Danny Rogers: Coulson has biggest comms test to come

The new-look Downing Street comms team has now been operating for just over one month and the boss - comms director Andy Coulson - finds himself facing his third, and biggest, challenge.

Danny Rogers
Danny Rogers

So far the obstacles have been navigated with aplomb, but one can see a couple of nasty-looking potholes approaching.

Coulson's first project was to establish a 'coaliton comms team' that ensured the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in Government were speaking with one voice. The 'love in on the lawn' press conference featuring David Cameron and Nick Clegg was the first sign this was working out. Since then Lib Dem comms director Jonny Oates has been drafted into Downing Street and Cameron wisely warned the special advisers from both parties not to brief against one another.

The second challenge came in the form of the David Laws scandal. It took just 17 days for the Government to face the first ministerial resignation. But the fall of the chief secretary to the Treasury was also handled well. From a PR point of view, Downing Street benefited from other stories, such as the Cumbrian shootings, relegating Laws down the agenda.

Currently we are at stage three: the preparation of the nation for the 'painful' public spending cuts ahead. This is a medium-term project that is now gearing up to full speed ahead of the Budget on 22 June. Quite rightly, Downing Street's approach has been to lower public expectations ahead of the cuts. By envisaging a worst-case scenario - 'cuts that will affect our whole way of life' - any better outcome could be perceived as success.

The Government has even added a Churchillian sense of 'we'll fight them (in this case, the budget deficit) on the beaches' in its tone. It aims to bring the electorate onside by asking for the public's views on which functions government should perform and which could be carried out by other bodies to save money.

All good so far, but the real test will come when the cuts actually start to bite - as Greece, and now Spain, has found. The pressure on any comms team ramps up exponentially when angry people hit the streets.

Coulson's underlying problem is that Cameron, Osborne and Clegg are far from ideal spokesmen for this 'age of austerity.' It was arguably easier for hardened grocer's daughter Margaret Thatcher to deliver tough news, rather than public school-educated men.

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