Belfast Telegraph

Say what you like, Coulson was just the job for No 10

By Mary Dejevsky

In the short-term canon of British political devils, there seems little to choose at the moment between Muammar Gaddafi and Andy Coulson.

The one - the outgoing leader of Libya - has stubbornly refused to accept that his time is past. So, in a smaller, more parochial way, has the other - David Cameron's former head of communications.

Both refuse to admit that they might have done anything seriously wrong. A minor misjudgment here; a skeleton (or two) in some closet there.

But there is one crucial difference between Gaddafi and Coulson. Gaddafi, by seizing power in the first instance, set himself up for a fall. You cannot say that about Andy Coulson.

He was an editor who resigned under a cloud and was subsequently recruited by Cameron to run his media operation.

In 2007, after becoming leader of the Conservative Party, Cameron was looking for someone to run his communications; he had an inkling that someone with a populist press background might provide the link to "the masses" that a "toff" like him needed. Coulson happened to be free. Four years on, Cameron's judgment is called into question for what is now seen as a chain of mistakes. First was the error of appointing someone from a 'red-top' background. And Coulson was not just any downmarket newspaper editor, but an editor who worked for News International and took Rupert Murdoch's shilling.

Were this all there was to Coulson's appointment, it would look like a case of a disastrous judgment on Cameron's part. But this entirely retrospective account omits one crucial fact: Andy Coulson was a stellar communications director.

In his remarkably smooth passage from Opposition leader to Prime Minister, Cameron owed an enormous amount to the expertise and instincts of Coulson. How very good he was became apparent the moment he left Cameron's employ.

The presentational errors and false notes accumulated almost at once. Would Cameron have stayed on holiday after the riots if Coulson had been running the show?

For his post-riot address, would he have stood, looking small and alone, at a lectern in the middle of a deserted Downing Street? Would he have combined an Arab Spring stopover in Cairo's Tahrir Square with an arms-sales trip to the Gulf?

This is not to argue that, just because someone is superb at their job, nothing else matters. But it is not true to insist, either, that Cameron turned an irresponsibly blind eye to Coulson's past.

Nor do recent revelations about Coulson's paid-in-instalments severance package from News International mean that he was in the service of two masters. Attacking Coulson is an economical way of striking simultaneously at Murdoch and Cameron.

There may be questions that Cameron failed to ask four years ago. But the decision to appoint Coulson was not of itself perverse, headstrong or ill-advised. Had it not been for Rupert Murdoch's bid for control of BSkyB and the (probably not unrelated) return to prominence of the phone-hacking scandal, David Cameron's PR operation might still be running like clockwork and Andy Coulson would be looking forward to a highly lucrative post-Downing Street career.

Of course, if it emerges that Coulson concealed, or actually lied about, illegal activity at the News of the World, he is guilty not only before the law, but of potentially jeopardising the reputation of a prime minister.

In that event, Cameron has undertaken to apologise. But in matters of reputation, the accused is not guilty until so proven and hindsight is a faculty treacherous in the extreme.

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