A fresh spin-cycle?
Next month, two 38 year old men are taking over communications for the two main political leaders - but their age is about all they have in common.
Gordon Brown has chosen Mike Ellam, a career civil servant, to be his main spokesman; David Cameron has gone for Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor. Ellam has spent years behind the scenes at the Treasury; Coulson spent years winning newspaper awards through sex scandal scoops – in one busy year, his paper exposed David Beckham, Sven Goran Eriksson and David Blunkett – until he resigned over the royal phone-tapping affair.
Political journalists at Westminster will have plenty of contact with Ellam who’ll conduct the daily Downing Street briefings, making him the official voice of Gordon Brown. They’ll probably have less to do with Coulson though, who might well prefer to use his links to Fleet Street editors to get the Tory message across at a higher level.
The fact that Coulson worked for Rupert Murdoch will not have been a hindrance in his getting the job: it’s seen as important for the Tories to win over the likes of The Sun and the Times. The appointment of an ex-Murdoch man may however go down less well in the newsrooms and boardrooms of the Telegraph and the Mail.
Political leaders taking on top journalists is not a new idea. Most famously, on the Labour side, Alastair Campbell became Tony Blair’s press chief after being political editor of the Daily Mirror. Before him, another newspaperman, Joe Haines, did the same job for Harold Wilson, and went on to be political editor of the Mirror after he left Downing Street.
Over the years, the Tories have scoured Fleet Street to recruit their spin doctors too. Margaret Thatcher’s chief press secretary, Bernard Ingham - who was at her side throughout her premiership - had a past as a Labour Relations correspondent on the Guardian. And William Hague was looked after by Amanda Platell, who’d been sacked as editor of the Sunday Express for running a story on Peter Mandelson’s relationship with a Brazilian man.
This time the word around Westminster was that David Cameron was looking for a top TV journalist, because he was particularly keen to try to get his message right on the TV bulletins. So the announcement that Coulson had got the job came as a bit of a surprise. Insiders say he’s very pleasant, charming and dynamic, but to date few have detected in him a profound interest in party politics.
So when the two men take over next month – Coulson the tabloid editor versus Ellam the Treasury boffin– we’ll be entering a new spin-cycle in British politics. Whose style will get the message across best? We should of course remember that both party leaders have hinted that the age of spin is past, so maybe the biggest change will actually be a new era of straight talking.