Political sketch: Cash-for-croutons

Dave's battering from the wrong side of Fleet Street.

When Harold Wilson came up with adage "a week is a long time in politics," he could not have imagined that a successor would reduce it to just three hours. Stand up David Cameron.

With the cash-for-croutons scandal leading the news for the second day in a row, the hapless, inaptly named, Paymaster General Francis Maude was trundled out onto the Today Programme at 8am this morning to try to draw a line under it.

He was to make it quite clear that the Prime Minister was standing firm and would not be naming who he had invited round to his place for dinner with him and Sam Cam, as this was a totally private matter.

But as what remained of Francis escaped into the street following disemboweling by Evan Davis. By then, it was already obvious this would not stand and so at 11am, a sweaty faced PM took advantage of a pre-booking at the Alzheimer's Society to cave in.

It would be wrong, however, to lay the real credit for this volte-face with Mr Davis -- or indeed Mr Maude. Instead, the final realization in Downing Street was that they had managed to fall out spectacularly with their traditional backers the Tory Press. It was only after they had digested the full severity of the attacks on their man this morning in the Mail, the Telegraph and the Sun that Cameron Camp accepted the game was up.

The Prime Minister has never been a family favourite among the more recidivist members of Fleet Street who much prefer the nouveau riche to the simply-riche like Dave. And their distrust has only grown over the eagerness with which he has embraced the link-up with the Lib Dems which he and they both know has helped keep the "hang 'em and flog 'em" approach to politics -- so beloved of their readers -- in check.

But even he was stung by the severity of the attacks this morning.

The Daily Mail, which ran a headline asking "Just why is Cameron such a terrible judge of character," questioned the appointment of Treasurer Cruddas and asked about his lack of judgement when it come to "spivs" with money.

It was the Mail which led the campaign to oust previous Tory Treasurer David Rowlands, who forked out £2.7m for the Party at the General Election, having said his appointment was being "viewed with alarm" following allegations about his business affairs. Editor Paul Dacre will have noted that Mr Rowlands was one of the "high value" guests now admitted by the Prime Minister to have sat at the Cameron table.

The Telegraph, up in arms since the Osborne cock-up over pensioners last week infuriated thousands of its readers, said the cumulative impression was "toxic" for the Tories.

Equally scathing was the Sun, who only a year ago was solidly pro-Cameron as he partied away with James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks. But that was before he was forced into the Leveson inquiry to head off the trouble cause by another of his character calls, making Andy Coulson his chief mouthpiece. The Sun asked if millions of voters will be wondering if the 50p tax rate was scrapped after "a few cosy lunches with millionaire backers".

Cameron will no doubt find a way out of this latest disaster as he has the rest, but the mistakes keep adding up.

He gambles on short memories and long traditions to bring the faithful -- and that includes his side of Fleet Street -- back on side come the election. But that assumes he will still be there and, as Margaret Thatcher found out, it isn't always a given.

Who's for dinner? Photograph: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories