting their act together...it was a long process.
“Trevor Kavanagh (the Sun’s political commentator) was someone who thought Labour was getting it wrong and he thought the Conservative Party was getting its act together and he was an ally in helping to get the Sun on side.”
Although Cameron was not questioned on the mechanics of what went on behind the scenes, he did acknowledged the importance which he gave to winning the support of Britain’s largest selling newspaper – and the paper with the biggest number of floating voters. And when it came to cause and effect, Coulson did have a pivotal role.