John McTernan: Cameron led to Coulson’s downfall

Andy Coulson leaves the Old Bailey after his conviction on Wednesday. Picture: AP
Andy Coulson leaves the Old Bailey after his conviction on Wednesday. Picture: AP
Have your say

The Prime Minister’s over-dependence on his key adviser is ultimately what led to his downfall, writes John McTernan

Andy Coulson must be bitterly regretting the day he ever met George Osborne. It was, after all, the Chancellor who recommended, recruited and endorsed him all those years ago.

Think of the alternative history. Honourable resignation from the News of the World, pay-off, a fat consultancy in the Middle East, followed by a senior corporate job. And no witch-hunt.

Tom Watson MP has doggedly and heroically pursued News International over phone-hacking. But does anyone doubt that Coulson’s presence in No 10 was what gave the scandal purchase in the “Westminster bubble” and then more broadly?

The Metropolitan Police had the chance before 2010 to investigate this issue properly. They didn’t. For some reason it took the appointment of Andy Coulson as Director of Communications to the Prime Minister to cause the Met to reconsider the issue. Well, to be honest, that wasn’t what appears to have tipped the balance for them. It was MPs like Chris Bryant, Tessa Jowell and Tom Watson – and the Labour Party’s brilliant lawyer Gerald Shamash – who kept digging away at this story. Eventually the press couldn’t ignore it, and finally the cops couldn’t either.

This is one of many horrible facts at the heart of the phone hacking scandal. Though a crime might cry out to heaven for justice – and surely hacking Milly Dowler’s phone did – the system will not automatically investigate it. We have seen the grubby underside of Fleet Street over the last few years. The Metropolitan Police should not escape a whipping, either – they have not been doing what the publics expect of them, and they know it. Up till now they didn’t care, but now they have to learn nursery rhyme justice – “Don’t Care Was Made To Care.”

As for Andy Coulson? He is surely wryly admiring the spin and style of his former boss David Cameron. Famously, the definition of the Yiddish word “chutzpah” is the story of the man who murdered both his parents who then threw himself on the mercy of the court as an orphan. Cameron tried the same stunt this week at Prime Minister’s Questions. To every question he had the same answer – “It was all answered in Leveson.” Yes, that’s right, the inquiry he was forced into by Ed Miliband apparently exonerates him. Except it doesn’t. For one thing, Leveson didn’t consider ongoing court cases – for obvious legal reasons. For another, Leveson did not ask the right questions – or receive the right answers.

Let’s go back to first principles. The job of the Prime Minister is leadership – leadership of the United Kingdom, which is, after all, the sixth-largest economy in the world. The PM makes dozens of decisions every day which are critical to the country’s future, and holds dozens of meetings – internally and externally – which will impact on our future. Many are detailed and arcane. Journalists don’t know about most of these. Voters know even less. In this context, we all, in the end, find proxies for leadership. We latch onto judgments about things we can grasp and understand, and we extrapolate from them.

This is why the conviction of Andy Coulson is so important. Voters don’t know much, but they do know that criminals shouldn’t be employed in 10 Downing Street. It’s not a grey area, as the PM tries to imply, it’s black and white. Not least because the English court system is binary – guilty or not guilty. A man he employed is now a convicted criminal for an offence he committed before working for the Conservative Party, let alone for the government. How could that happen?

In almost every crisis the key question is “What did you know, and when did you know it?” In effect, did you know (and are you a liar) or didn’t you know (and are you incompetent)? Cameron’s rhetoric about Coulson has always been a clue. He talked about giving Andy a “second chance” – that’s something you give to someone after they have made a mistake, at the least. The Prime Minister knew. But, of course, you knew he knew. Whatever we think about politicians individually or collectively, we do understand that the ones who become Prime Minister are never muppets. They may do the right things for the wrong reason, or even the wrong things for the right reason – what they never do is anything for no reason.

Cameron needed Coulson, and for good reason. It was not to get close to the Murdoch empire, but to have someone senior who understood the modern communications landscape. The success of Cameron’s repositioning to the centre ground was not just his innate sense of direction nor guru Steve Hilton’s genius for big, bold ideas – it also needed Coulson’s tabloid sensibility. It worked well. Journalists who dealt with him still speak highly of him. It worked too well, for Cameron wanted to hang on to Coulson for too long.

There is a great scene at the end of the documentary The War Room, which tells the story of Bill Clinton’s successful campaign for the Presidency. When the race is won James Carville, the “Ragin’ Cajun”, who was Clinton’s chief strategist, says to the campaign staff “Congratulations and good luck with your next job.” What he was expressing kindly was a brutal truth of politics – the people who get you elected should not automatically be the ones who govern with you.

David Cameron’s dependence on Andy Coulson led him – and his team of advisers – to ignore the mounting evidence in opposition, and then in government, that something had been wrong under Coulson’s watch at the News of the World. They should have, for Coulson’s good, and their own, let him go. No-one can blame Andy for going into Downing Street – few can turn down the Prime Minister. And rightly so, serving your country is the highest privilege. Coulson should, though, blame Cameron’s selfishness. The system was bent to employ him, and he now suffers for the prominence to which he was promoted.