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

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide