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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Commons Confidential: Dave's picnic with Dacre

Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

Sulking David Cameron can’t forgive the Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, for his role in his downfall. The unrelenting hostility of the self-appointed voice of Middle England to the Remain cause felt pivotal to the defeat. So, what a glorious coincidence it was that they found themselves picnicking a couple of motors apart before England beat Scotland at Twickenham. My snout recalled Cameron studiously peering in the opposite direction. On Dacre’s face was the smile of an assassin. Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

The good news is that since Jeremy Corbyn let Theresa May off the Budget hook at Prime Minister’s Questions, most of his MPs no longer hate him. The bad news is that many now openly express their pity. It is whispered that Corbyn’s office made it clear that he didn’t wish to sit next to Tony Blair at the unveiling of the Iraq and Afghanistan war memorial in London. His desire for distance was probably reciprocated, as Comrade Corbyn wanted Brigadier Blair to be charged with war crimes. Fighting old battles is easier than beating the Tories.

Brexit is a ticket to travel. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is lifting its three-trip cap on funded journeys to Europe for MPs. The idea of paying for as many cross-Channel visits as a politician can enjoy reminds me of Denis MacShane. Under the old limits, he ended up in the clink for fiddling accounts to fund his Continental missionary work. If the new rule was applied retrospectively, perhaps the former Labour minister should be entitled to get his seat back and compensation?

The word in Ukip is that Paul Nuttall, OBE VC KG – the ridiculed former Premier League professional footballer and England 1966 World Cup winner – has cold feet after his Stoke mauling about standing in a by-election in Leigh (assuming that Andy Burnham is elected mayor of Greater Manchester in May). The electorate already knows his Walter Mitty act too well.

A senior Labour MP, who demanded anonymity, revealed that she had received a letter after Leicester’s Keith Vaz paid men to entertain him. Vaz had posed as Jim the washing machine man. Why, asked the complainant, wasn’t this second job listed in the register of members’ interests? She’s avoiding writing a reply.

Years ago, this column unearthed and ridiculed the early journalism of George Osborne, who must be the least qualified newspaper editor in history. The cabinet lackey Ben “Selwyn” Gummer’s feeble intervention in the Osborne debate has put him on our radar. We are now watching him and will be reporting back. My snouts are already unearthing interesting information.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution