What does David Cameron want?

The Prime Minister's lack of originality.

David Cameron speaks during a press conference at St Stephen's Club, Westminster on December 16, 2008. Photograph: Getty Images.

Cameron: Practically a Conservative
Francis Elliott and James Hanning
Fourth Estate, 528pp, £10.99

I was right years ago – more years, I am happy to say, than either of us shows – when I warned you. I took you out to dinner to warn you of charm. I warned you expressly and in great detail of the Flyte family. Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands.

Anthony Blanche speaking to Charles Ryder, from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited

Written during the middle years of the Second World War and published in 1945, Brideshead Revisited is a graceful, ruminative novel about class and the fatal allure of charm. The narrator, Charles Ryder, is an intelligent but uncertain middle-class boy who goes up to Oxford in the early 1920s and there he is befriended by a careless and beautiful aristocrat named Lord Sebastian Flyte. Drawn into his intimate circle of high-born and decadent friends, Ryder is changed utterly. Sebastian is from a landed, Anglo-Catholic family and Ryder is beguiled by them – by the grandeur of their ancestral mansion, their affluent ease, their natural superiority. He falls in love first with Sebastian, who is destroyed by alcoholism, and then with his sister Julia, who is tormented by the demands of her faith.

Brideshead Revisited was lavishly adapted for television as an 11-part drama serialisation and first screened on ITV in 1981, and then repeated in 1983, the year of Margaret Thatcher’s landslide election victory that entrenched the new Conservative market hegemony. It was enormously popular and hugely influenced the wider culture of the time, the way some young people dressed, styled their hair and spoke. It chimed with the cult of the “New Romantic” in pop and encouraged fashion-conscious young men to grow their fringes long, wear fine white shirts, flannels and cricket sweaters. Several friends of mine, who were contemporaries of David Cameron at Oxford, liked to dress in what we called the “retro-Brideshead” style and Cameron back then was a recognisably neo-Brideshead archetype, right down to his floppy fringe, cricket sweaters and membership of the absurd Bullingdon Club (a membership he shared with the fictional Flyte).

Cameron was one of those students at Oxford people knew of and spoke about, even if they didn’t actually know him. Journalists such as Toby Young and James Delingpole, who knew Cameron a little back then, write enviously even today of the effect of his youthful hauteur and insouciance. Unlike Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, Cameron stayed clear of student politics and of the Oxford Union. He liked to dress up in white tie and tails, played tennis and always said thank you at the end of a tutorial. He had such good manners and such charm, and together these have carried him a very long way, to the top of British politics, where he presently finds himself, floundering in his role as Prime Minister of the first coalition government since the Second World War. At the start of their shotgun marriage Cam­eron and Nick Clegg had promised so much, nothing less than a new transparency and a “new politics”. This was to be a historic realignment not as progressives had long wished for on the centre-left but on the centre-right: classical liberalism in harmony with modernised Cameroon Conservatism, with David Laws heralded as the new model national Liberal politician. In an essay published in the New Statesman in May 2010, Vernon Bogdanor, who taught Cameron at Oxford, wrote:

The decision by the Lib Dems to form a coalition with the Conservatives brings to an end the project of realignment on the left, begun by Jo Grimond in the 1950s, and continued by David Steel in the 1970s and by Paddy Ashdown, with support from Tony Blair, in the 1990s . . . It seems the Labour Party and the left do not yet realise what a catastrophe has hit them. It is comparable to 1983, though then the left could at least hope that Labour and theSDP-Liberal Alliance might come together.

Two years later, the promised centre-right realignment has not happened. The Labour Party has regrouped and strengthened, bolstered by the ranks of disaffected, left-leaning Lib Dem supporters who have fallen into line behind Ed Miliband’s aspiration to reconfigure social democracy for an age of austerity. Meanwhile, Cameron is unable to evolve a coherent political strategy, or to tell a convincing story to the British people about the kind of country he wants Britain to be when it is mired in recession and threatened with break-up, or to demonstrate even a basic competence in government as he flip-flops and U-turns and retreats as policies are introduced only to be hastily revised or abandoned altogether or simply botched, as with Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care Bill.

