Let’s not get carried away with the Coulson affair, says Dan Hodges

Chris Grayling was right. There are parts of Britain that are beginning to resemble Baltimore. Illegal phone taps. Dodgy cops. Dirty pay-offs. Snitches. Political cover ups. Sheeeet! The Wire has come to Westminster.

We’ve had Tommy ‘McNulty’ Watson  (a good Parliamentarian if ever there was one), fearless in his pursuit of the chief perp, ignorant of risk or reputation. Andy ‘Stringer’ Coulson, hunkering down in the safe house as five-oh circles and formerly loyal lieutenants sing. David ‘Royce’ Cameron, seeing no evil, hearing no evil, prepping his ‘game face’ as the political challenges mount.

It’s been a week to lift the spirits. The Tories on the back foot. The Lib Dems embarrassed. For the first time since the election, the Tory-Lib Dem government has lost control of the news agenda.  Even the met. police may be forced to take a break from their regular Friday briefing in The Feathers and start to feel some collars.

And yet.

I took a call from a former special adviser who was watching gleeful as ‘WappingGate’ inched slowly up Downing Street. “Follow the mobiles”, he urged, “follow the mobiles”. Then we sought to identify the longer term implications. “Coulson might have to resign”. Maybe. But the broad allegations in this case don’t relate to political impropriety, but criminality. The News of the World office cat may well have known of the prevalence of phone hacking, as the New York Times reported, but it would make for a poor witness at the Old Bailey. And working as a spin doctor for the Conservative party isn’t of itself (sadly)  a criminal offence.

“The coalition’s tainted”. Yes. But Coulson isn’t as symbolically tied to Cameron and his political project as Alastair or Peter were to New Labour. And, exciting though it may be for all of us, this is a process story, with minimal impact on the wider public. In fact, I’d be wary of how the spectacle of MPs obsessing over who’s ear-wigging their mobile  plays with people worried about their jobs or mortgages.

“It raises questions about Cameron’s judgment”. Well, it certainly tells us our new PM is no student of history. Politics 101: bugging, journalists and whistle blowers don’t mix. But there’s another golden political rule: when the primary attack is ‘lack of judgment’, it’s because the serious mud hasn’t stuck.

I could be wrong. The bugging scandal may have lit a fuse that will ultimately detonate at the heart of government. Yet I suspect it may prove too little, too early. It reminds me of the Eccleston affair at the beginning of Tony Blair’s term. It hit home, and forever after Blair wore his halo at a rakish angle. But ultimately it took a decade for the cumulative effects of Ecclestone, the Hindujas, the dodgy dossier and cash for honours to take their toll.

Yes, the way the latest revelations have been wrestled off front pages in the States onto the 8.10 ‘Today’ slot has been tactically impressive. And Tory MPs and commentators wingeing about the prominence the BBC is giving the issue should save their breath. This is the cost of Mark Thompson flashing his briefing notes all over Whitehall.

Strategically, the upside is less clear.  The Coulson story is dominating. But conversely, the cuts narrative, so worrying to ministers that Thompson received his summons, has been pushed aside. So, too, the growing tensions within the Tory-Liberal coalition. The AV rebellion, which would have dominated the news agenda, was starved of publicity, and duly fizzled out.

Also troubling is the way the questions over Coulson have broadened into a full frontal assault on News International, and the media as a whole. David Cameron’s communications director is fair game. When he took the job he knew very well that if the bugging allegation re-surfaced there would be blow-back. He and the Tory high command can argue about his innocence, but not his political salience.

I’m less convinced about the wisdom of declaring war on everyone else who’s ever taken the Murdoch shilling, or inadequately scrutinised his evil plan for world domination. It may not be a popular view across the movement, but the reality is that in the period between black Wednesday and Mrs Duffy, we actually got a pretty good press. Yes, the media attempted to manipulate the news agenda to suit their interests. But so did we, often to greater effect.  Again, this may not fit the stereotype, but my own experience of dealing with journalists from the Sun and News of the World, as with most lobby journalists, is that they’re fair, balanced and professional. Does that mean I’d be happy with them cutting copy from my iphone inbox. No. But nor should we pretend that every Westminster hack is Gordon Liddy all of a sudden.

