Headhunted by George Osborne, Andy Coulson became the Conservative Party’s Director of Communications at the lowest point in David Cameron’s leadership. Party unity had been damaged by the grammar schools row. Voters didn’t know what the party stood for. There was a lack of balance in the party’s message as the über-modernisers attempted to suppress all of the normal Tory instincts. Gordon Brown then became PM and shot ahead in the opinion polls. There was a danger of a honeymoon election and a fourth successive defeat for the Conservative Party.
We may never know the full role that Andy Coulson played in those crucial months but something certainly changed and for the better. The Conservative Party started focusing on crime in “Broken Britain”. Cameron started talking about Europe again and made his cast-iron pledge on Lisbon to Sun readers. At the make-or-break Tory Conference in Blackpool 2007 the party rediscovered its tax-cutting instincts with hi-impact pledges on inheritance tax and stamp duty. Brown’s opinion poll lead collapsed. Cameron was back. The Tory Party was safe for another day.
Since then Andy Coulson has continued to play an important role for the Tory leader. He tabloid-proofed all announcements. He helped bring the Murdoch empire onside. But Coulson was always much more Cameron’s incredibly hardworking personal press secretary than a strategic director of communications. Cameron appreciated the way he “stopped bad things being said about him”, one adviser told me. Mr Coulson may have helped win the battles of 2007 but he rarely took a landscape view of the Tory message. I remember talking to him about the Tory election campaign. His focus was tactical and narrow. It was on the role of Samantha Cameron, David Cameron’s photo opportunities and the rapid rebuttal of Labour attacks.
In recent times it’s not only been the huge distraction of “Hack-gate” (pursued in ten front page splashes by The Guardian and by the BBC) that has led some to question Coulson’s continuing usefulness. He became too controlling. Downing Street was becoming a closed book with too few commentators or journalists getting fed anything other than uninteresting lines-to-take. The Conservative media may have been intellectually supportive of the Cameron project but there was little emotional or gut support. Leading commentators, like Tory MPs, felt locked out of the project. As David Cameron rebuilds his 10 Downing Street operation it won’t be enough for him to simply bring in a simple replacement (Guto Harri would be my top tip for that). Cameron needs to overhaul his complete operation. I’ll be setting out my thoughts on that later.
In the meantime I’d like to thank Andy Coulson for the job he’s done. He’s always been a pleasure to deal with. I hope Hack-gate won’t blight his next few years.