Why David Cameron is the ultimate "seagull" manager

He flies in, makes a lot of noise, dumps on everyone from a great height, and then flies out again.

Back when I worked for a large organisation, we had a term: “seagull manager”. It described someone, usually a consultant, who flew in, made a lot of noise, dumped on everyone from a great height, then flew out again, leaving others to deal with the consequences.

Parachuted into action more than two years ago, Cameron squawked hysterically about difficult decisions, the mess he inherited, a new kind of politics and the big society (whatever happened to that?). Since then, he has proceeded to spend the majority of his term, so far, defending arrested pals, disgraced ministers, fiascos, scandals and u-turns.

This week sees another spate of threatened strikes and underlying unrest. To the growing list of greedy doctors taking industrial action for the first time in four decades, unyielding police officers demonstrating outside Parliament, uncivic protesters occupying shops and banks, dishevelled students disturbing the peace and politically motivated nurses and teachers picketing No 10, we can now add unreasonable dairy farmers and unpatriotic border control officers. At what point in this nexus of insubordination, do we begin to consider that the fault may lie with the country’s leadership?

Apologists have posited that Cameron is powerless, caught in the middle of a battle on two fronts; with his torysvestite coalition partners and his own backbenchers. The truth is those are mere political skirmishes. The real battle, the one which threatens to be his Waterloo, is entirely self-inflicted. It is a battle with the country’s public servants.

When a young David William Donald Cameron, son of a stockbroker, grandson of a Baronet and direct descendent of King William IV, was caught smoking pot at Eton College, his punishment was to copy 500 lines of Latin text. I wonder if they included Cicero’s “Ut sementem feceris, ita mete” - whatever you sow, you shall reap.

Last year, he announced that he was “taking on the enemies of enterprise; the bureaucrats in government departments…” Every nurse, every civil servant, every immigration officer, every policeman heard that declaration of hostility. In the midst of the severest programme of cuts, an economic downturn unseen since the Depression and a radical reorganisation of just about everything, he declared war on the very people on whom he depended for delivery.

You may have opinions on the individual policies, cuts, measures; on the rights and wrongs of each dispute. What is indisputably cack-handed, however, is alienating the entire administrative arm of the state at a time when you depend on their effort and good will to deliver your programme; at a time when you require their stiff-upper-lipped acquiescence to having their pensions and salaries looted. The most basic experience of management would teach one that the key ingredient, in securing the success of an organisation, is the staff’s support.

So, is it any wonder those unionised chickens are coming home to roost and choosing a time when they can cause him maximum embarrassment? The government’s reaction is an overwhelming sense of embarrassment that visitors to these shores might be confronted with dairy farmer boycotts, airport queues, terrible traffic, strikes, riots, homelessness and economic misery -  in short, the reality of what most of us experience every day. Instead of seeking resolution, they say “not in front of the neighbours”. Throw a doily over child poverty. Pop some flowers on top of the half-dismantled NHS. A few cushions scattered around unemployment. Make the place look nice.

They even went as far as to announce they were seeking a High Court injunction to prevent border staff from taking action, before the strike was called off at the eleventh hour. A course of action guaranteed to polarise rather than facilitate. Mark Serwotka specifically commented on “the vitriol and vilification” to which PCS members had been subjected by ministers. More evidence of poor management – engaging with staff only when a disagreement has snowballed into a vendetta and, even then, aggressively and destructively.

Cameron never misses an opportunity to mock Ed Miliband’s friendly relations with Trade Unions. But shouldn’t any PM or would-be PM aspire towards friendly relations with Unions? They represent ten million working people in the UK, not even counting their families. The belief that having a pathologically unhealthy relationship with such a large and productive part of UK society, is evidence of strong leadership is not only illogical, but dangerous in the extreme. In what other line of business would you see a CEO boasting that he has a dreadful relationship with his staff?

That indefensible approach has been characteristic of this administration – not only in its industrial relations, but across the spectrum. Unmeasured words keep falling out of this fuchsia, angry man’s mouth.

Attacking immigrants may give him a boost with one part of the demographic. Attacking pensioners may curry favour with another. But what is the long-term strategy? Eventually all those groups start to merge into one angry, explosive mass. The unemployed, the working, the disabled, the impoverished, students, charities, parents with too many children, parents with too few, those with cars, those with caravans, the small business who can’t borrow, the small business who sells pasties, the cleaner paid in cash – it all adds up to an entire country seething with anger.

The difference between good opposition and good government is that the former is judged primarily on the quality of the talking, while the latter on the quality of the doing. But there are no comforting results to which one can point. This week, the IMF predicted that, far from reducing national debt as a ratio to GDP, it will continue to rise and peak by 2015/16. In 2010 it was less than £1 trillion. By 2015 it will be more than £1.5 trillion.

An Austerity Programme is like an episode of The Biggest Loser. Inspirational rhetoric and sweaty montages cannot save the contestants when they step onto the scales. There is a pre-agreed goal – in stones and pounds, or pounds and pennies. And lately what has become painfully clear is that, despite starving the country, the coalition will fail to meet its key self-imposed targets. It seems that the economy stubbornly refuses to be orated up and the debt just won’t be sound-bitten down. Words are not enough.

There is a limit to the credibility with which one can say “I’m not being nasty. Times are nasty.” The evidence disproves the flannel: Privatising public assets, mass outsourcing, protecting The City, lowering taxes for the wealthy and corporations, handing out contracts to friendly donors, cutting services to the bone – when has a Tory government ever done any different, in good times or bad?

There is a limit to the rhetoric of “difficult decisions”. Difficult decisions are made harder to deliver and less likely to succeed when they are meted out in an arrogant, mean-spirited, ill-tempered manner. The progressive voter understands this and will condemn Cameron for his character. The conservative voter understands this and will condemn Cameron for his failure to deliver.

Flashy but incompetent, clueless but obdurate – Cameron is the ultimate seagull manager. Whether judged on attitude or aptitude, he is truly, hopelessly bad at his job.

 

David Cameron: scary seagull. Artwork: Dan Murrell/New Statesman

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories