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Will William Hague and Andy Coulson Survive?

Last Updated: Friday, September 10th, 2010

The two men have been under ferocious media pressure – first Hague, then Coulson – and the stark question is worth asking.  It provokes different answers in each case.

Hague will probably survive.  He remains important to the Cameron project: a great servant of the Party who’s regarded as a touchstone of party opinion; helps to defuse the EU issue as Foreign Secretary; is popular with the members; bore the burden of leadership at a difficult time and – above all – remains a source of strong speeches and good jokes.

However, whether he’ll flourish is a different matter.  Since the Coalition Prime Minister must be a Conservative (and Nick Clegg is therefore ineligible), the Foreign Secretary has been viewed to date as Cameron’s natural successor were disaster to strike the Prime Minister.  But an uncontested Hague succession is now doubtful.

This is because his judgment’s been called into doubt – and the concept of good judgment, though elusive to capture and hard to define, has talismanic potency in the Conservative Parliamentary Party.  Hague’s judgment is being questioned for two reasons.

First, because his decision occasionally to share a hotel room with Christopher Myers, his former special adviser, is seen as odd – and has stirred memories of the accusation framed by Alistair Campbell when Hague was Conservative leader: that he is “weird”.

Second, and more seriously, because the media strategy that he decided to adopt to quash the Myers story is seen as flawed.  It appears that the Foreign Secretary insisted on issuing a very full statement in response to the Myers rumours.

It’s widely believed that the private details it contained about Mr and Mrs Hague’s marriage will stir media interest, not calm it.  The Foreign Secretary has also kept the story running by issuing two tweets thanking well-wishers.  Tory MPs will be nervous about further newspaper interest in Myers himself.

Coulson, on the other hand, may well not survive.  This isn’t because of the two Parliamentary enquiries into the News of the World phone-tapping allegations – one to be undertaken by the Home Affairs Select Committee, the other by the Standards and Privileges Committee.

Nor would a Coulson appearance before the police necessarily be fatal.  After all, Tony Blair survived police questioning on the cash-for-honours probe while in office.  A new and wider police inquiry would be a different matter.

However, the various routes of inquiry – Parliamentary and police – are not the core of the Government’s problems in relation to the Coulson affair.  Watching the Guardian, and to some extent the BBC, pursue Coulson is a bit like watching someone putting a match to a trail of gunpowder.

One doesn’t know whether the line will simply fizzle out, or whether it will reach a barrel and explode.  The danger for the Government is that the trail may seem to have been extinguished for weeks, perhaps months…and then another former News of the World journalist will come forward with his story.  And then another.

It’s such a series of events that could, so to speak, spark an explosion – forcing Coulson’s resignation and damaging the Government.  Another question therefore follows: will Downing Street’s Head of Media simply quit at some relatively quiet moment in a carefully-crafted manoeuvre.

George Osborne persuaded David Cameron in opposition to appoint Coulson because he wanted to find a senior figure with a feel for the kind of Sun-reading, aspirational, C2 voters that Margaret Thatcher won for the Tories, and Tony Blair won back for Labour.

Downing Street will therefore be keen not to lose Coulson if possible.  His performance has been very competent – although some blame him for pushing the Party Leaders’ TV debate during the election, which derailed the Conservatives’ campaigning momentum, and believe he’s too close to News International.

But Cameron could reach the point with Coulson that Blair reached with Peter Mandelson and other Cabinet members, and John Major before him reached with his old ally David Mellor..namely, whether the problems of losing a trusted ally are worse than those of keeping him.

Paul Goodman

 

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THIS WEEK ON CONSERVATIVEHOME

Tim Montgomerie outlines why he thinks the Conservatives will be trailing in the polls by Christmas: Last December I predicted that the Tories would be level-pegging with Labour by the end of the year.  I now suspect that the Tories will probably be behind by at least 40% to 35%. Four things have caused me to change my mind…http://tinyurl.com/2vrzhfw

 

Paul Goodman analyses tensions within the Coalition on banking reform In diplomat-speak, “a lively debate” is code for a shouting match.  Ministers may or may not have had one over banking reform, but it’s worth noting that Nick Clegg used the phrase when pressed on the matter during Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday.  He added that “the Liberal Democrats believed in opposition that there should be a separation [of retail and investment banking], and a debate is now taking place within Government”.http://tinyurl.com/324rabl

George Osborne MP puts those making the “lifestyle choice” of living on benefits on notice of impending additional cuts In an interview with the BBC’s Nick Robinson, Chancellor George Osborne has made it clear that further welfare cuts will be included in the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review.http://tinyurl.com/34xre9l

Damian Green MP promises “smart immigration policy” that ensures only the brightest and best students and workers enter Britain  In a speech last night (Monday) Immigration Minister Damian Green set out the Coalition’s strategy for reducing net immigration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands. There will be reductions in the number of visas for work, study and marriage in a three-pronged strategy. “UK Immigration policy is always described in terms of how tough it is,” he said, “I am more interested in how smart we can make it.” Good rhetoric but, as the Daily Mail’s James Slack points out, Mr Green will be forced to be tough; “Mr Green has to cut net migration by about 150,000, which is a huge mountain to climb.”http://tinyurl.com/3ybndqy

Michael Gove MP proposes an “English Baccalaureate”: “What that would involve is saying to students you should be thinking about studying GCSE English, Maths, a science, a modern or ancient foreign language and a humanity like History, Geography, Art or Music… If you get five GCSE passes in each of those areas, I think you should be entitled to special recognition and that’s why I think the idea of creating, as it were, an English baccalaureate to signal that you’ve secured those five GCSE passes, that you have got the broad, rounded education.” http://tinyurl.com/2vttbzm

First members of the 2010 intake are appointed ministerial aides: The appointment of any of the Class of 2010 to such posts so early in their career signifies several things: on the one hand it will be a recognition that there are some hugely talented people who have just arrived in the Commons who are destined for great things in the future; but it will also be a way of containing any early thirst they might have for rebelliousness, since ministerial aides are regarded as part of the “payroll vote” and therefore expected always to vote with the Government in the division lobbies. http://tinyurl.com/2vlnyyv

Mark Field MP sounds a note of caution about rushing into constitutional reform:“Conservatives respect and carefully husband our nation’s constitution. Invariably we do so in what we regard as the national interest. It should never be the Conservative way to tamper with the voting system or electoral boundaries for narrow party political advantage. The timelessness of our nation’s constitutional arrangements is too important for that. Yet the current proposals for AV and the reduction in number of parliamentary constituencies are being promoted by Party managers as an expedient way to prevent our principal political opponents from recapturing office.” http://tinyurl.com/35fdbo7

Robert Halfon MP explains how all MPs could win 50% of the vote under a reformed First-Past-The-Post system: “The answer is what is termed as ‘The Second Ballot’ (TSB) system, as used by France (for both Parliamentary & Presidential elections), the Czech Senate, Lithuania and Hungary.  Austria, Finland and Slovakia use TSB for their Presidential Elections. The beauty of TSB is both its fairness, and simplicity.  Instead of having an ‘Alternative Vote’ and artificial second preferences, a ballot is held a week or two later in which the top two candidates slug it out for pole position.  Not only does this give electors a few extra days to consider their options based on the first result, it ensures that they are not forced into making a ‘saccharine’ second choice (which AV would force them to do), before they know whether or not their first preference candidate will get over 50% of the vote.” http://tinyurl.com/35tf8xz

Boris Johnson announces re-election bid with 55% satisfaction rating: Boris will face a tough re-election battle given the likely impact on Conservative ratings of the looming public spending squeeze. Boris is, nonetheless, determined to paint himself as an independent Conservative. He has fought public battles with the Treasury in defence of investment in London’s transport infrastructure and, only last night, in opposition to the Coalition’s immigration cap. Like Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson understands that a cardboard-cut-out party candidate cannot win London. His position on immigration, nonetheless, risks upsetting Conservatives from outer London who got him elected last time. http://tinyurl.com/372tsfq

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