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5 October 2015

Writing the PM’s report card

Anthony Seldon's books can have a teacher's approach. Cameron, 7/10. Blair, 6/10, see me after class.

By Stephen Bush

“Coffee, please, and water.” Looking across the table at the author, historian and former schoolmaster Anthony Seldon, I am reminded of the American writer Ann Patchett’s line that the only thing worse than being on book tour is not being on book tour.

Seldon is a week into a round of interviews and appearances to promote his latest. He wears it heavily. “Coffee, and water,” he says again, absently, a moment later. His eyes are puffy with lack of sleep, though the news from his publicist that Cameron at 10 is performing well raises a thin smile.

Seldon, who finished the bulk of the book “before the result was known” of the general election, wrote it “thinking it would be a book about a corpse”. He believed that Cameron would be defeated and that he would quickly “be smashed up” by his enemies on the right in the days following.

“It gave it a slightly eerie feel writing about it,” he says.

The book was a challenge in more ways than one. “[Cameron is] the least damaged and therefore you could say the least interesting of the last five prime ministers,” Seldon says, pausing for a moment to take a sip of coffee. “Thatcher was very significantly driven, to the extent it was quite hard to discover a personality below her political persona. What did she love? Major carried this constant sense of hurt, and Blair, obviously, now has lost his persona because he became the job.”

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He stops again. Seldon, who along with Peter Hennessy popularised the study of contemporary history as an academic discipline in Britain, has written extensively about Cameron’s four most recent predecessors and, at times, speaking to him feels like consulting a vast archive powered by an early computer. He pauses and stares into space before speaking, thoughtfully and at length, about politicians past and present.

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“Brown was so endlessly fascinating. Brown would have been fascinating as a study even had he presided over Britain during three years of tranquil waters in which the worst thing that happened was one of his ministers being found in bed with a giraffe!”

Seldon has spent his life teaching – he stepped down as master of Wellington College over the summer – and has an ability to command attention one associates with the best kind of teacher. It is only when I listen back to the tape of our conversation that I realise that Franco’s, where we met for coffee and stewed tea, has the irritating habit of playing piped music.

His books, too, can have a teacher’s approach. Cameron, 7/10. Blair, 6/10, see me after class. But it is Brown who gets the title of head boy. “He was a better prime minister than people gave him credit for,” Seldon says. Cameron will “never be that sort of brilliant damaged figure, a Churchill, a Thatcher, a Brown”.

But Seldon does admire the current PM, who he says is “calm and very consistent”, although, he adds, “It’s very interesting to speculate whether, if Cameron had lost, he’d have been smashed up by his own party.” Now, of course, Cameron basks in the glow of his unexpected majority and the same voices that had written him off predict that Jeremy Corbyn will hand his Tory successors victory after victory. But not Seldon.

“When a prime minister has his tail up, you can never imagine him having it down. When he has it down, you can never imagine it up.

“Labour will get rid of Corbyn before 2020, I’m 95 per cent certain,” he says, but the years of his leadership will still change the country. “I think he will make changes for the better. At best it will make Britain a more humane, inclusive nation.”

Cameron at 10: The Inside Story 2010-2015 by Anthony Seldon and Peter Snowdon is published by William Collins

This article appears in the 30 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide