David Cameron. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Show Hide image

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Labour's purge: how it works, and what it means

The total number of people removed will be small - but the rancour will linger. 

Labour has just kicked off its first big wave of expulsions, purging many voters from the party’s leadership rolls. Twitter is ablaze with activists who believe they have been kicked out because they are supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. There are, I'm told, more expulsions to come - what's going on?  Is Labour purging its rolls of Corbyn supporters?

The short answer is “No”.

If that opener feels familiar, it should: I wrote it last year, when the last set of purges kicked off, and may end up using it again next year. Labour has stringent rules about expressing support for other candidates and membership of other parties, which account for the bulk of the expulsions. It also has a code of conduct on abusive language which is also thinning the rolls, with supporters of both candidates being kicked off. 

Although the party is in significantly better financial shape than last year, it still is running a skeleton staff and is recovering from an expensive contest (in this case, to keep Britain in the European Union). The compliance unit itself remains small, so once again people from across the party staff have been dragooned in.

The process this year is pretty much the same: Labour party headquarters doesn’t have any bespoke software to match its voters against a long list of candidates in local elections, compiled last year and added to the list of candidates that stood against Labour in the 2016 local and devolved elections, plus a large backlog of complaints from activists.

It’s that backlog that is behind many of the highest-profile and most controversial examples. Last year, in one complaint that was not upheld, a local member was reported to the Compliance Unit for their failure to attend their local party’s annual barbecue. The mood in Labour, in the country and at Westminster, is significantly more bitter this summer than last and the complaints more personal. Ronnie Draper, Ronnie Draper, the general secretary of the Bfawu, the bakers’ union, one of Corbyn’s biggest supporters in the trade union movement, has been expelled, reported for tweets which included the use of the word “traitors” to refer to Labour opponents of Corbyn.  Jon Will Chambers, former bag carrier to Stella Creasy, and a vocal Corbyn critic on Twitter, has been kicked out for using a “Theresa May” twibbon to indicate his preference for May over Andrea Leadsom, in contravention of the party’s rules.

Both activities breach the letter of the party’s rules although you can (and people will) make good arguments against empowering other people to comb through the social media profiles of their opponents for reasons to dob them in.  (In both cases, I wouldn’t be shocked if both complaints were struck down on appeal)

I would be frankly astonished if Corbyn’s margin of victory – or defeat, as unlikely as that remains in my view – isn’t significantly bigger than the number of people who are barred from voting, which will include supporters of both candidates, as well as a number of duplicates (some people who paid £25 were in fact members before the freeze date, others are affliated trade unionists, and so on). 

What is unarguably more significant, as one party staffer reflected is, “the complaints are nastier now [than last year]”. More and more of the messages to compliance are firmly in what you might call “the barbecue category” – they are obviously groundless and based on personal animosity. That doesn’t feel like the basis of a party that is ready to unite at any level. Publicly and privately, most people are still talking down the chances of a split. It may prove impossible to avoid.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.