24 Jun 2014

Did Cameron turn a blind eye to Coulson?

Following Andy Coulson’s conviction for phone hacking, David Cameron has said he “takes full responsibility” for the “mistake” of bringing Andy Coulson into government and “apologise(s) unreservedly”. Ed Miliband said the prime minister had “brought a criminal into the heart of Downing Street… must’ve had his suspicions … (and) turned a blind eye”. Who is right?

There were only a few short weeks, not much more than a month, between Andy Coulson leaving the News of the World over the phone-hacking allegations in January 2007 and him sitting in the leader of the opposition’s office in the House of Commons opposite David Cameron and being wooed for the Tories’ top media job.

On the night he left the News of the World, Channel 4 News reported there were widespread concerns that the whole thing went a lot further than one rogue reporter. Others reported the same. In March, George Osborne saw Andy Coulson with a view to hiring him. He called David Cameron straight after that meeting and David Cameron called Andy Coulson straight away.

At the Leveson inquiry David Cameron spoke of how, on his Chief of Staff Ed Llewellyn’s advice, David Cameron had used a face to face meeting in his office with Andy Coulson in May 2007 –  face to face, to satisfy himself that Andy Coulson really didn’t have anything at all to do with phone hacking at the News of the World. In his written evidence the prime minister refers to this occasion (and then, confusingly, refers to more than one occasion in which he sought assurances before hiring Mr Coulson).

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In his oral evidence at the Leveson inquiry, Mr Cameron said he remembered the meeting in his office in May 2007 and remembered seeking the assurances there. Quite a  moment, you might think, and one that would stay in Andy Coulson’s mind. The prime-minister-in-waiting eyeballs you about your probity before hiring you to be No 10 press chief in-waiting. Funny, then, that Andy Coulson remembers no such thing happening.

In his evidence, Andy Coulson is clear that he recalls the prime minister only raising the question of whether he knew about phone hacking in the very final phone conversation in May 2007 when Mr Cameron called him while the Coulsons were on holiday in Cornwall. In his oral evidence, Andy Coulson calls it the “confirmation” call:

– I think the conversation with Mr Cameron in May was –
I considered in my mind to be the confirmation that I was taking the job.

At the very least, this raises the possibility that Mr Cameron’s eyeballing was a rather glancing moment.

Mr Cameron also says that Francis Maude and Ed Llewellyn held a joint conversation with Andy Coulson before he was formally hired, in which they sought assurances from him. Andy Coulson in his evidence to the Leveson inquiry said: “I don’t remember, but it’s possible.” Again, you don’t get the impression that a desk lamp was swung round into Mr Coulson’s eyes.

Mr Coulson suggests in his evidence at Leveson that he never felt like the Tory high command were interviewing him – it felt more like they were wooing him. The first post-News of the World resignation meeting with George Osborne “didn’t feel like an interview at all… (it was) clear from the off they were interested in hiring me.”

Shaky media operation

As David Cameron says in his evidence to Leveson, the party felt it was in desperate need of professional media advice.

David Cameron felt he had a shaky media operation, and by the time Andy Coulson had walked in the Conservative HQ door in July 2007, that was abundantly clear. Mr Cameron was falling out badly with his grassroots, the Cameroonian political journey was too much for many in the party.

The Spectator had published a front page showing him with a noose round his neck. His Europe spokesman Graham Brady had resigned over what he saw as the party’s abandonment of grammar schools. By the summer, Mr Cameron was falling behind in the opinion polls.

For all the contempt that Messers Cameron and Osborne had for Gordon Brown, his succession to Tony Blair was showing alarming signs of reversing their fairly meagre progress in the polls. By May, Labour had a five-point lead over the Tories.

In the job, Andy Coulson quickly established himself as a sharp and decisive media manager. David Cameron and George Osborne felt he was a link with the red-top papers and understood working-class and middle-class voters better than they did. He had licence to rubbish ideas and he used it. He’s said to have referred to David Cameron’s attachment to the married person’s tax allowance as electoral “halitosis” for 21st century voters.

David Cameron and George Osborne quickly felt good about their choice. By the summer of 2009 Andy Coulson was a deeply entrenched and indispensable member of the team. But more and more reports suggested his past meant he shouldn’t be working for them at all.

