When we listed the praise people had offered Andy Coulson, much as it might have looked like gloating, it really wasn’t. It was more an effort, however clumsy, to try and rebut the instant inevitability myth. That’s the thing that has, in particular, BBC journalists intoning, after the event, whatever the event was, ‘the writing was on the wall’. In which case, you should want to scream at them, why didn’t you read the writing and say it out loud? For the truth is, Andy Coulson’s departure was no more inevitable than his appointment. His departure was Cameron characteristically buckling under pressure, and the pressure, while sustained and targeted, was also, as far as those who applied it are concerned, insignificant to begin with and entirely dependent upon being gifted ammunition by Coulson himself. His past, specifically his editorship of The News of the World, gave his opponents the weapons to finish the job, but it’s David Cameron who should have saved himself from this disaster in the first place.
Andy Coulson’s time as the Prime Minister’s spin doctor has been a nightmare which has now turned into a dreadful, court-bogged reality. And the people who said there was nothing to see here are now equally delusional in assuring each other that the story, as it affects the Party Leader, ends with Coulson’s departure. The reverse, unfortunately, is precisely the truth: each subsequent eruption from the Screws’ swamp will, entirely unnecessarily, now be tagged to David Cameron. This is the price he will have to pay for having appointed an always entirely unsuitable man to mould his public image.
Setting out to bury the bad news while the quality papers were due to be parsing Blair’s finessed apology, and whilst the Red Tops are still distastefully obsessed with Bristol, was, in true Coulson form, a disaster. Not simply because of the crass cynicism with which it was planned, up to and including direct denials from Cameron that it was being planned, but because it then swamped the gift from God of poor Alan Johnson. Instead of Labour shooting itself in the foot being the story of the new year, Ed Balls now has lucked into place entirely hidden by the implosion of Andy Coulson. Of all the things the Mods bewailed and undermined William Hague with, his inability to set a narrative was always their most salient point. Quite how many baseball caps on the flume ride scale of incompetence Andy Coulson’s appointment, tenure and departure merit is one for the history books. Though it yet again reveals how lucky above all else the Cameron clique is to not face a fronde of the sort they themselves presented to Hague and Duncan Smith.
Even the mechanics of the departure today have been lousy. There’s very little point in moaning about BBC bias, when, for instance, the Newsnight studio comprises a hostile John Prescott and an even more pungent and knowing Andrew Neil. What were they supposed to do? Place a pair of rectangular glasses on the desk to represent the party stooge they weren’t offered? Nor, for the partisan, was there much in the way of bias from Nick Robinson, who has consistently retailed the Coulson line throughout his time in the Party. Tonight saw the BBC’s political editor offering up his version of Coulson, who was ‘successful’, in touch, and nobly falling on his sword because he had got in the way of the real story. So when did that last thing happen? this week? last year? the year before? We’ve already muttered about Coulson’s successes, which haven’t, as yet, included winning an election, however easy the field. But what about that ‘in touch’? How touchy are council houses if they keep you in touch after a decade of good, properly 6 figured, salaries?
There’s a defence to be made for Coulson that he was that bit more populist than, in short, Steve Hilton. Though as Brian Sewell jumps through this hoop too it’s not that high a jump. That said, the defence has been well made by both Iain Martin and ConservativeHome that Coulson’s strategy was less electorally lethal than Hilton’s. However, there’s the problem: even if Coulson’s heart was in the righter place, how many internal battles did he win? Did he deliver on these better instincts? He did not. A cynic could reflect that the Coulson who lost these battles is curiously like the seemingly impassive Coulson who apparently silently presided over an out-of-control newspaper.
Other reactions to Coulson’s departure have ranged from pitiful boosterism to the predictably paranoid. But it’s inescapable that Rupert Murdoch is going to get burnt in Britain by what his News of the World did, and the outworking of that is going to metastasize, slowly and painfully. As we’ve argued above, solely because David Cameron and George Cameron drew Andy Coulson into the Tory Party, that’s now going to drag in the leadership at each new turn in the scandal: they have needlessly given their opponents the perfect peg on which to hang this story on them too. That News International is trying to run ahead of the storm is evident by the concessions being pre-emptively thrown at Ofcom and Jeremy Hunt, such as ‘editorial independence’ being pledged to a wholly-owned Sky. Still greater, presumably, than that which The Times got when it was bought, and which is now rather lamely exercising tomorrow with its frontpage, deathbed conversion (£) to the newsworthiness of Coulson.
No matter how many times we were told that there was ‘nothing to see here, move along’, it was wrong – there was, is and will be even more of a colossal story here. The corrupting of the police, and the relative incorruptibility of the judiciary are at the heart of that, and where the story will go next is well pointed to by Peter Oborne, Brian Cathcart and, of course, by Alastair Campbell. Tories, however, should pause and think on two signal aspects of the Coalition illuminated by Coulson’s departure. The first is the total absence of our good friend Nick Clegg. Despite the barrage of covering fire he’s been offered by his fellow liberals inside the Tory Party, he has offered them none in return. He hasn’t traded on the scepticism he had the prescience to display about Andy Coulson to try and lessen the damage being done to Cameron. This should remind us again that, as conducted by Cameron, the Coalition defends the Lib Dems, but the Lib Dems won’t defend Conservative interests. The other problem is inescapably David Cameron himself.
In one area alone Cameron is supremely un-Blair-like: he clings to his narrow circle of allies at all costs. Whereas Blair could cut himself free from even a Mandelson or Campbell, Cameron is incapable of the ruthlessness such true leadership requires. He also lacks the acolytes to risk it. This is the consequence of having a party run by a tiny band: they know they have to hang together or they’ll hang separately. With the departure of the first of their limited number, that latter day comes appreciably closer. Listen carefully and you can almost hear the tricoteuses.