One-Nation pragmatism

If David Cameron is not a conviction politician, what and who is he? What are his core beliefs? What does he want beyond the obvious attractions of power and high office? Why is he in politics at all rather than in merchant banking or corporate PR? What kind of Conservative
is he? We have many questions about him but very few answers.

Francis Elliott’s and James Hanning’s excellent biography was first published in 2007, revised for the paperback edition of 2009 and has now been fully updated to take account of the early years of the coalition. It is subtitled “Practically a Conservative”, which bespeaks ambiguity and suggests that even the authors are unsure of Cameron’s true motivations or purpose; are unsure of what kind of prime minister he is, or would have been if he’d only won the 2010 election, against an un­popular and exhausted Labour government, and was free of those irritating Lib Dems, who act as brakes on his more treacherous true-blue desires.

Cameron’s back story is well known. He grew up in the secluded Berkshire village of Peasemore, the younger son of an Old Etonian stockbroker, Ian, who was born disabled. Home was the Old Rectory (Cameron’s brother, Alex, still lives there with his family), which has a large garden, with a swimming pool and tennis court. “Home was decidedly old-fashioned if not notably bookish,” the authors write. Note the paucity of books. That detail might be crucial.

The family was “very county”, we are usefully told. Cameron was sent at a very young age to board at Heatherdown prep school and then, when he was 13, to Eton. At prep school he is described as having an “easy affability” as well as being “the most terrible snob at the age of seven”. The gradations of the English class system, though they are tiresome indeed, are fundamental to Cameron’s biography and the way he is perceived and perceives the world. He is described here as having “married up” – his wife, Samantha, is of the landed aristocratic Sheffield family – and at one point as being “well bred”, which makes him sound like a racehorse, but then the aristocracy is obsessively interested in bloodlines and lineage, as well as being so adept at keeping so much of the land of these islands in the family interest and out of the greedy hands of the state.

“Among the 80 or so sets of parents of David’s contemporaries,” the authors write of Heatherdown, with the relish of F Scott Fitz­gerald describing the guests at one of Gatsby’s parties, “there were eight honourables, four sirs, two captains, two doctors, two majors, two princesses, two marchionesses, one viscount, one brigadier, one commodore, one earl, one lord, and one queen (the Queen).”

And they were all in it together, no doubt.

Much later in the book, in an aside that could have been more profitably explored and might yet be in a later edition of what will surely become the standard Cameron biography, the first stop-off for all future biographers, Elliott and Hanning suggest that those who know Cameron best say that he suffers from “slight and extremely well-concealed intellectual and social insecurities”. In another aside, they write that, against the settled view, far from being a “secret admirer of the upper class, Cameron nurses a strong dislike bordering on contempt for the aristocracy”, which has its origins in his schooling when he was surrounded by the titled.

This is fascinating and we have seen moments in recent times when Cameron has not seemed quite so at ease in his own skin – such as when he’s being teased and goaded by Ed Balls during Prime Minister’s Questions or when he is in the company of Barack Obama, who is so much his intellectual superior and seems so indifferent to British interests. Obama’s power must remind Cameron, too, of all that Britain has lost and will never have again.

Cameron was not outstanding at Eton; his O-level results were average and his intellectual self-confidence began to develop only in the sixth form. James Wood, now a literary critic and Harvard professor, remembers Cameron as being “confident, entitled, gracious, secure . . . exactly the kind of ‘natural Etonian’ I was not”. He remarks on Cameron’s “charm and decency [at Eton] – almost a kind of sweetness, actually”, though he says Cameron showed little interest in politics. (Rory Stewart, the writer-traveller, Conservative MP and another Etonian, once told me that he thought Cameron and Boris Johnson were the “wrong kind of Etonians”, which leads one to assume that there must be a right kind, of whom Stewart is presumably one.)

Ferdinand Mount, a cousin of Cameron’s mother, Mary, and a writer and journalist (and, inevitably, an Etonian), recalls the young Cameron “abounding in self-confidence” when as a student he visited Mount while he was working for Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street. At Brasenose College, Oxford, where he read philosophy, politics and economics, Cameron’s contributions in classes are remembered by a former economics tutor as being “thought out and charmingly delivered”. The parents of one of Cameron’s early girlfriends were “impressed . . . with his charm”.

At the Conservative research department (CRD) at Smith Square, Westminster, which he joined straight from Oxford in 1988, and where he met and became close friends with Steve Hilton and Rachel Whetstone, Cameron is commended by one secretary for his “superb manners”. His peers there say he was invariably “charming and fun”. Rupert Murdoch, after speaking to Cameron at length in 2006, said: “Look, he’s charming, he’s very bright, and he behaves as if he doesn’t believe in anything other than trying to construct what he believes will be the right public image.”

Again and again, Cameron’s charm is noticed and remarked upon – his charm and self-assurance and verbal fluency. Cameron has always made friends easily and impressed those he needed to impress just when he needed to impress them most. He never really chokes and is often at his best at moments of heightened stress or tension, such as when he delivered from memory the brilliant would-be leader’s speech to the Conservative party conference in 2005 or reacted with authority and good sense to last summer’s English urban riots after having been traduced for returning late from a family holiday in Tuscany.

Cameron was from early on considered to be the coming man at the CRD, where he was promoted rapidly, and then as a young adviser working for Norman Lamont at the Treasury and Michael Howard at the Home Office, as well as briefing John Major for Prime Minister’s Questions. Around this time, Alice Thomson wrote an article in the Times that I remember reading when I worked there and is quoted here, in which she identified the leading poli­tical talents of her generation and described “David Cameron, 27, [as the] current class leader”. He was the one whom other clever, ambitious, young, right-wing politicos wished to be associated with and around whom the likes of Hilton, Whetstone, Michael Gove, Edward Llewellyn and Ed Vaizey gathered. The leader of the brat pack.

For those who were not close to Cameron, or who were closed out by him and his friends and allies, or who watched him from afar, he could appear aloof and “arrogant”, as no doubt he often was. Yet like Tony Blair, he seems to have had from an early age the gift of emotional or practical intelligence, so lacking in Gordon Brown; of knowing how to manipulate, persuade and win over; how to read the logic of a situation and react accordingly; how to bend others to his will. He charmed as he manipulated and advanced.

The authors describe Cameron’s rapid rise through the Conservative Party and the intricacies of his extended friendships in the so-called Notting Hill set with hushed, excited reverence, which at times pushes the book closer towards hagiography than the sceptical, independent biography that it ultimately turns out to be in the form of this latest updated edition. The final chapters concern Cameron’s prime ministership and here the tone begins to harden against him.

In an early chapter, Vernon Bogdanor is quoted as describing his former pupil as a non-ideological “classic Tory pragmatist”. “My view is unchanged,” Bogdanor told me. “He’s an instinctive conservative. The nearest comparison is with [Harold] Macmillan or even [Stanley] Baldwin. He feels he has been fortunate, he has come from a fortunate background, and feels he has a responsibility to look  after those less fortunate than himself. You might call it noblesse oblige.”

The book’s largest failure is that the authors, for all the diligence of their research and the many interviews they have conducted, fail to convey a sense of Cameron’s inner life. This is perhaps less their failure than that of Cameron himself and here a comparison with Obama is instructive. Obama is a politician but he’s also a writer. To get a sense of his inner life and motivations, we can read his memoir Dreams From My Father, a literary recasting of his often painful struggles to accept his mixed racial inheritance and identity as a black American, and then read it against what others have discovered and written about him. What Obama leaves out from his story can be as revealing
as what he chooses to include. And for an exposition of his political ideas, we can read The Audacity of Hope.

Cameron, who is 45, has published nothing of significance, not even philosophical essays in the tradition of Lord Salisbury. When he is at home, he would have us believe that he would rather watch DVDs or play tennis or snooker than read deeply and widely. Unlike Margaret Thatcher, who used to have tutorials on history and economics after becoming Conservative leader, Cameron gives an impression of knowing as much as he wants to know. But perhaps it is only an impression, because for someone of his background it can be “bad form” to be seen to be swotting too hard. Again, where one seeks clarification there is only mystery and mystification.

