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.