It wasn’t meant to happen like this. When David Cameron appointed ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his party’s director of communications in June, you could hear a palpable sigh of relief.
After a long trawl, the Tory leader had finally found a media heavyweight who was willing to take charge of shaping and disseminating his messages.
Three months later the mood at Tory HQ is dire. PR gaffes have destabilised the Conservatives and the leader’s opinion poll ratings are in free-fall.
‘Since Coulson started, the whole political situation has changed,’ says one seasoned lobby journalist. ‘He came in just after the grammar school fiasco and that sparked a massive decline in Cameron’s fortunes.’
Grammar schools aside, Westminster watchers point to three disastrous episodes that have happened on Coulson’s watch.
First was the Ealing Southall by-election in which the Tories came a poor third after selecting a recent Labour donor as their candidate. Then came Cameron’s decision to press ahead with a visit to Rwanda while parts of England were badly flooded.
But the coup de grâce came last week when Cameron was pitched in to a bitter row over his botched ‘danger list’ of hospitals that were supposedly under threat of closure. Labour accused the Tory leader of ‘scaremongering’ by issuing the list, while several health chiefs said Cameron had got his facts wrong. One Tory MP was even forced to apologise to his local health trust. ‘Tories’ hospital campaign in disarray,’ ran the headline in The Times.
‘It was something that superficially appeared to be an attractive political play but, on reflection, was riddled with difficulties because they hadn’t bottomed out the story with any of those involved,’ says Jon McLeod, UK public affairs chairman at Weber Shandwick.
McLeod even goes as far as to compare the episode with ‘Jennifer’s ear’ – the seminal 1992 PR disaster in which the Labour Party used the case of a little girl to illustrate the failings in the NHS system, but was then subsequently accused of lying about the details.
Friends of Coulson are insistent that he is not responsible for any of the recent mistakes. ‘There are people under him who should be looking after all of that,’ says one. ‘His job is more to position Cameron than anything else.’
The biggest challenge for Coulson, according to insiders, is getting senior Tories onside. One member of Cameron’s inner circle reveals: ‘He’s got to really work on the shadow cabinet. You’ve got the usual anti-tabloid snobbishness. He should be allowed to say to them “You do it my way”. But the problem is that half the time they won’t.’
Last week, the bookies shortened the odds on Cameron leaving his job. Those close to Coulson say that while the former journalist is finding his own role tougher than he had anticipated, he is determined to stick it out. ‘I know this is going to be difficult but I really want to do it,’ Coulson told one friend this week.
With party conference season on the horizon, the big test may be yet to come. In 2005, Cameron was the darling of the Tory conference and Coulson will be keen to recapture the magic this time around.
As one member of the lobby puts it: ‘If it’s a good conference then Coulson will be seen to have done well. If it’s a bad conference, it may not be his fault but he’ll get the blame.’
The ex-press secretary...
Bernard Ingham (l), press secretary to Margaret Thatcher: My sympathies are with Andy Coulson, even though the Conservatives are staring at an open goal after ten years of Labour profligacy and incompetence.
Unless they are flash-in-the-pan, snake-oil salesman, PROs are only as good as their product. Coulson still lacks a product to sell.
David Cameron’s achievement has been to make the Tories electable again by making them seem more touchy-feely. Coulson has to complement this with an impression of Cameron being nice, with-it and competent.
He must hope that by the end of the winter the Conservatives have established themselves not just as being concerned about Britain’s creaking social fabric, but have persuasive practical ways of combining social regeneration with a strong economy.
Coulson needs to see policies, hunger for government, energy and more common sense to avoid grammar-school own goals.
The political editor...
Philip Webster (l), political editor, The Times: Coulson’s presence has changed things in that there now is a figure within the set-up who senior editorial staff can contact to find out what’s going on. So in that sense there is an obvious difference. But I think it’s too early to judge whether the Conservatives’ press operation has taken a leap forward.
His initial task has been to get to know about the running of his own and the opposition leader’s office. There had to be a learning curve where he saw the way the decisions were made in David Cameron’s office. To be effective, Coulson needs to have complete access, and I’d be astonished if he didn’t make it a condition of his employment that he gets briefed on all decisions.
He’s said from the start that he’s not going to do day-to-day briefings. His job is about the big decisions – they sit around and say ‘how do we play this report’ and ‘how do we respond to Gordon Brown’. That’s where with his ability lies, with his knowledge of the way papers work.
Kevin Bell (l), regional president, Fleishman-Hillard: ‘I’ve cancelled that trip to Rwanda, and I’ve told the shadow international development minister, Andrew Mitchell, that you’re not going’ should have been Coulson’s first utterance in charge of the Conservatives’ comms operation. Instead, Cameron was given the green light to go, only to arrive at the nadir of his leadership.
One hoped that Coulson would fill the gap that was lacking on the Tories’ media team: a respected media heavyweight with a hotline to the editors.
Right now, any resurgent popularity is being questioned, and the foundations of Cameron’s Conservatives are wobbling. Since Coulson arrived, the party has lurched from one PR disaster to another.
Coulson needs to stamp his authority on the interminably cliquey Central Office, take charge of the news agenda and pave the way for communicating substantive policies. Otherwise, no amount of editor pals will bring the kind of headlines that he was brought in to achieve.