There’s something quite bizarre about our politics at the moment. We’ve switched from a New Labour orthodoxy to an anti-New Labour orthodoxy in the blink of an eye. Tax. Spend. Fight the cuts. Bash the police. Slam the Murdoch press.

I’m not quite sure where we’re going with all this. It’s good that we’re developing the self confidence to move beyond the Blairite/Brownite status quo. But at the same time we’re in danger of throwing out the bathwater, the baby, the bath and the whole bloody bathroom.

Constructive media management. Message discipline. Pitching beyond the Beltway. Avoiding the cul-de-sac of process. These were not New Labour fripperies. They were the iron laws of effective politics.

Yes we need a wide debate about our policies, our values and our broader project; one conducted free from the straightjacket of the leadership campaign.  But at the same time we can’t afford to toss aside the basics of political street-craft.

We don’t yet have the strength to win a stand up fight with the Tories. And we certainly don’t have the strength to win a war with the Tories and the Lib Dems and the press. We’re going to need to be patient. Pick our targets wisely. Plan our attacks carefully.

And yes, that will be frustrating. Issues will need to be prioritised. Objectives rationalised.  At times, strategic political requirements will have to supplant short term opportunities.

But that’s the place we occupy now. It’s the price of doing business in opposition. We may not like it. But it’s all part of the game y’all. All in the game…

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut

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6 Responses to “Let’s not get carried away with the Coulson affair, says Dan Hodges”

  1. Tim Sewell says:

    Some very good points here – especially how it could play with the electorate if parliamentarians rightful anger starts to look like Westminster navel-gazing while all around Rome burns.

    One highly strategic implication, however, is that the Liberals are, on yet another front, having to keep quiet and avoid rocking the boat – again. These continued examples of a party clamming up over issues which, in opposition, they would have been shouting from the rooftops will, over time, accrete and greatly aid the process of nullifying them as anything but a rump (of a rump?) political force.

  2. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    On the flip-side, Labour is not right now an effective opposition. We don’t even have a leader.

    So short-term tactical wins are all we can do. Forcing Dave to ditch an adviser (or, best case scenario, keep him on but more high-profile and therefore less effective) certainly counts as that.

  3. Dan Hodges says:

    Forcing Cameron to ditch Coulson is tactical. Going to war with News International, the wider media and the Met. has strategic implications. And not necessarily positive ones.

  4. epictrader says:

    Had we not spent the last few months concentrating on what has turned out to be a bland and protracted leadership contest, (in the name of good God please, please let it be over), then we may have avoided the New to anti-New Labour orthodoxy referred to. So now we know what post-New Labour looks like without a leader – what purpose has being without one for so long served us? Outrageous.

    I think its more likely that Coulson will be marginalized to the periphery of the tory machine before being led quietly out the back door when he’s been long forgotten, the press are hardly likely to pursue the story and Labour have probably said all they can about the matter for now unless they have new material to work with. What the police say and do, if anything, could be the decider.

  5. I’ll agree continuing with an attack on News International wouldn’t be wise, absent conclusive proof turning up. That said, right now it’s been a disparate group of back-benchers. Tom Watson isn’t widely seen as the voice of the Labour Party as a whole. Rein that aspect in and it’s merely a fairly effective shot across NI’s bows.

    On the other hand, I think there’s still value in attacking the Met. They clearly mismanaged the operation and haven’t exactly been scrupulously non-partisan (Yates in particular), whilst they can’t harm us in the same way the press can. There are good moral, tactical and strategic reasons to keep prodding that hornet’s nest.

  6. Dan Hodges says:

    If you keep prodding a hornet’s nest one thing happens…

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