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.