More assurances

In July 2009, the Guardian rumbled that the Murdoch empire had been paying money to phone-hacking victims to keep the enormous breadth of the whole phone-hacking practice under wraps. More coverage followed. More than 50 articles in the Guardian alone between that summer and the 2010 election.

What did David Cameron do now in the light of Murdoch payments stories? He told the Leveson inquiry that he sought more assurances from Mr Coulson. Mr Coulson was asked at the Leveson inquiry about these later eyeball to eyeball moments. Did Mr Cameron seek further assurances? “Not that I recall,” he said.

It seems likely that this particular grilling might have come just before Andy Coulson gave evidence in front of MPs at the media select committee in July 2009. Here’s what Mr Cameron told the Leveson inquiry about how he probed Andy Coulson again in July 2009 –

David Cameron: “I think it was also linked to the DCMS select committee appearance because my memory of this is that he was going to make that appearance and I had a conversation with him about, well, when you make this appearance, presumably you will  give the undertakings again that you gave to me. That was the nature of the conversation, as I recall it.”

So they held on to Andy Coulson. Through the election campaign of 2010, David Cameron and George Osborne regretted a number of wrong turns – too many chefs, a lack of focus. But they never blamed Andy Coulson. He’d been a big backer of David Cameron taking part in leaders’ TV debates. Nick Clegg euphoria cost David Cameron what some thought was valuable airtime selling himself and his policies (Andy Coulson subsequently thought it might have saved David Cameron from more assaults on his policies).

But Andy Coulson emerged from election night still a central and trusted member of Team Cameron and someone David Cameron wanted to bring with him into No 10.

Time to let go

A number of people suggested to Team Cameron that this was the moment he had to let go of Mr Coulson. He’d got away with keeping Andy Coulson alongside him until now, but bringing him into the heart of government was too much. Nick Clegg, Paddy Ashdown, the Guardian’s Ian Katz were amongst those who told No 10 he should part company with his aide.

Some said it to Mr Cameron’s face. Some said it to Ed Llewellyn, his chief of staff. One individual with connections to the royal family tells me he told a senior No 10 aide about royal family staff being convinced that Andy Coulson knew all about phone hacking. The source’s memory is that the No 10 aide indicated that he didn’t want to know about it.

Conservative Party media advisor, Andy Coulson, arrives at Downing Street in London

So Andy Coulson followed his friend and colleague David Cameron into No 10. And he did so without the level of vetting usual for people of his seniority. No 10 said there was nothing unusual about that. But a subsequent letter to the inquiry from the head of security at the Cabinet Office  said of the six comparable predecessors to Andy Coulson, all six had undergone developed vetting. It raised questions about whether the Whitehall machine was helping the boss sneak an aide into the building without the usual checks to avoid him failing the test.

Lord Justice Leveson, in his questioning of the then cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell, wasn’t minded to see much here. Lord O’Donnell said developed vetting was about trying to see if an individual was blackmailable in any way, so it wouldn’t really have thrown anything up in the case –

Lord O’Donnell: I think some people have different understandings of what DV’ing would reveal. It wouldn’t have gone into enormous detail about phone hacking, for example.

Lord Justice Leveson: No. It’s concerned with whether you’re likely to be a risk.

Lord O’Donnell: Whether you’re blackmailable, basically, yes, absolutely, and in terms of your financial position or your personal life.

Presumably living a lie about past criminal behaviour wouldn’t present itself as rich pickings to a potential blackmailer.

In September 2010, the New York Times published a lengthy report on rampant phone hacking in the Murdoch empire. It reported a source saying that Andy Coulson actively encouraged reporters to intercept phone messages. There are no specifics of Mr Cameron raising these matters with Mr Coulson. Mr Coulson said he had no memory of Mr Cameron doing it.

And so he soldiers on. Mr Cameron said Andy Coulson eventually left in January 2011 because he was worried that he was becoming the story. But it may be that Mr Coulson more simply sensed, as allegations swirled, that his past was catching up with him.

David Cameron repeatedly held to the position that he’d simply been giving Andy Coulson “a second chance”. Chance and risk, it turned out, played a pretty big role in Andy Coulson’s three-and-a-half-year journey into top-level politics. There was always a good chance he would get found out. To many eyes, it was a risk David Cameron was willing to take.

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