Winners, like Sir Alex Ferguson, are obsessives. David Cameron isn't. Photo: Getty
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Cameron looks like a man who has lost his desire for the job - in politics as in sport, that's lethal

In the debates, David Cameron looked peripheral, a professional who has lost hunger. That could be the end of him.

At the debate, David Cameron was out at the end of the line-up, on the far right, which is not, despite what some of his critics on the left aver, where he is usually most comfortable. On the night, however, this ought to have been an advantage. On the edge of the fray, he was in a position to wave at the pretenders to his office, turn to the camera, and raise a quizzical eyebrow - This lot? Really? It didn’t work out that way. Rather than appearing to be above it all, he seemed marginal.

Thursday was by no means disastrous for Cameron; in fact his team probably breathed a sigh of relief that Ed Miliband didn’t continue the momentum he had built up since sparring with Paxman the week before. But the Prime Minister was an oddly recessive presence, seemingly unwilling to assert his personality. After all the endless wrangling with the broadcasters, it was as if he had decided to empty-chair himself.

Cameron stuck dutifully to his key messages: long-term economic plan, don’t let Labour ruin it. Only occasionally did he attempt anything other than one of his limited but workable repertoire of expressions (<man-of-substance> face, <look-I-really-mean-this> face). Wise heads might remark that this is exactly as Lynton Crosby would have wanted; the Prime Minister simply needed this debate to pass off without incident. According to the conventional view, Cameron’s best hope of victory requires him to be as reassuring as a rock, and as uninteresting.

I’m not convinced this is right. For one thing, it’s a strategy for someone who is ahead in the polls, which the Tories are not. More pertinently, it risks amplifying a signal that I think Cameron is already sending, unwittingly. A signal that says, "I don’t want to do this job anymore".

Unlike some, I didn’t think Cameron committed a grievous mistake when he said he doesn’t want a third term. He simply answered a question honestly, something which the political classes can find hard to forgive. That is not the same as saying it didn’t hurt him, however. The problem isn’t that he made a tactical error. It goes deeper than that. The problem is that his heart isn’t in the job - and voters can tell.

Politics, like sport, runs on desire. In both fields there is a pool of people with high levels of ability and competence, and what distinguishes those who reach the highest levels – other than luck – is how much they want to get there. As Arsène Wenger once remarked, elite footballers are not highly motivated because they’re paid vast salaries; they’re paid vast salaries because they have exceptional motivation. The same is true, vast salaries aside, of politics.

One striking thing about Alistair Campbell’s memoirs is their portrait of Tony Blair. It differs significantly from the one we were familiar with when he was Labour leader: a smiling, easy-going guy. Away from the podium, Blair was an edgier and more driven presence who would think little of calling aides at 3am to discuss a policy change or rewriting a speech twenty-three times. Like Campbell’s friend Alex Ferguson, Blair was always fixated on some future goal and always worrying about how he might not reach it; each success merely brought the next opportunity for a setback into focus.

Part of the reason Blair operated at this level of intensity for so long is that he had, at his side and frequently behind his back, someone who possessed, if anything, an even more relentless drive. Having finally pushed his nemesis aside, Gordon Brown’s superhuman will to go on dragged him through humiliation after humiliation. Last week, Brown’s former aide Theo Bertram recalled how Brown had to go into the third debate with Cameron 24 hours after being pulverized by the Gillian Duffy affair. Some predicted Brown would self-destruct live on TV. But as Bertram says, he drew on “a deep reservoir of strength” to deliver a creditable performance.

You can only wonder at the Sisyphean will required to run for president, which takes at least 18 months, involves little sleep and the enormous pressure of having a big organization rely on you and you alone to perform, at or near your best, every day. The Obama-Clinton battle in 2008 was so compelling partly because it was a clash of iron wills. Or take another former presidential candidate, John Kerry, now a secretary of state with an historic deal under his belt. A diplomat told the Guardian, “A lot of the time it is not the smartest person in the room. It is question of who has the most stamina. And Kerry had an incredible amount of stamina.”

We still laugh at Thatcher for wanting to go “on and on” (Cameron used that phrase himself to encapsulate the madness of political obsessives) but we should recognize that it was precisely her excessive zeal that made her such a political giant. Politics is hard. Winning elections, and, even more so, achieving significant change once in office, requires a roaring fire in the belly.

I can’t imagine that Cameron would have displayed the bloody-minded decade-long persistence required to see the Northern Ireland peace process through. He would have given it a jolly good go, before concluding – as indeed most rational people did, over the years – that it was impossible. To characterize Cameron as lazy is itself lazy. You simply don’t get to do the job he has without a big appetite for work. But it is true that he doesn’t seem to have the exceptional drive of his predecessors.

Voters want politicians with heart for the fight. Presidential primaries are almost designed to test for it. In the town halls of Iowa or New Hampshire even the most experienced, professionally-trained, amply funded politicians can be exposed as lily-livered. We have fewer opportunities to probe for it here, but in the last two weeks we’ve had a couple, and they have been telling. Ed Miliband, on Paxman night, didn’t say anything new. He will never look like a natural in front of the cameras. But he successfully conveyed a burning desire to win, and I think that accounted for his bounce in the polls.

On that night and during the debate, Cameron has performed like an animatronic, lacking in animus. It’s sad to see. Most of us have been in jobs where we end up just going through the motions, and it doesn’t feel good.

If Cameron loses, he can reflect that it could have been worse. He could have won.

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.

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