Cameron is Sarkozy's friend in need

The Prime Minister really doesn't want a Socialist to win in France and he's not afraid to show it.

It is neither a surprise nor a secret that David Cameron wants Nicolas Sarkozy to win France's presidential election in April.

It isn't a surprise because Sarko, for all that the two men have had their differences, is a fellow leader of the centre-right and has been a useful partner in defence and security cooperation. They worked together in the campaign against Colonel Gaddafi in Libya. That kind of military partnership counts for a lot in international diplomacy - enough, at least to compensate for a bunch of snide comments made about each other on the periphery of European summits.

Besides, Sarkozy's closest rival, Francois Hollande is a Socialist, running on an anti-austerity, anti-Big Finance ticket whose victory would threaten to tilt the balance of European power leftward. Naturally, Cameron doesn't like the idea of that.

The UK prime minister's preferences are no secret because he shared them in an interview with Le Figaro, a conservative French newspaper, when on a visit to Paris last week.

Cameron lavished praise on the incumbent President and offered his unambiguous support. This has raised a few eyebrows. It is not considered good form or shrewd diplomacy to explicitly endorse one side in a foreign election, given that the other guy might win. John Major's relations with Bill Clinton got off to a notoriously rocky start because the British prime minister had supported George Bush Snr, the defeated Republican candidate.

Meanwhile, Hollande is visiting London next week, mainly to woo the capital's large French ex-pat community. He is making time to see Ed Miliband, but has not yet had an invitation to Number 10. A spokesman says the PM as "no plans" to meet the man who could be President. I doubt Hollande is much bothered by the omission. There is no huge electoral advantage to being seen hobnobbing with the Tory leader, although perhaps meeting foreign leaders helps a challenger look Presidential.

For that reason, Sarkozy would probably rather keep Cameron all to himself. His campaign is relying heavily on the claim to be a heavyweight international figure, experienced enough to grapple with the epic crises of the times. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is practically on secondment to the Sarko campaign to reinforce that message.

There is, it must be said, no suggestion that the French President asked his British counterpart to snub Hollande and no indication Cameron would oblige if asked. Maybe their diaries just didn't work out. One conversation that, I'm told, did take place in Paris between Sarkozy's and entourage and Cameron's on the subject of the forthcoming election consisted of the French side asking the Tories for advice on how to stage a come-back when languishing in the polls, citing the example of John Major's 1992 victory. My source doesn't reveal the answer, but I imagine it was "run against Neil Kinnock."

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt