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The strengths and weaknesses of Operation Coulson

Tim Montgomerie

Coulson Andy PC3 Andy Coulson is in the firing line again. Today from leader writers at the FT (£):

"Mr Coulson’s position is not untenable. It may be true that, as he claims, he was unaware of what his staff were up to. He made that claim again this week – under oath as a witness in the perjury trial of a former Scottish politician. But while the drip of claim and counter-claim continues, this affair cannot be put to rest. And without a resolution, it will continue to undermine Mr Coulson’s credibility and, by extension, that of the prime minister."

The horse is dead but the flogging continues. The BBC and Guardian, in particular, made a great hullabaloo about the attacks on Andy Coulson by former News of the World reporter, Sean Hoare. ConHome pointed out at the time that Mr Hoare was hardly an impartial witness. He was sacked by Coulson because he was addicted to drugs and alcohol. And, not unexpectedly, when the police knocked on Mr Hoare's door he declined to repeat the testimony he gave to the New York Times (a newspaper like the FT that is in fierce competition with the Wall Street Journal, owned, like the NotW, by Rupert Murdoch).

I wouldn't be surprised if, at some point in 2011, Andy Coulson did give up his post overseeing Communications for the Prime Minister. If he does go he'll leave a considerable hole. It was Coulson who helped bury über-modernisation in the middle of 2007. A pledge to The Sun on the Lisbon Treaty, a war on "broken Britain's" criminality and the inheritance tax cut brought the party back from the electoral precipice. He and George Osborne, in particular, produced an electoral pitch that killed Brown's honeymoon. Since then he has performed an unlikely double act with Oliver Letwin. Letwin examines every initiative from a policy perspective, making sure it bears intellectual examination. Coulson tabloid-proofs initiatives, ensuring that Cameronism doesn't offend The Sun, Mail and other popular newspapers. He's not always successful at this and, most recently, Ken Clarke has beat him on prisons but he was instrumental in The Sun's early endorsement of the Conservatives.

Coulson's downside is his attempt at absolute control of the message. His risk-aversion means that almost noone is allowed to speak to the press. This leaves large parts of the media without clear direction on government strategy. Columnists, in particular, complain about a lack of attention. If he stays he needs to address this, perhaps with a special appointment of a well-connected commentator to his team. It's not enough for the Downing Street press operation to make problems go away. It needs to create a lot more positive coverage. Ed Miliband's appointment of Tom Baldwin and Bob Roberts raises the stakes. Baldwin has big problems - as noted here and in today's Mail - but it was fascinating to watch him in Parliament's Portcullis House on Thursday. Journalists buzzed around him and as a long-time political reporter himself he'll feed them exactly what they need. As the Coalition enters at least two very choppy years it needs to do much more to win the affection of centre right commentators, in particular.


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