Number 10's comms machine: Coalition comms - The first 100 days

As the new coalition Government gets to grips with power, Sunday Times political editor Jonathan Oliver examines how well the two parties have merged their comms operations.

One Friday afternoon a few weeks ago, I received a mysterious phone call from a Conservative special adviser, inviting me to see Danny Alexander, the Treasury chief secretary. The aide refused to explain the reason for the summons, only saying there would be a good story waiting for me. An hour later I was sitting on the sofa in Alexander's office overlooking St James's Park, being briefed on plans to force Cabinet ministers to prepare for 40 per cent spending cuts.

Alexander, then the Liberal Democrat cabinet new boy, was flanked by perhaps half a dozen special advisers from both coalition parties. The scene was reminiscent of the final page of George Orwell's Animal Farm when the downtrodden animals peer into the farmhouse and can no longer tell the difference between the pigs and the humans. Every time Alexander dried up, Rupert Harrison, George Osborne's articulate chief of staff, would politely chip in and develop the theme. A cynic might claim this to be evidence of how the Lib Dems are having their strings pulled by Tory Svengalis. But to me, the whole operation demonstrated how in a short space of time the spin operations of two parties have been fused into one seamless unit.


Careful co-ordination

As the new administration passes the 100 day milestone, the successful merger of the Tory and Lib Dem spin teams has, in comms terms, been its greatest achievement. One of my early strategies as the political editor of a Sunday newspaper was to bid for interviews with both Lib Dem and Tory cabinet ministers in the same week. The hope was that they might contradict each other and a 'coalition rift' story could be engineered. However, the fun was stopped fairly quickly once Andy Coulson, David Cameron's director of comms, and Jonny Oates, his Lib Dem opposite number, moved into the same office suite in 12 Downing Street and were able to co-ordinate the two parties' media grids. Indeed, I hear the 'Brokeback' romance between Cameron and Nick Clegg is echoed in the Downing Street press operation. Once sworn enemies, the aides to the two party leaders have taken to going to Whitehall's Red Lion, once the haunt of Charlie Whelan and Damian McBride, for a convivial drink or two while they wait for the first editions to drop.

For a while, junior ministers continued to slip through the net and their uncensored comments sometimes blew the Government off course. However, just recently I have noticed that middle-ranking members of the Government whom I have known for years now feel the need to check with Number 10 before giving me a quote on a story. Often they find themselves gagged because the story in question clashes with the master media plan. Now only the free-spirited Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable and the maverick Tory Defence Secretary Liam Fox can be relied upon to contradict government policy.

Coulson, unlike Labour predecessors such as McBride and Alastair Campbell, is a low-key operator, preferring to operate at editor or even proprietor level. Too much contact with print journalists can lead to the spin doctor becoming the story, and Coulson, with his colourful background as a tabloid editor, is understandably reluctant for that to happen. Just occasionally I have picked up evidence of his modus operandi. A Tory minister recently told me how one of his more fogeyish colleagues was given the hairdryer treatment after appearing on the television news wearing a very 'old Tory' tweed jacket. The hapless member of the Government was told in firm tones to get a new weekend wardrobe.

 All this control freakery has a purpose. The government is now embarked on the biggest round of spending cuts since the Second World War. Before the election even many Tories believed the public would not put up with reductions in spending on core public services. However, against the odds Cameron and Clegg have successfully persuaded the public of their necessity. A ComRes poll for the Independent this month found more than three out of four voters - 76% - backed the coalition cuts programme.


Comms cock-ups

Cameron is fundamentally a domestic policy prime minister. He and his aides are genuinely relaxed about the impact of his shoot-from-the-hip remarks about the Gaza "prison camp" and Pakistan's support for terrorism. A little diplomatic mayhem to keep the press pack salivating is fine, just so long as the iron discipline over the key messages about tax and spending is maintained.

However, even in this honeymoon period, there have also been some egregious failures on the communications front.

Perhaps the most serious crisis has been the embarrassing Commons apology by Education Secretary Michael Gove over the error-strewn list of cancelled school building projects. Why did this happen? Partly it was the Whitehall machine kicking back, punishing a cocky minister who decided to force through a controversial decision without proper consultation. There is always friction between an incoming government and the civil servants they inherit. Perhaps that is how the explosive letter from public health minister Anne Milton, admitting free milk for kids might be scrapped, came to be sent to a gossipy Scottish Nationalist minister in Holyrood.

However, one of the key reasons for the schools debacle and other smaller-scale gaffes has been the coalition's tight restrictions on the appointment of special advisers.


Coulson in control

In response to last year's McBride scandal, David Cameron promised limits on the number and power of political aides. When Coulson finally got to Number 10, he carefully vetted appointments, blocking those who might be too 'independent minded'. One victim of this process was Dominic Cummings, Gove's opinionated but highly talented chief of staff. It was a sad loss to the Government.

Cummings has the two greatest skills a spad (special adviser) needs: the ability to see round corners and fierce loyalty to his boss. Had he been by the Education Secretary's side over the past few months, some of the worst effects of the school building crisis might have been mitigated. The unfortunate fact was that Gove was left in a position where he looked like he simply did not care about ordinary voters or their children.

Before the election, Cameron told me that he would not run the country like a '24-hour newsroom'. Over the past 100 days, with the blizzard of daily initiatives, it has sometimes felt like he has.

This October, the coalition faces its biggest test with the unveiling of the comprehensive spending review - the moment when those tough choices about cuts are finally revealed. Every Whitehall department will have to make unpalatable announcements that will hit millions of voters. At that point ruthless control of the media grid will not be enough. Two things the coalition has not always displayed so far - laser-like attention to policy detail and empathy with the anxious electorate - will be essential.



By David Singleton

11 May: David Cameron becomes the UK's new Prime Minister after the resignation of Gordon Brown. Nick Clegg is appointed as his deputy as they agree to form the UK's first coalition Government in 70 years.

12 May: Cameron and Clegg show unity at a press conference on the Downing Street lawn. The following day's headlines refer variously to 'The Happy Couple at No 10' (The Guardian), 'Britain's New Power Couple' (The Independent) and 'The Great Number 10 Love In' (Daily Mail).

29 May: The first crisis for the coalition as David Laws resigns from the cabinet following revelations about his expenses in The Daily Telegraph. The resignation of the chief secretary to the Treasury leaves the coalition 'in turmoil', according to reports.

7 July: Education secretary Michael Gove is forced to make an unreserved apology in the House of Commons after mistakenly promising new buildings for several schools. Gove admits a list produced by his department was riddled with errors.

28 July: Cameron sparks controversy after suggesting Pakistan is promoting the 'export of terror' in Afghanistan and around the world. His aides seek to play down the remark, but diplomatic relations are said to be strained.

8 August: Cameron intervenes after a junior minister suggests free milk could be axed as part of the Government's austerity drive. The next day's Daily Mirror says the PM 'performed one of the fastest U-turns in political history'.

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