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Where is the Downing Street counter-attack?

By Paul Goodman
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David Cameron's case for hiring Andy Coulson was that everyone "deserves a second chance".  In saying so, he was taking the former News of The World Editor's story at face value - namely, that Coulson had taken responsibility for the misdeeds of one rogue reporter by resigning.  He possibly shouldn't have hired Coulson in the first place (though very few of those now trumpeting this view were even murmuring it a month ago).  And he would certainly now be compromised had he been warned in detail about his former media chief's links to a corrupt private detective, and appointed Coulson none the less.

However, even the Guardian isn't claiming that this was the case.  It says that it told Steve Hilton about this Coulson connection, and that Hilton passed them on to Edward Llewellyn, the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff.  The paper hasn't asserted that Llewellyn told Cameron - and nor has anyone else.  This being so, it follows that the Prime Minister's critics - Ed Miliband on the left, some bloggers on the right - are united in suggesting that the Prime Minister's position is in danger simply because he made a bad appointment.  It isn't.  (Memo to Boris: please point this out next time you're asked.)

So to mount an operation defending the Prime Minister ought to be straightforward.  There are plenty of Conservative MPs who'd be only too willing to take to the airwaves and the TV studios.  There are aggressive members of the 2010 intake, straining for promotion.  There are seasoned backbenchers, willing to pitch in.  There are CCHQ attack dogs, such as Michael Fallon and, yes, Sayeeda Warsi.  There are media-seasoned Cabinet members, such as Liam Fox, Michael Gove and William Hague.  All this isn't mission impossible: look at Theresa May's firm Commons response to Yvette Cooper yesterday afternoon.

And as well as defence there is counter-attack.  During even the quietiest of times, the inboxes of journalists and the blackberries of Tory MPs are normally clogged up with briefings and "lines to take" respectively.  But in these frenzied ones, there is little sign of the former and MPs are reporting an absence of the latter.  How did it come about that Cameron's main champion yesterday was Nick Clegg, rather than a member of his own party?  Where are the calls by senior Tories for Tom Baldwin to be investigated by the Met?  Why was Nick Boles left to front two separate interviews on Newsnight yesterday evening?

Where is the publicised push to haul Piers Morgan before a Select Committee?  (The running on the story has been made by Guido Fawkes.)  Why is there no campaign to ram home the message that the Daily Mirror carried out three times as many illegal transactions as the News of the World (according to the Information Commissioner)?  Who advised the Prime Minister to fly off abroad rather than go on TV here - telling viewers that his priorities are theirs: curbing the deficit, controlling immigration, improving schools, tackling the Euro-zone crisis?  How come published details of meetings with Rebekah Wade were wrong?

The buck for all this stops not with CCHQ but with Number 10, where there are three main problems, which Downing Street sources themselves concede.  First, that while Cameron's relationship with Downing Street's main players is strong, their relationship with each other is less so: Llewellyn, Oliver, Hilton and Cooper, for all their individual talents, haven't bonded into a coherent, collective unit.  Second, as Tim and I have repeatedly said (try here and here), there is no single, strong Lynton Crosby-type figure in command of the Downing Street operation: its flaws derive from there being no clear structure at the centre.

Third, there is a shortage of grey hair.  The appointment of Fallon to some degree made up for this.  But no-one plays for Cameron the role that Stephen Sherbourne played for Michael Howard - the old hand who can draw on memories of past crises to deal with present ones.  We are promised that the counter-assault will begin today: better late than never.  It's true that the twists and turns of this saga are impossible to anticipate.  But the central facts are clear.  The Downing Street team isn't hanging together to push the Prime Minister's case.  And they don't hang together, they're in danger of hanging separately.


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