The Coulson question continues to dog Cameron

By James Hanning
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:21

David Cameron's team was described by one commentator as looking like the kitchen staff, but they seem likely to stick with him in Downing Street. They are highly trusted, and will remain low profile. They have been through a lot, but all are devoted followers of their leader, and relations in his office are nothing if not cheery.

Ed Llewellyn, Cameron's chief of staff, is cited as Exhibit One when Cameron is accused of recruiting only from his own circle. Llewellyn was in the year above Cameron at Eton, dabbled in university politics at Oxford and, like Cameron, worked at the Conservative Research Department. But he has experience in foreign affairs and a brain that has won plaudits from Chris Patten and Paddy Ashdown.

George Bridges is another Cameroon Etonian, who returned from consulting to work for the party in the latter stages of the election. He too had cut his political teeth in the Major era, and his presence might well be welcomed by the leader in Downing Street. He is known to be less-than-enthusiastic about Lord Ashcroft's influence in the party and about the party's sometimes-tangled chains of command, but his brain will prove invaluable.

Kate Fall is Cameron's gatekeeper and is totally trusted by him. The daughter of a former ambassador to Russia, she fits the Cameroon mould perfectly. Gabby Bertin, who handles many of Cameron's personal press inquiries, has also been with him since signing up during his leadership campaign and is a devotedly loyal advocate.

William Hague, George Osborne and Michael Gove can all claim their leader's ear at any time, but as MPs they have profiles of their own. But the two most powerful and controversial figures without whom Cameron will not take an important decision are rarely seen by the public, and certainly not intentionally.

One is Steve Hilton, another alumnus of the Tory research department, to whom Cameron has been extremely close for 20 years. Hilton has done his time in the advertising industry, and is credited – or blamed – for most of the innovations, or gimmickry, associated with Cameron's "detoxification" of the Tory brand. Hilton is said to have 500 brilliant ideas a day, of which only a handful are practical. Friends say he and Cameron make a good team, in that Cameron acts as a practicality filter. He wrote a book called Good Business, about the social role private companies can play, and if the Big Society has a father it is Steve Hilton. The problem, as many canvassers found, is that on the nation's doorsteps it has little salience. There has been talk of him coming "under pressure", but Cameron barely blows his nose without checking it fits in with the Hilton game plan.

Most controversial of all is Andy Coulson, Cameron's communications chief, appointed three years ago after he had to leave the News of the World editorship when one of his reporters was sent to prison for the illegal hacking of royal telephones. Coulson knows the tabloid market intimately and provides more media savvy than anyone else in that office. He is also a more-than-handy conduit to his former employers News International, owners of The Sun and The Times.

The problem is that that case has still not gone away. Last summer, Coulson denied for the first time that he knew anything about the unlawful activity that had gone on on his watch. But a Commons committee found it "inconceivable" that none of the senior News of the World executives knew what was going on, and other evidence has emerged that the phone hacking was a great deal more widespread than has been admitted. Currently around a dozen MPs, some of them Liberal Democrats, intriguingly, are taking legal action against the paper and demanding full disclosure of who knew what.

David Cameron has said everyone deserves a second chance, but some of those close to Cameron feel this could be another Ashcroft: a festering problem that needs to be addressed. Others in the party believe Coulson was at fault for not opposing Nick Clegg's presence in the TV debates, resulting in the Tories having to go into a coalition. On the other hand, Coulson has sharpened up his boss's media performances significantly and has a surer touch than some in Cameron's office. A less-seasoned aide might have fallen victim to the Cameron steel a while ago.

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