In his recent book about the early years of Obama, Barack Obama: the Story, David Maraniss quotes from letters that Obama wrote to an early girlfriend, full of flights of poetic fancy and the extravagance of youthful idealism, and has access to the diaries she kept in which she recorded her thoughts about her lover and their relationship. From these one has a greater sense of the intensity of Obama’s introspection as he struggled as a young man to make sense of his strange family story and learned who he could and could not trust. “The only way my life makes sense is if, regardless of culture, race, religion, tribe, there is this commonality, these essential human truths . . . that are universal,” Obama told Maraniss.

By contrast, Elliot and Hanning are reduced to excavating thin-spun columns Cameron used to write for the Guardian website and his local paper as a new MP in Witney, Oxfordshire, in an attempt to get a fuller and deeper sense of his ideas. (Unlike Maraniss, they have no on-the-record interview with Cameron to draw on, though no doubt they have spoken to him.) As for his speeches, these are the work of many hands and have no original voice or signature style. When Sebastian Flyte speaks, says Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited, “It is like a little sphere of soapsuds drifting off the end of an old clay pipe, anywhere, full of rainbow light for a second and then – phut! – vanished, with nothing left at all, nothing.” Something similar could be said of most of Cameron’s speeches and articles.

Nowhere in the book do the authors quote from Cameron’s letters or from youthful journals or diaries written by or about him. The drama of his inner life remains unrevealed, the man himself essentially unknown, perhaps unknowable. Could it be that Cameron is no more than what he appears to be – a clever, fluent, self-contented, upper-middle-class fellow who changes his mind a lot and who became the leader of the Conservative Party when he did because it was desperate to find someone presentable who was not the pro-European Ken Clarke, after three successive heavy election defeats, and because he could? Or is there a complexity and depth to the man that in no circumstances would he ever allow to be revealed? More questions, few answers.

As for his politics, his views seem to be a pick’n’mix of old-style shire Toryism, soft Thatcherism and Notting Hill social liberalism. He is non-ideological and pragmatic, is sincere in his desire to modernise the Conservative Party and lead it away from xenophobia and unthinking reaction, but the danger of political pragmatism is that it can lead to incoherence and a lack of direction. If the political world is conceptualised as a conversation, as the sceptical philosopher Michael Oakeshott suggested, Cam­eron seems to be listening to too many conflicting voices and opinions, being tugged one way by the right and another by the modernisers and Lib Dems. His voice is becoming less and less distinctive as he seeks to accommodate and compromise.

Heart of class

In a letter to a girlfriend, written when he was 22, Obama spoke of being “caught without a class, a structure, or tradition to support me”: “In a sense the choice to take a different path is made for me.” In the great American tradition, he would become his own self-invention. Cameron is very much the obverse: he is caught, even trapped, within a class and tra­dition and has always had the structure of the high establishment to support him. “He [Cameron] worked his way up from the inside, floor by floor,” says his friend and fellow MP Nicholas Boles, comparing Cameron with Blair, the public schoolboy son of a Tory father who was not part of the Labour tradition but who reached the top of the party by climbing the building from the outside.

Cameron has none of the originality of Thatcher, who was not constrained by class and tradition and had a story to tell the electorate of where she’d come from and how she intended to remake the nation through conflict. “For me the heart of politics is not political theory, it is people and how they want to live their lives,” she wrote in the introductory paragraph to the 1979 manifesto. Enough people believed in Thatcher and her story to carry her along as she set about smashing the postwar consensus. Above all, she was interested in and driven by ideas.

“I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across the continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on earth is my story even possible,” Obama once said, with character­istic bombast. One feels, similarly, that only in England would the story of David Cameron be possible but now he is operating in a new political era, one of great economic turbulence and instability, compounded by the crisis in the eurozone. His story may not have the happy ending for which he and his party would have wished.