The presence of Andy Coulson in No 10 always made a mockery of David Cameron’s claim to represent a break with the sleaze of the New Labour years. It was either highly reckless or highly stupid of the PM to accept the “rogue reporter” account of events at the News of the World.
Cameron’s decision to hire Coulson in the first place was a bad judgement, but his decision to retain him was even worse. From the moment the Guardian revealed News International’s secret payouts to the victims of phone-hacking, his departure became inevitable.
The affair is reminsicent of Cameron’s past failure to resolve the issue of Michael Ashcroft’s tax status. He missed repeated opportunities to bring Ashcroft to heel, with the result that the story caused far more embarrassment for the party than anyone originally expected. Similarly, rather than dispensing with Coulson’s services after the election, Cameron falsely calculated that his spin doctor could ride out the scandal.
The Prime Minister’s defenders will argue that Coulson was simply too talented to let go. He was the man who tabloid-proofed all Conservative policy and who ensured the defection of the Murdoch press to the Tories. But while there may have been a political justification for retaining Coulson, there was never a moral one.
Owing to Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and Fleet Street’s code of omertà, the phone-hacking scandal has received little coverage beyond the pages of the Guardian. But voters can sense the growing stench of sleaze around the government. Cameron’s promise of a “new politics” will ring increasingly hollow. As for Coulson, one expects his troubles are just beginning.