What Lib Dems are saying (or not) about Andy Coulson

by Stephen Tall on September 6, 2010

The official Lib Dem line on Andy Coulson, David Cameron’s director of communications, could not have been clearer prior to the election: this Voice headline from July 2009 gives the flavour – Huhne on Coulson: “either complicit or incompetent”.

Yet the party leadership has been noticeably more reticent to comment on the most recent allegations, triggered by the New York Times’s typically thorough investigation.

(What does it say, by the way, about the quality of the British news media today that — with the honourable exception of The Guardian — it was left to a US newspaper to mount a proper investigation of alleged illegal activity by a major corporation, and alleged blind-eye-turning by the Metropolitan Police?)

It’s not hard to understand the reason for the reticence. The Lib Dems are now in coalition with the Conservatives, and Andy Coulson is the Prime Minister’s most senior special advisor, paid £140,000 by the taxpayer (half what he was earning when paid to spin-doctor for the Tories). In other words, he is now part of the Government, and for the Lib Dems in government to join the questioning/attack on him would be a breach of collective responsibility.

And of course within government personal relationships develop. For the first weeks after the formation of the Coalition, Mr Coulson and his Lib Dem counterpart, Jonny Oates, worked hand-in-glove together from Number 12 Downing Street (though Jonny has now assumed a more chief-of-staff role for Nick Clegg).

But just because Lib Dems in government are adopting a studied silence at the moment does not mean Lib Dems outside of government are ignoring the vital issues of citizens’ privacy and policing robustness which are at stake.

Here, for example, is Lib Dem MP Adrian Sanders, a member of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, writing on his blog yesterday:

My concern is that the Labour Party’s ‘political’ attacks on him are diverting attention from potential abuses of power by the Metropolitan Police and persons within News International, of whom Mr Coulson may, or may not, be just one.

One of the reasons I am a Liberal is because of the Party’s historic mission to hold to account those who exercise power and influence over our lives. The ‘phone hacking scandal’ is an example of the misuse of power by News International that the convictions of two people should have brought to an end, but questions remain about the involvement of others within the company and the use, or non use, of power by the Metropolitan Police, the Press Complaints Commission and possibly the Prime Minister’s office. …

As a committee, we failed to get to the truth, but then select committees do not have the powers of judicial bodies. It is my belief that only a Judicial Enquiry conducted under oath and in public will uncover the extent of the wrong-doing, identify those responsible, and obtain justice for those who fear, possibly unnecessarily, that details about their lives have been gathered and could be used to misrepresent them at a future date.

I have written asking for such an Enquiry to be instigated. How the Prime and Deputy Prime Ministers react will be a test of how liberal this Coalition Government is going to be.

And here is Caroline Pidgeon AM, a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority and Leader of the Liberal Democrat London Assembly Group:

The Metropolitan Police Service need to take these new allegations very seriously. They must undertake a thorough review of all the evidence that has come to light. So far it seems the Met’s investigations have been far too narrow.

“This should not be an issue of political point score scaring, but simply ensuring serious allegations about illegal phone tapping and the invasion of privacy of so many people are now properly addressed.”

Meanwhile former Lib Dem MP Lembit Opik — who believes he was one of the phone-tapping victims, alongside Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes — has issued a stinging statement (hat-tip Peter Black):

“The News of the World says it has a policy of zero tolerance of wrongdoing, but that means nothing with people like Coulson in charge because they don’t know what they’re tolerating. If Coulson wasn’t able to discover what was going on in his office when he was an editor, why should anyone believe that he is displaying any greater competence in Downing Street?

“If the Government wants to avoid the compromising stories its predecessor got mired in, they have a right to expect Coulson to stand down until his name is cleared.”