David Cameron. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
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Cameron was supposed to be a caddish charmer – but he turned out to be a steady pragmatist

Cameron knows better than to imitate Tony Blair. After all, politicians should be steady, not needy.

How we have been deceived by David Cameron! Hoodwinked, gulled, misled. He’s yet another politician who is guilty of misselling himself.

Three years ago a New Statesman article about Cameron quoted lines from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited: “Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands.” Charm and good manners, the piece argued, had carried him to the top of British politics.

The initial deception was indeed based on such qualities: we thought that Cameron was charming. Yet his reluctance to schmooze has proved striking and his virtues distinctly unflashy: steadiness, pragmatism and sanity. The assumption that he would rely on charm was a double dummy pass. First, there was the smooth-skinned privilege; second, Cameron’s initial career was in PR. But he has proved noticeably bad at spin. Forget the English obsession with class for a moment and consider his underlying temperament. Cameron is far from a caddish charmer who exudes sunshine and eagerly chases shallow glad-handing. I am not expecting NS readers to warm to a defence of a Tory prime minister. Please bear with me. The underlying point is unconnected with policies and parties.

Cameron’s personality and priorities, though apparent in public life, are much more obvious in person. He is brisk, businesslike and contained. With some politicians, that stems from the pursuit of Machiavellian self-interest: they only bother with people who are useful to them. With Cameron, it is different. He does not radiate the neediness of someone who is desperate to be liked. What some people consider coldness is a manifestation of psychological ballast and emotional security.

I have no doubt that Cameron can be exceptionally charming sometimes. However, this is not his default position as it was for Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

It is an adolescent trait for an electorate to crave leaders who operate in a state of constantly needing to be loved. I can see that elections are about votes and that some voters will be wooed by leaders who beg and emote. But will no one point out that neediness is often accompanied by unreliable judgement, in politics as in normal life? I want a prime minister to be good at the job, that’s all. It is the politicians who blunder into the wrong wars who worry me.

We should revisit two intertwined theories, now hardening into conventional wisdom: the notion that Cameron is hamstrung by his inability to convey passion and the assumption that this is bound up with an absence of purpose in government.

The accusation that Cameron doesn’t “care” enough is easily answered. If a politician is to be effective, he cannot afford to care too much, any more than he can afford to care too little. Cameron learned from the collapse of the hangdog Gordon Brown, who had allowed himself to be swamped by the pressures and responsibilities of the job.

In this respect, politics is like sport. Champion athletes usually manage to maintain a series of fine balances – between motivation and indifference, between wilfulness and lightness, between planning and openness. Many sports fans, naturally enough, do not understand this. That is why, when I was a player, I would avoid talking too much to supporters on match days. They tended to believe that players would always perform better if they just tried harder. Every sportsman knows that this isn’t true and it is dangerous to spend too long around bad ideas. Trying too hard, caring too much: they end in paralysis.

Political insiders surely understand this. Nonetheless, they portray Cameron’s aloof sense of perspective as a weakness. In a perceptive recent article in the Times, Janice Turner argued that Cameron’s problem was that he is “just not that into us”. But Turner lets herself off the hook, as a political commentator, a little too lightly. Isn’t it the job of experts to point out that the art of “grubbing humbly for support” may be a necessity but is hardly statecraft?

I’ll go further. Cameron’s reluctance to beg is bound up with his strongest qualities as Prime Minister: his sanity, his stability, the unlikelihood of his being inhabited by strange causes or delusions of Manichaean oversimplicity. That this distinguishes him fundamentally from Tony Blair scarcely need be added. It is amusing to think that Cameron once seemed to be a Conservative Blair. David Davis’s most effective line in the Tory leadership election of 2005 was: “This is the worst moment for the Conservative Party to imitate Tony Blair.” It was; but Cameron hasn’t really done so.

The media claim to yearn for long-term­ism, sanity and perspective. In reality, they eagerly give their stamp of approval to populism and the feel-good factor. The vastly overemployed phrase “cutting through”, ever present in political analysis, is euphemistic jargon for a game-show-style clapo­meter. It is a dangerous endorsement of playing to the gallery. For politicians, over the long term, populism often becomes counterproductive. The Financial Times recently analysed the relative popularity of postwar party leaders. With one or two exceptions (non-runners, in effect), it was the most popular leaders who ended up being the most disliked and distrusted after leaving office. The wave that surges highest crashes hardest. Cameron has maintained a largely steady but unspectacular personal approval rating.

I have always had a much higher opinion of Ed Miliband than his critics among the right-wing press and the Blairite rump of his party. But if Cameron is voted out for not being sufficiently needy, we will look back on it as a petulant mistake – and, much more importantly, a bad omen for serious politicians of all persuasions.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

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Byron burgers and bacon sandwiches: can any politician get away with eating on camera?

Memo to aspirant world leaders: eating in public is a political minefield.

Miliband’s sandwich. Cameron’s hot dog. Osborne’s burger. The other Miliband’s banana. As well as excellent names for up-and-coming indie bands, these are just a few examples of now infamous food faux pas committed by British politicians.

During his entire mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan refused to eat anything in public. When journalist Simon Hattenstone met him in his local curry house for the Guardian, the now-mayor didn’t eat a single bite despite “dish after dish” arriving at the table. Who can blame him? Though Ed Miliband had been pictured blunderingly eating a bacon sandwich an entire year earlier, the national furore around the incident had not yet died down. “He can make me look Clooneyesque or make me look like Ed eating a bacon sandwich,” Khan said of the photographer at the time.

Miliband’s bacon sandwich is now so infamous that I need offer no explanation for the event other than those words. There is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the photograph of Ed, lips curled and eyes rolling, as he tucks into that fateful sarnie. Yet politicians frequently bite off more than they can chew – why did Ed’s mishap inspire multiple headlines and an entire front page of The Sun?

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“The momentum got behind the bacon sandwich story because he was awkward, it showed him in a light which was true - he was an awkward candidate in that election,” says Paul Baines, a professor of political marketing at Cranfield University. “He didn’t come across right.”

The photograph of Miliband fit neatly within a pre-existing image of the politician – that he was bumbling, incompetent, and unable to take control. Similarly, when David Cameron was pictured eating a hot dog with a knife and fork months later, the story reinforced popular notions of him as a posh, out-of-touch, champagne-swilling old Etonian. Though Oxford-educated, two-kitchen Miliband is nearly as privileged as Cameron, and Brexit-inducing Dave equally as incompetent as Ed, the pictures would not gain the same popularity in reverse. There are many, many less-than-flattering pictures of Cameron eating, but they didn’t fit into a workable narrative.

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No one, for example, focused on the price of Ed’s sandwich. Purchased at New Covenant Garden Market, it was undoubtedly more expensive than Greggs’ £1.75 bacon roll – but no one cared. When George Osborne was pictured eating an £8 Byron burger whilst cutting £11.5 million from the British budget, however, the picture spoke to many. The then-chancellor was forced to explain that “McDonalds doesn't deliver”, although, as it turned out, Byron didn’t either.

“The idea was to try and display him in a good light – here's a guy eating a burger just like everyone else. The only problem was it was a posh burger and of course he didn't look like everyone else because he was spending ten quid on a burger,” explains Baines.

But Dave, Ed, and George are just the latest in a long, long line of politicians who have been mocked for their eating habits. Across the ocean, Donald Trump has been lambasted for liking his steak well done, while in 1976, Gerald Ford was mocked after biting into the inedible corn husk of a tamale. Why then, do politicians not copy Khan, and avoid being pictured around food altogether?

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“Food connects everybody, food is essentially a connection to culture and the 'every person',” explains Baines. “[Nigel] Farage's appearance in the pub has definitely had a positive impact on how he's perceived by a big chunk of the working class electorate which is an important, sizeable group.” Though Cameron, too, has been pictured with pints, his undeniably weird grasp on the glass make the pictures seem inauthentic, compared to Farage whose pints are clearly at home in his hands. In America, Joe Biden managed to capture the same authenticity with an ice-cream cone.

“I think when it comes across badly is when it comes across as inauthentic,” says Baines. “If I were advising, I certainly wouldn't advise Theresa May to be seen in the pub having a pint, that would not shine with her particular character or style. But could Tim Farron come across better in that way? Possibly but it does have to be authentic.”

Food, then, can instantly make a politician seem in or out of touch. This is especially true when food connects to national identity. Tony Blair, for example, publicly claimed his favourite dish was fish and chips despite earlier saying it was fettuccine with olive oil, sundried tomatoes and capers. In the 1980s, Lord Mandelson allegedly mistook mushy peas for guacamole, insulting us all. In the States, you’d be hard pressed to find a politician who hasn’t been pictured with a hot dog, and there are entire articles dedicated to US politicians who eat pizza with a knife and fork. Again, the food fits a narrative – politicians out of touch with the common person.  

Then again, sometimes, just sometimes, no narrative is needed. We’d advise any candidate who seriously wants a shot in the 2017 General Election to not, under any circumstances, be pictured casually feeding a Solero to an unidentified young woman. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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