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

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle