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Chillax, Dave. You're only prime minister

Cameron fiddles, while Hilton burns.

New Statesman
David Cameron taking it easy (Photo: Getty Images)

The Times today carries the latest instalments (£) in its serialisation of Francis Elliott and James Hanning's book Cameron: Practically a Conservative (to be published next week). One of the two extracts seems to corroborate what is becoming the settled view of the prime minister: that he is something less than a Stakhanovite. Elliott and Hanning report the verdict of an "ally" of David Cameron's:

If there was an Olympic gold medal for "chillaxing" he would win it. He is capable of switching off in a way that almost no other politician I know of can. The political mind is still working. He tends to get up early, look at the Sunday papers, check a few things online, the phone might ring and he’ll deal with that. But then he doesn’t go back to obsessively checking the computer or rewriting the speech, or worrying about what [Matthew] d’Ancona really means. It’s "I’ve absorbed the information, I have taken an action — I’ve asked Ed Llewellyn to do such and such, I will now go into the vegetable patch, watch a crap film on telly, play with the children, cook, have three or four glasses of wine with my lunch, have an afternoon nap, play tennis."

It's meant to be a flattering picture, of course, though it doesn't entirely eradicate the suspicion that Cameron will get away with doing just enough if he can. Now, workaholism isn't necessarily a quality to be admired in a politician - Gordon Brown, for instance, might have benefited from an ability to, as they say, "switch off" - but sometimes a premier needs to be "obsessive" (Brown was undoubtedly that; and it served him well during the worst days of the financial crisis in autmn 2008). Cameron's erstwhile policy "guru" Steve Hilton, who recently left Number 10 to begin a year-long "sabbatical" in California, certainly thought the PM was spreading his effortless superiority a little thin. Elliott and Hanning write (£):

As the Government approached its halfway mark Hilton remained the player in the team “who believes in things”, as one Tory puts it, and one who wanted to make bold, radical changes ... Hilton’s friends began openly wondering whether Cameron shared his passion. Having achieved his goal of being Prime Minister, he can appear suspiciously at ease managing the day-to-day demands of power. People still wondered if he had a sense of vision. What would his new Jerusalem look like? Peasmore, suggest some who accuse him of a lack of imagination. As Norman Tebbit puts it: “David was more concerned about being Prime Minister than what he was going to do as Prime Minister.”

Tebbitt's misgivings are shared by many in the parliamentary Conservative Party, especially those to Cameron's right, and by many right-wing commentators. Last week, for example, the editor of the Spectator, Fraser Nelson, wrote a piece in the Telegraph that ran under the headline "Turn off your iPad, David Cameron, and start dealing with Britain's debt". The prime minister's insouciance, Nelson suggested, is driving his supporters to distraction. A good example is the fate of a proposal, made inside Number 10 a few weeks ago to cut corporation tax to 15 per cent.

This would have been a game-changer – a clear signal that Britain was open for business with the one of the lowest corporation taxes on the planet. The idea was for companies to come flocking back from Ireland, itself sending a signal, and the cost of the tax rise would be funded by welfare cuts (which remain popular). But the plan was rejected out of hand by the Treasury, and its advocates were given no help at all from Mr Cameron. To those who had believed they were working for a radical Prime Minister, it was a bitter blow. This sense of frustration is shared throughout the Conservative backbenches.

Cameron's not relaxing this weekend. He's in Washington DC for the G8. When he returns, he ought to be watching his back. His troops are restive.