Inside Story

David Cameron: destiny deferred

Britain’s prime minister is a proven winner at the polls. Now he faces an even bigger test, says David Hayes

David Hayes 24 October 2015 3577 words

Hidden depths? David Cameron visiting the Green School in Isleworth, Middlesex, earlier this year. Number 10/Flickr

“All political lives end in failure, unless they are cut off midstream in a happy juncture, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.” The austere constitutionalist Enoch Powell must have touched a dormant nerve with this, the closing observation of a book published in 1977, judging by the air of eternal wisdom that has attached to it among British practitioners and observers of the game of thrones.

In almost four decades since, only two figures in their pomp ever looked likely to prove Powell wrong: Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Each won three elections and lost none, but each was forced, after a decade in office, and “bay’d about by many enemies,” from the premiership in mid-term. Neither Conservative nor Labour party has ever fully recovered from the whole experience. Now, though, a prime minister who owes something to both former leaders is on course to belie Powell’s dictum.

That is at least a plausible reading of the political outlook in this golden autumn of an English year which has blessed the Conservative leader, David Cameron, with successive favours: a surprise election victory, the Labour Party’s plunge from defeat into fantasy, a conference season that confirmed the new government’s hegemony, and the prospect of a home run towards Cameron’s self-chosen time of departure, months before the next election in May 2020.

It’s a landscape beyond imagining a year ago, when most game plans had Cameron’s party at best the biggest in a hung parliament, doomed to another five-year grind in irritable coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Cameron’s own position would have been in jeopardy if the numbers were too tight or the backlash too strong from a second failure to win outright.

In the event, his Conservatives did enough to gain a slim (twelve-seat) majority on 37.6 per cent of the vote. They did this by exploiting their advantage in the key areas of “strong leadership” and “a clear economic plan,” targeting the seats of their Lib Dem partners, stoking English fear of a Labour–Scottish National Party alignment, defusing the right-wing populism of the United Kingdom Independence Party, promising “a brighter, more secure future,” and – the element that made an oddly sterile contest memorable – confounding the pollsters. After a downbeat half-decade of low growth, tight budgets and unfinished reforms, when even referendum successes on electoral reform and Scotland’s secession held more relief than joy, the unloved Tories could govern alone for the first time since 1992–97.

A qualified triumph, then, with a share of the credit belonging to two key strategists: Cameron’s chancellor, close ally and preferred successor George Osborne, and the wily electoral planner Lynton Crosby. (The latter’s contribution is central to Tim Ross’s new book, Why the Tories Won.) Other factors contributed – being more trusted on the economy, an unconvincing Labour leader in Ed Miliband, and the opportunities of first-past-the-post. But having Cameron on the frontline was crucial. The anticlimax of 2010, when Gordon Brown’s twilight Labour deprived him of an expected majority, led observers confidently to discount a further increase in the Tories’ share of votes and seats. Even without control of the electoral timetable, thanks to the new fixed-term parliament law, they managed both (albeit by only 0.8 per cent and 3.7 per cent). In an instant, Cameron was turned from dead man on leave to agent of destiny.

Unanticipated though it was, the outcome seemed in keeping with David Cameron’s exceptional career arc. Member of parliament for fourteen years, party leader for ten, prime minister for five, now given an invigorating mandate: it all suggests a charmed ascent. The impression is reinforced by the steel-and-silk props of Cameron’s biography. Born to a wealthy family, Scots on his father’s side (an ancestor had made a fortune trading grain in the American Midwest), schooling at Eton (the country’s top public school), a first-class “PPE” degree at Oxford, work in the Conservatives’ research department and as an adviser to ministers (as well as a manager-level stint at a broadcasting company) – Cameron might pass as a time-lord epitome of the imperial-era boast attributed to Cecil Rhodes that “to be born an Englishman is to have won first prize in the lottery of life.”

Cameron, who turned forty-nine on 10 October, also looks and sounds the part: a skilled media performer, comfortable in his skin, with an unruffled aura (occasional pink-faced outbursts at Commons’ question time apart) and sheen of command. These are prize accessories in a democracy now both populist and quasi-presidential, even part of the informal job spec for any aspiring leader. Most would also fit Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon. She and other opponents see Cameron as a haughty, slick, “chillaxing” lightweight. But the two Labour leaders he has vanquished – Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband – suggest that, in the electoral dating game, people’s impressions really count and negative ones are in the end fatal.

The unspoken contract with the voters is about authority, effectiveness, basic trust, and (more easy to overlook, so much is it taken for granted) Britain’s standing in the world. He is not a leader warmed to or even much liked, and nor does he particularly invite that. The death from illness of his six-year-old son Ivan in 2009 brought natural sympathy, as did the sudden death of his father (who was born with both legs deformed) the following year. Perhaps these episodes, as well as his uxorious relationship with his wife Samantha, who has worked as a creative director and now in charitable roles, inform focus groups’ identification of him as a “family man.” (As reported by the pollster Deborah Mattinson, this is a “to-die-for” endorsement for a leading politician.)

A touch of ruthlessness is in the mix, especially when making changes. Yet reshuffles of ministers are rare; he wants colleagues to get on with things. He is by preference a delegator, though he has a tight inner circle and rations support to those outside it. But hidden depths? No. The Labour giant and bushy-browed bruiser Denis Healey, who died at the age of ninety-eight on 3 October – a “fully paid-up member of the human race,” as Britain’s political lexicon has it – once skewered a preening rival by listing the many virtues bestowed on him by the good fairy. “Then the bad fairy came along, tapped him on the shoulder, and said, ‘But you’ll be a shit.’” That routine wouldn’t work on Cameron. His failures are more likely to be those of imagination than character or instinct, which in nervous times also makes him a better-than-evens fit with the nation he governs.

But if a Cameron memoir will never be entitled My Struggle, nor will How to Succeed in Politics Without Really Trying do. It took hard graft to salvage the Tories’ outworn brand from the depths of 1992–2005, a period encompassing the election wipeout of 1997 and two subsequent defeats when the party’s vote share crept up by just 1.7 per cent. Central to the effort was study of the reasons for New Labour’s success. For David Cameron and George Osborne, emulating Tony Blair was a prerequisite for hauling the Conservatives towards the new, post-Thatcher centre ground. “The master,” as they referred to Blair, never had pupils as assiduous. That required a degree of humility, a word rarely associated with the Conservative Party. But these were exceptional times.

Belated “modernisation” had to reach the people but also carry the party. A still-bubbling economy gave New Conservatives (as they weren’t called) few conventional targets. The gap was filled by leftward swerves on public spending, child poverty and crime, gestures on climate change, and much soft-focus mood music. “Improving our society’s sense of wellbeing is the central political challenge of our times,” Cameron said in May 2006, five months after becoming leader. Though defensible at any time, it was the kind of proposition harder to press in the economic whirlwind that hit the following year, soon after Blair passed on the Labour torch to Gordon Brown. As politics scrambled to keep up, Brown’s indecision on the election date handed Cameron an initiative, a polling lead, and a story he never lost.

The story was “Labour wrecked the economy” (and “failed to mend the roof when the sun was shining”). Misleading at best – the transatlantic financial crash was triggered by bad loans, dodgy credit packages and poor oversight – it was also a gift that went on giving. Labour’s credibility on the core political issue was pulverised (and remains so eight years later). In 2010, the Conservatives’ net gain of ninety-seven seats with 36.1 per cent of the vote, against Labour’s 29 per cent, still left them short of a majority. Cameron’s entry to government was conditional on a coalition with the Lib Dems. Five years on, the latter too have been vanquished. In the face of destiny there was now no buffer zone.

The Tories’ recent post-election honeymoon, sweetened by Labour’s prolonged and fractious leadership campaign, was a convenient time for interim assessments of Cameron’s record and prospects. Two hefty books – one a defiantly “unauthorised” biography, the other enticingly an “inside story” of the Downing Street years – offer contrasting approaches. Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott’s Call Me Dave is an unusual collaboration in which the party’s mega-rich former treasurer and deputy chairman, whose “uneasy relationship with Cameron” froze when he was denied a more senior post after the 2010 election, evidently employed a former Times journalist to dig deep into Cameron’s life in search of anything remotely embarrassing.

The book is “not about settling scores,” Ashcroft feels the need to write, and indeed Oakeshott’s diligent narrative mostly keeps the insinuation and false trails in check across its minutely detailed 600 pages. (Although a blaring Daily Mail serialisation, leading with a salacious rumour from Cameron’s student days, turned into a perfect meme that fed columnists, cartoonists and social media for weeks.) There are newsworthy nuggets, such as criticism from the army general David Richards of the government’s strategy over Libya following the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011. (“We never really analysed things properly.”) Ashcroft, formerly a big donor to the party and member of the House of Lords, also promises to embarrass Cameron over when exactly the latter knew of his preferential (“non-dom”) tax status. The whiff of a spurned ally’s pique, conceived as a political obituary – then hastily given a more “judicious” savour – gives the book its odd feel.

Call Me Dave’s rummaging (“there is no mention of Cameron in back copies of these student publications,” it disappointedly reports) proves that as an individual its subject is just not that interesting. Anthony Seldon and Peter Snowdon’s Cameron at 10 has a head start here in focusing on his performance as prime minister and drawing on the input of his close colleagues. Its own whiff is of sympathetic insiderdom, though here it lacks the brio of Matthew d’Ancona’s superb account of the coalition, In It Together. (And almost 600 pages in the historical present has an ingratiatory effect.) But as a work of synthesis, helped by a research team to weave a textured account of five years at the heart of government, it is invaluable.

Moreover, viewing Cameron as the lead actor among many dramatis personae actually makes for a more convincing picture of both how he thinks and operates, and the limits and compromises of power at the top. There is, for example, a revealing chapter on Cameron’s steep acquisition of confidence on national security issues, including “charmingly steely” handling of military lobbying vis-à-vis Afghanistan. Spending more time than expected on “overseas work,” talking to foreign leaders, quickly fascinates him. “[It] is like being head boy of Britain, protecting its interests and citizens at home and abroad.”

The image is apposite on several levels. Cameron is proud of his family’s public service, no-whingeing-allowed ethos. Seldon himself was headmaster of a leading independent school and is a vocal champion of personal development. The satirical magazine Private Eye – which for seven decades has put the premier of the day at the centre of a sublime parallel world – unveiled Cameron in 2010 as headmaster of the “Coalition Academy,” now of course “The Cameron Free School.” And others might be reminded of Lindsay Anderson’s subversive fantasy If…, made in 1968, whose romantic rebellion is both enraged by and entangled in the institution’s deep Englishness. (Its direct debt is to Kipling’s 1899 tale Stalky & Co, whose own truculent schoolboy heroes are at once trainees for empire and heretics for justice.) The surface details of Cameron’s class and education invite a lot of reductive snark. Much is reverse snobbery masquerading as political critique. It forgets that the public school world too is a social microcosm that both imprisons and frees its charges.

The titbits in Cameron at 10 are more Yes Minister than The West Wing. “I’m sorry William. I’ve got us into a real pickle this time,” Cameron whispers to his foreign secretary as the government loses a historic vote over Syria in the House of Commons. Attending a domestic emergency, flooding in southwest England, Cameron “worries that his Hunter boots make him look too posh”:

One of the staff is dispatched to Asda to buy cheap black wellingtons, to give him the common touch. That spring, [Lynton] Crosby learns that one of the reasons voters give for saying Cameron is too posh is seeing him on television during the floods wearing a shiny new pair of black wellingtons.

Taken together, both works usefully digest the many criticisms that have been or can be made of Cameron during his decade in the top rank: the flaws, the gaffes, the errors (several of these arguably big-game misjudgements).

The first category includes chillaxing and its variants (“insouciance” is a Call Me Dave favourite). A failure to promote women in sufficient numbers. A last-minute, “essay crisis” approach to, well, crises. A tendency to indulge the “chumocracy,” whether titled and rooted or demotic and shallow: party benefactors, business pals, media friends (prominently in the Murdoch stable), potentially dodgy advisers (his former communications director Andy Coulson went to prison over phone hacking). A talent for attracting the hostility, in some cases hatred, of some in his party, not all of whom are mad.

The second includes whispering to Michael Bloomberg (and a live microphone) that Queen Elizabeth had “purred down the line” when he told her the Scots had voted to stay in the United Kingdom. (That was a AAA-lister.) Telling a female Labour frontbencher to “calm down, dear.” Misnaming the soccer team he notionally supports. Referring to a “swarm” of migrants. Further back, using Arctic huskies and bicycle rides (with a car in tow) for green-PR purposes.

The third encompasses failure to follow through in Libya and Syria, or to have a coherent strategy from the start. A lack of overarching vision for the country’s future (alternatively, a confusing surplus: big society, global race, one nation, good society). A craven, commerce-led attitude to dictatorships, such as China and Saudi Arabia, symbolised by the pomp of Xi Jinping’s state visit and arms sales to Riyadh. A related casualness over civil liberties. A retreat on climate change. An awkward dance over Britain’s membership of the European Union, where a promised referendum resembles a political fix in lieu of a principled strategy. An intellectual lightness too over the United Kingdom and, especially, Scotland’s place in it. (Call Me Dave parlays a vignette of the ever calm Cameron giving way to despair when a poll ten days before the Scottish referendum showed the pro-independence side in the lead for the first time. “How would he be able to tell the Queen that he had managed to go one further than Lord North, who lost the North American colonies, and lost the UK itself?”)

Several of the charges can be appealed. Not all are capital offences. And other items on the ledger might earn remission: legalising same-sex marriage, codifying the pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on overseas development, apologising for the Bloody Sunday massacre in the Northern Ireland city of Derry in 1972, refusing to compromise with the United Kingdom Independence Party and its Bierkeller-populist leader, Nigel Farage.

Such more expansive tunes from Cameron’s repertoire were on display in his speech to the Conservative Party conference on 7 October. It was acclaimed even on the centre-left, where trauma over Jeremy Corbyn’s elevation to the Labour leadership remains deep. Cameron committed the party to “an all-out assault on poverty” and (referencing discrimination against blacks, Muslims, gays, women and people with disabilities) “the brick wall of blocked opportunity,” in order to “finish the fight for real equality.” The promise of this “turnaround decade” was “a Great British take-off – that leaves no one behind.”

The speech was widely read as a consolidating move on the centre ground, the territory coveted by New Labour but from which Nostalgia Labour were now in galloping flight. Many heard echoes of the benign inclusivity of Cameron’s early leadership, before the financial crisis induced a shift of register. (“Let sunshine win the day,” he exclaimed in 2006.) In the afterglow a striking number of left-leaning columnists, among them the Times’s Janice Turner and the Telegraph’s mordant Labourite Dan Hodges, canvassed their consciences over being able to switch their vote. “The trouble for Labour is that the Tories are intent on making themselves ever harder to hate,” wrote Turner. The Independent’s Donald Macintyre asked, “Was that Cameron, or some left-wing lookalike?”

But as radiant autumn curls into early winter, the recent conference season is already fading. There are incipient signs of a change in the political weather. The sudden collapse of much of Britain’s bruised steel industry in a context of overproduction, plunging prices and Chinese “dumping” is putting thousands out of work in hard-hit areas – and at the very moment the financial benefits of UK–China ties were being lauded at Buckingham Palace’s banquet for China’s president. A growing row over Osborne’s flagship reform of costly but popular tax credits, which protect the low-paid, is spreading. The health service’s perennial budgetary and management problems are intensifying. Europe’s refugee crisis heightens immigration alarmism. The campaign of those who want to “reform and remain in” the European Union feels staid and has made a shaky start.

These are just a taster of the challenges that will dominate the next five years. Britain’s economic fundamentals – public and household debt, structural and trade deficits, productivity – continue to be fearful. A new round of cuts to public services is imminent. The EU referendum is a minefield. The energy sector is dysfunctional and overstretched. Ambitious plans for English education, local governance, transport infrastructure, the judiciary, and the penal system, and for UK-wide welfare reform, contain many potential traps.

Constitutional changes – “English votes for English laws,” a “British bill of rights,” the details of more devolution to Scotland – are bitterly contested. Domestic security is on near permanent high alert. Crises overseas, in which Britain has a real interest but exercises little leverage, are intractable. Opportunities for derailment are everywhere. A tranche of elections in 2016 – for the Scottish parliament, Welsh assembly, London mayoralty and English local government – gives plenty of scope for the tide to turn against the central government.

It’s a tough agenda for the remaining four years of David Cameron’s premiership (assuming his farewell timetable is kept to). Even more because expectations are higher after his election victory and the soaring rhetoric that has followed. “A Greater Britain, made of greater hope, greater chances, greater security” – that speech again – is a lot to live up to. Will the poetry stay airborne, especially when major troubles, setbacks and scandals hit?

Prosaic results, delivery on the economy above all, are the sine qua non. Which also means a country able to make its way in the world. Under that implicit contract with voters, Cameron remains the leader for these times. The tussle with destiny, and against the inevitability of failure, is still on. •