In the face of an unrelenting flow of fresh accusations about telephone hacking at the News of the World, it was inevitable that Andy Coulson would have to stand down from his job as the Downing Street communications chief. But after nearly four years as the Prime Minister’s right-hand man in managing the news media, Coulson has demonstrated time and again his ability to connect David Cameron to the agenda of the popular press.
Despite months of unfavourable publicity Coulson was repeatedly given a vote of confidence by Cameron; the Prime Minister and his closest colleagues were determined to do all they could to retain No 10’s director of communications. However, all that bravado seemed increasingly misplaced once another editorial executive who served under Coulson during his editorship of the News of the World was linked directly to the phone-tapping scandal. Being called as a witness in the Tommy Sheridan perjury trial in Glasgow was just a foretaste of what now seems likely. As the prospect of fresh court cases multiplies, Coulson knew his job had become impossible: no spin doctor can hope to escape unscathed if faced by the threat of repeated court appearances, even if simply as a witness. Coulson could not have put it better when he said in his resignation statement that ‘when the spokesman needs a spokesman, it is time to move on’. His great strength at the News of the World was his exceptional ability as a campaigning journalist and it was his skill in aligning Cameron with popular causes which made him so attractive to the Conservative Party. Perhaps his single most successful campaign was to get the Home Office and the Police to adopt what became known as ‘Sarah’s Law’ – the right of parents to have access to information about paedophiles who pose a threat to their children.Four months after resigning from the editorship – after the jailing of royal correspondent Clive Goodman and investigator Glenn Mulcaire in January 2007 – Coulson was signed up by Cameron. He set to work reconnecting the Conservatives the populist agenda of the Murdoch press and especially newspapers like the Sun. Cameron instantly came out in support of ‘Our Boys’ in Iraq and Afghanistan urging higher allowance for troops of operational duty; Cameron was the first party leader to support the people of Wootton Bassett who began lining up in the streets of their town as bodies of servicemen and women were repatriated from nearby RAF Lyneham. Coulson’s ability to turn disaster to advantage was centre stage when the Daily Telegraph began exposing the abuse of MPs’ expenses in May 2009. Cameron’s tactic of forcing Conservative MPs to repay the money and his determination to stand up to the Tory grandees who had used allowances to pay for the maintenance of swimming pools at the like, won him plenty of favourable headlines. By comparison the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown continually appeared to be indecisive, lacking in direction.Then in the autumn of 2009 Cameron helped prepare the ground for Cameron’s greatest coup: newspapers like the Sun abandoned Brown and backed the Conservatives as the country geared up for the 2010 general election.Coulson’s achievements in office have also won him admiration among political communicators: he carried off a successful merger between the hitherto opposing spin teams of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and got them to work together in Downing Street.The success of the ongoing campaign to expose benefit ‘cheats’ and ‘scroungers’ is another tribute to Coulson’s ability to associate Cameron with populist campaigns; it was after all the Prime Minister who in August 2010 launched the Sun’s hotline to expose fraud among welfare claimants. Where Coulson was different to the likes of Alastair Campbell was he kept the lowest possible profile; no journalist caught Coulson out giving the kind of poisonous, anonymous briefings which were the stock in trade of Tony Blair’s spin doctor.In the second volume if his diaries, Campbell admits that he told the Observer columnist Andrew Rawnsley that Gordon Brown was wrong to think Blair had robbed him of the Labour leadership and anyone who thought this needed ‘their head examined’.Campbell said it was this briefing on which Rawnsley based his story that Blairites thought Brown was ‘psychologically flawed’; ‘I probably went over the top,’ Campbell now concedes.That Sunday Blair was annoyed and told Campbell that his briefings had got ‘out of hand’. Campbell apologised to the Prime Minister and said he had made ‘a basic error in allowing my exasperation to pill out in that way’ – although Campbell denied using the words ‘psychologically flawed’. In paying tribute to Coulson Cameron could with justification say that there had not been a single complaint about the way his communications department had been run by Coulson; the communications team had operated in a ‘proper and professional’ way – and that had not been the case under New Labour. .