Chillax, Dave. You're only prime minister

Cameron fiddles, while Hilton burns.

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.

David Cameron taking it easy (Photo: Getty Images)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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