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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder