It can’t be easy for David Cameron. You take a nice holiday, to which you’re perfectly entitled, and then news happens. Why can’t that pesky news just leave you alone for five minutes? But after having cut short a delightful time in Tuscany to declare war on human rights and health and safety after the recent riots, the PM’s stay in Cornwall got interrupted by Libya.
The situation in Libya isn’t quite as clear-cut as it appeared on Monday night, though – not quite the out-and-out triumph for steely Cameron as it might have seemed after those first few hours, anyway. It’s tempting to wonder if our beloved leader hasn’t hastily headed back down the M4, only to be called back once again when the rebels started getting on top. You’ll probably see him sat at Costa Coffee at Leigh Delamare services, muttering into a phone: “Well, can I go back or not? I’ve left the bucket and spade and everything.”
Whatever Cameron’s doing, though, it appears to be working. Whether it’s claiming that health and safety and human rights have something to do with the culture that led to rioting in English cities this summer – entirely serendipitously chiming in with his longstanding commitment to obliterate the public sector in the ‘red tape challenge’, of course – or claiming partial credit for the decision to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, he seems to have had something of a boost in the polls. He must be hoping that holiday time never ends: every time he goes on one, there’s a crisis that apparently warrants his early return in order to appear statesmanlike and sort everything out.
It’s our fault, of course, for dragging him back in the first place. Even before Jim Callaghan breezed back from sunny Guadeloupe in 1979 and ticked off the press for their ‘parochial’ view of events (leading to the infamous Sun headline “Crisis, what Crisis?”) politicians have been wary of being seen detached from events, especially if they happen to be in sunnier climes than their constituents. We can’t bear the thought of our leaders sunning themselves on a beach somewhere, or sipping white wine on a balcony somewhere disgustingly lovely, when we’re suffering at home. We want our leaders to come back and sort out the mess. But it’s an attitude that plays right into their hands.
Cameron knows this – he’s good at presentation – and so rushes back to save the day every time, like the trusty white knight. The delay during the riots, if anything, made it better for him, not worse. The clamour for our Prime Minister to return from Italy made it seem that he was the only one who could save the day; his return was the only way of changing things around and making the important decisions. So when he did come back, and announced a huge surge in police numbers that capped the violence and unrest, it did the trick. He could have done it all on the phone, and it wouldn’t have made any difference at all, but why do that when you can make capital out of it? While everyone else was holding the spanners and working like a dog, Cameron came back at the last second, gave the bonnet a polish and handed the keys back. You have to admire his style, if little else.
Whether the boost for Cameron lingers once the kids have gone back to school, and there are no more holidays to cut short, remains to be seen. I would find it depressing if a bit of tough talking after the riots and a war on human rights have proved popular with voters. What would that say about us? That we love to be governed, I suppose. We want the big Etonian alpha male to come and rescue us when we’re in trouble, and keep us safe. What a horrible thought.