PROFILE: Andy Coulson, Holding court with Cameron

Andy Coulson has earned a place of trust in his first year as Conservative Party comms director, writes David Singleton.

Andy Coulson
Andy Coulson

Until recently a powerful triumvirate controlled the Conservative Party. Leader David Cameron, shadow chancellor George Osborne and stra­tegy director Steve Hilton are the three men most commonly credited with making the Tories electable again.

But since Andy Coulson joined in July 2007, the court of Cameron has been gradually opening up and senior Tories now talk of ‘the quartet' at the top of the party.

‘Without a doubt, the four most important people in the party are Cameron, ­Osborne, Hilton and Coulson,' says one senior staffer at Conservative Central Off­ice. Another Tory strategist says: ‘Cameron and Coulson trust each other immensely. Cameron doesn't do anything in regard to the media without seeking Coulson's counsel. That is the reality.'

Next week, Coulson will have been in the post as Tory comms director for a year. The former News of the World editor had a rocky start, joining weeks after a damaging row about grammar schools that sparked a serious decline in Cameron's fortunes. But with Cameron now riding high in the polls, Coulson's stock has risen ­accordingly.

Andy CoulsonTim Montgomerie, editor of the influential ConservativeHome blog, says Coulson, with his tabloid touch and right-wing ins­tincts, has brought much-needed balance to the Cameron team. ‘He is popular and on top of the brief,' says Montgomerie. ‘He started at a very difficult time, but he has ensured that we are again talking about some of the issues we had been neglecting - crime, tax, immigration and Europe.'

Peter Bingle, chairman of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, is in no doubt that Coulson is behind the Tories' recent resurgence. ‘Over the past 12 months Coulson has reconnec­ted the party with the media,' says Bingle. ‘He has been smarter than the Government at every stage and is going to be a crucial factor in Cameron becoming prime minister.'

But some lobby journalists are less ­enthusiastic. One respected political editor says: ‘Coulson is neither Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson nor David Hill. The truth is he is not as effective as any of them.'

Coulson is known to be close to Simon Walters on the Mail on Sunday and Trevor Kavanagh on The Sun. But most political journalists rely on Tory head of press Henry Macrory, a former Daily Star political editor, for their scoops. ‘Coulson doesn't talk to that many hacks as such,' says one member of the lobby. ‘He rings up broadcasting bosses to complain about things. He likes talking to editors and his old Wapping mates.'

But is that such a bad thing? Tory insiders say absolutely not. ‘You cannot be a full-time spokesman and Cameron's counsel, as well as dealing with senior-level editors and backers,' says one well-placed source. ‘So it's left to guys like Henry to work the lobby. That may annoy some of them, but they know that when they do speak to Andy, he is speaking with authority.'

The truth is that Coulson is a media ope­rator first and a politico second - and he is perfectly versed in the dark arts needed to combat Gordon Brown's media machine. In particular, Coulson is thought to have been instrumental in getting senior Tories to describe Brown as a ‘ditherer' at every ­opportunity.

But Coulson's main strength, according to insiders, is his capacity for damage ­limitation. Time and again he is said to have successfully gained control of a story by ­responding quickly and decisively.

From this perspective, the hand of Coulson can be detected in much of what Cameron says and does. When David Davis ­resigned from the Tory front bench, Coulson quickly leaked the story to TV news, forcing Davis to rush out his announcement.

According to one Tory source: ‘David Davis had wanted to make the announcement later, but he had to bring it forward because word got out. It was pushed out by Coulson and then Cameron was set up to do a very well-practised doorstep. It was very clever and shows the ruthlessness with which Coulson can control a story.'

With Hilton relocating to the US, Coulson looks set to become an even more ­powerful figure. PRWeek recently revealed that Coulson is to spearhead a ‘summer ­assault' on the media as Hilton takes a more backseat role (PRWeek, 6 June).

In any court, proximity to the king is the true measure of power and Coulson's inc­reasingly close relationship with his boss will inevitably revive comparisons with Alastair Campbell. But those who come into contact with Coulson insist it is not so.

Campbell was far more tribal, and was known for his tendency to scream down the phone at any minister who stepped out of line. According to one senior Tory, most frontbenchers are ‘quite scared' of mild-mannered Coulson and ‘aware that there will be consequences if they piss him off'.

But as one member of the shadow cabinet puts it: ‘You don't get him calling you up at 11pm.'

July 2007 Director of communications, Conservative Party
2003-2007 Editor, News of the World
1999-2000 Editorial director, News Network (News International's internet arm)
1998-1999 Associate editor, The Sun
1994-1998 Bizarre editor, The Sun
1988-1994 Showbusiness reporter, The Sun
1986-1988 Reporter, Basildon Evening Echo

Biggest career break Coulson started his journalistic career on the Basildon Evening Echo. His big break came when he landed a junior role at The Sun's Bizarre column in his early twenties and he quickly moved up. Ex-colleagues say he was groomed for an executive role from the start.

Career high points Coulson won good reviews for his editorship of News of the World as the paper landed scoops that showed it could break stories beyond its traditional showbiz hinterland.
These included uncovering footage of British troops beating up unarmed Iraqi civilians in early 2006, a story that caused a global stir. As Tory comms director, he has been credited with helping to revive the party's fortunes by broadening its message and delivering more ‘tabloid punch'.

Low points Resigning from News of the World in January 2007 after royal editor Clive Goodman was imprisoned for intercepting private phone calls. Coulson also had an inauspicious start as Tory comms chief.

When the country was hit by floods last year, he unsuccessfully tried to persuade David Cameron to cancel a trip to Rwanda. The move pitted him against Tory strategy guru Steve Hilton.

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