Despite it all, they still miss Andy

Downing Street's embarrassment is diminished by nostalgia for Coulson's skill as a spinner.

The default response to news of Andy Coulson's arrest in political commentary and analysis is that it must be a blow to Downing Street and terribly embarrassing for the Prime Minister. Of course it must, up to a point. “PM’s former aide charged with perjury” is never a welcome headline for a government – especially when the aide in question was running Number 10’s communications operation at the time of the alleged offence. First, of course, it must be remembered that Coulson, like anyone else, is entitled to be presumed innocent. Complete vindication is possible.

More to the point, however, I don’t detect much embarrassment or awkwardness around this issue emanating from the centre of government. The assumption, especially among those on the Labour side who plainly want to see Cameron damaged, is that the Tories must be tearing out their hair wondering how on earth the former editor of the News of the World ever found his way into such an important and sensitive role. The appointment is routinely held up as an error of judgment by the PM. Some Tory MPs feel that way but it is not, in my experience, the dominant view.

On the contrary, the strongest sentiment there seems to be towards Coulson around Downing Street is a profound and enduring sense of loss given how effective he was at his job (before, that is, he was forced to resign from it). Top Tories watched Coulson’s testimony before the Leveson inquiry with fond admiration and remembered why he was so effective: the dry humour, the discipline, the calm control. He was valued for his temperament and his news judgement.

It is hard, for many in Downing Street, to avoid noting the contrast with Coulson’s successor, Craig Oliver who has presided over a less felicitous phase in the government communications, otherwise known as “the omnishambles”.  In fairness (and many in government leap to his defence) Oliver cannot be blamed for the bodged budget and other policy problems. A communications director can only work with the material he is given. Oliver’s approach was captured on camera earlier this week – he is seen nagging BBC chief political correspondent Norman Smith about the Corporation’s coverage of the Leveson inquiry. There is nothing too unusual or intemperate about the exchange. But it is damaging because it shows the man who is supposed to be in control of the message whining about the extent to which he is not in control. It would never, goes the Number 10 whisper, have happened to Coulson.

So of course it is bad. Arrests, court appearances, police officers marching a former member of the PM’s inner circle off for questioning – that is never good. But despite it all, the prevailing feeling around Downing Street is still not anger or shame at the long harbouring of Coulson as a liability, but sorrow at his loss as an asset.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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After a year of chaos, MPs from all parties are trying to stop an extreme Brexit

The Greens are calling for a cross-party commission on Brexit.

One year ago today, I stood on Westminster Bridge as the sun rose over a changed country. By a narrow margin, on an unexpectedly high turnout, a majority of people in Britain had chosen to leave the EU. It wasn’t easy for those of us on the losing side – especially after such scaremongering from the leaders of the Leave campaign – but 23 June 2016 showed the power of a voting opportunity where every vote counted.

A year on from the vote, and the process is in chaos. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. The Leave campaign deliberately never spelled out any detailed plan for Brexit, and senior figures fought internal battles over which model they preferred. One minute Britain would be like Norway, then we’d be like Canada – and then we’d be unique. After the vote Theresa May promised us a "Red, White and Blue Brexit" – and then her ministers kept threatening the EU with walking away with no deal at all which, in fairness, would be unique(ly) reckless. 

We now have our future being negotiated by a government who have just had their majority wiped out. More than half of voters opted for progressive parties at the last election – yet the people representing us in Brussels are the right-wing hardliners David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson.

Despite widespread opposition, the government has steadfastly refused to unilaterally guarantee EU citizens their rights. This week it has shown its disregard for the environment as it published a Queen’s Speech with no specific plans for environmental protection in the Brexit process either. 

Amid such chaos there is, however, a glimmer of hope. MPs from all parties are working together to stop an extreme Brexit. Labour’s position seems to be softening, and it looks likely that the Scottish Parliament will have a say on the final deal too. The Democratic Unionist Party is regressive in many ways, but there’s a good chance that the government relying on it will soften Brexit for Northern Ireland, at least because of the DUP's insistence on keeping the border with Ireland open. My amendments to the Queen’s speech to give full rights to EU nationals and create an Environmental Protection Act have cross-party support.

With such political instability here at home – and a growing sense among the public that people deserve a final say on any deal - it seems that everything is up for grabs. The government has no mandate for pushing ahead with an extreme Brexit. As the democratic reformers Unlock Democracy said in a recent report “The failure of any party to gain a majority in the recent election has made the need for an inclusive, consensus based working even more imperative.” The referendum should have been the start of a democratic process, not the end of one.

That’s why Greens are calling for a cross-party commission on Brexit, in order to ensure that voices from across the political spectrum are heard in the process. And it’s why we continue to push for a ratification referendum on the final deal negotiated by the government - we want the whole country to have the last word on this, not just the 650 MPs elected to the Parliament via an extremely unrepresentative electoral system.

No one predicted what would happen over the last year. From the referendum, to Theresa May’s disastrous leadership and a progressive majority at a general election. And no one knows exactly what will happen next. But what’s clear is that people across this country should be at the centre of the coming debate over our future – it can’t be stitched up behind closed doors by ministers without a mandate.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

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