SINCE Andy Coulson announced his resignation as David Cameron's communications director two weeks ago, Westminster had been consumed by the big question: who would replace him? To the political media bubble of Westminster, the candidates were deemed likely to emerge from within its own confines, and naturally the man would have a high profile.
Ever since Alastair Campbell added a near mythical aura to the post of Number 10's director of communications in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the post has excited interest. And because of Mr Campbell's lengthy shadow, when casting around for candidates, it's assumed the person the PM wants will come from the same mould: combustible, ferocious, and capable of finding the most helpful form of the truth.
So when Scots-raised Craig Oliver was unveiled on Wednesday as the 140,000-a-year successor to Mr Coulson, the overwhelming question emerging from the Westminster corridors was a loud and indignant "Who?". With no previous experience of politics, no known political views, and no experience of the print trade, the BBC TV executive appeared to be the complete antithesis of the required candidate. Indeed, he is the first TV editor to be appointed to the post. So another question being asked this week is: "Why?"
The answers to both questions provide a telling insight into the way Mr Cameron's Downing Street operation will be run over the coming years.
If the media bubble was surprised by his appointment, then Mr Oliver, 41, was as well. The father of three, who is married to the BBC reporter Joanna Gosling, had only recently become controller of English at BBC Global News, having previous been editor of the BBC's flagship ten o'clock news. But a phone call from Mr Coulson last week changed everything. Mr Coulson said he was the perfect man for the job. Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne – who had never met him – were brought onside. On Wednesday, the deal was announced.
His journey to the peak of Britain's broadcasting industry began nearly 20 years ago in Glasgow. Born in Nottinghamshire, the family moved up to Scotland and he attended Stirling High School – where he was a contemporary of broadcaster Kirsty Young – and then St Andrews University. After a postgraduate MA in broadcast journalism, Mr Oliver got his first break as a news assistant at STV news. Right from the off he impressed his bosses.
Blair Jenkins, head of news at STV at the time, said: "He is very solid intellectually. He was an outstanding candidate; it's quite common now but he had done work placements already and so his CV separated him from the crowd immediately."
Colleagues recall an ambitious "news hungry" reporter: just weeks after starting as a trainee, a story broke, he grabbed a camera, got to a story first, and did a "live" for Scotland Today – unheard of for such a raw recruit. Another colleague noted: "He does not lack self-confidence." He quickly moved up the career ladder, becoming a producer on ITV's News at Ten, and became the network's senior programme editor in 1999. After a spell at Channel 4 News, Mr Oliver returned to ITV News in 2003 as head of output, and then as head of network news programmes, before going to the BBC. He seems not to have taken his elevated status too seriously – having recently been pictured wearing lederhosen in a fancy-dress event alongside presenters Sophie Raworth and Fiona Bruce. But he was also part of the BBC management team; crossing picket lines during the recent strikes, and was last week involved in pushing through the huge cuts to the BBC's World Service.
There have been claims since his appointment that he has little experience of the rough end of the media. But his family history suggests otherwise. His father, Dr Ian Oliver, was a chief constable in Scotland, first in Central region, then at Grampian. It was there, in 1998, that Dr Oliver faced public outrage over the handling of the Scott Simpson murder case. Following the nine-year old Scott's death at the hands of a paedophile, a damning report into the case prompted even Donald Dewar to call for Dr Oliver's resignation. When the media unearthed embarrassing revelations about the chief constable's private life, including evidence of an affair, that he finally went.
One of the junior reporters also earning his spurs at STV at the same time as Mr Oliver was Michael Gove, now the Secretary of State for Education. Colleagues recall that the two were very similar and struck up a good friendship. Despite this, what all colleagues note is that Mr Oliver has never shown any obvious political leanings.
For the first time, the man whose job it is to sell the message of the government does not appear to have any tribal affinity with it. There are already grumblings in the Tory ranks. Mr Cameron has already put noses out of joint by appearing to actively prefer coalition government to a minority Tory rule. Now someone with no experience of knocking on doors for the cause has been invited into the inner circle. Mr Oliver, they note, is the final recruit of Mr Coulson, who sounded him out about the job last week. Neither has the kind of deep-rooted Tory affiliations once a necessity for someone at the top.
Why has Mr Cameron picked him? The short answer appears to be that Number 10 wanted someone with a "feel" for TV, having reached the view under Mr Coulson that they weren't getting the images right. Tory blogger Tim Montgomerie recalled recently how he had met Mr Coulson during the general election campaign to find him worrying whether they had got camera angles right on a news event. In Mr Oliver, he saw someone steeped in the art of the made-for-TV story. The new spin, it appears, is not about applying thumbscrews to papers' political reporters; it is about ensuring the government keeps up in the era of the 24-hour news cycle. Colleagues say no-one better understands how to make images and pictures sing when it comes to television.
Blair Jenkins adds: "Craig is definitely a very straight guy rather than a spin doctor. That represents something of a departure. He has no experience of newspapers and I guess he might find that a little rougher. He is used to being transparent about things and accounting for them." Therein lies another reason for his appointment, say some observers: Mr Oliver's reputation is the opposite of the stereotypical spin doctor.
The public are now distrustful of manipulated messages and media managers – as embodied by Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker in the BBC's The Thick of It, which showed party politics as venal, shallow and aggressive – so to employ someone untainted by this is an asset.
It is expected Mr Oliver will fade from view once the fuss over his appointment dies as he moulds the Cameron-Clegg image. For older heads at Westminster, this can only end in tears. Colleagues caution that being a "straight guy" is fine, but in politics it is difficult to maintain. Former BBC journalist Richard Sambrook says: "He may have to get used to backroom deals in spite of being fundamentally a straight dealer, and to mixing in new senior circles – media as well as political."
There are other factors being mooted. For one, Mr Cameron now has an insider from the "liberal" BBC on board. Furthermore, after being dragged into the News International phone-hacking row as a result of Mr Coulson's News of the World past, what better way could there be for the government to show it was no longer under Rupert Murdoch's spell than by appointing one of the Beeb's finest? Added to this, say other occupants of the Downing Street bureaucracy, the intricacies government red tape will be a doddle for a former BBC staffer. One former Downing Street insider says: "This is a leadership role that entails working across the whole of Whitehall. It's a very smart move."
So why should we care about this? Because as the UK government prepares to face up to what promises to be an unending barrage of bad news this year, there is a genuine danger for the coalition of a full-scale mutiny. For Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg, able communicators both, the imperative will be simply to keep lines of communication open with the public. And for that they will turn to Mr Oliver. While the content of their news is likely to be terrible, the hope will be that, with him on board, at least it won't look all that bad.
In an age when politics is driven ever more by image, a lot depends on Mr Oliver's skills. It is a long way from the days of filing reports from Easterhouse.
Name: Craig Oliver
Age: 41 (15 May 1969)
Address: Chiswick, London
Married to: Joanna Gosling, presenter on BBC News channel
Children: three daughters
Education: Stirling High School; St Andrews University – English literature; Cardiff School of Journalism – MA in broadcast journalism
Job titles: Feb 2011 – director of communications for Prime Minister David Cameron
2010 – BBC head of network news
2006 – Editor of BBC One's ten o'clock and six o'clock BBC News