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David Cameron’s West Wing polish is putting Rishi Sunak to shame

Slick communication is not a nice-to-have but a key function of governing.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Last week, David Cameron wrapped up his trip to Brussels for the 75th anniversary Nato meeting of foreign ministers with a slick promotional video. Less than three minutes long, it shows the Foreign Secretary walking out of the Nato headquarters and explaining why he was there and what his priorities are now.

He speaks with no notes, no script, making eye contact at all times as he reels off his message: what happened at the conference (the Ukrainian foreign minister called on Nato members once again for support in defending itself against Vladimir Putin’s Russia), and what he personally is going to do next (speak to the Ministry of Defence about what more Britain can do and increase the pressure on the Speaker of the US House of Representatives to pass the support package the Republicans have been blocking in Congress).

Reminiscent of both the famous walk-and-talk scenes in the West Wing and Hugh Grant’s stirring speech as the fictional prime minister in Love Actually — “It’s American security, it’s European security, it’s Britain’s security that’s on the line in Ukraine” — it’s a powerful watch. It gets the message across perfectly. It’s attention-grabbing – informative and to-the-point without being gimmicky. It also suggests a Foreign Secretary in control.

This is the second such video Cameron has made in recent weeks. The first, released in March, summarised his first 100 days in office since Rishi Sunak brought him back into government in November. That one is only 90 seconds long, and shows him striding to his first debate in the House of Lords as he reels off his achievements so far: 36 visits to 26 countries, eight different multilateral gatherings, progress on support for Ukraine and getting aid into Gaza. You get the idea.

There are several reasons why Sunak chose to hastily ennoble Cameron and give him a job. The primary one was the need to shuffle his cabinet around and fill the gap left by Suella Braverman, as well as bringing in much needed experience at a time of mounting foreign policy threats. But Cameron’s communication skills were a key factor too. I remember one former government adviser lamenting how haphazard Sunak’s comms strategy had proven, expressing his hope that bringing the Cameron onboard could help strengthen the Tories’ messaging.

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The trouble is it’s all working out better than expected. The contrast between the former prime minister and the current one is impossible to miss. And it’s not doing Sunak any favours.

While Cameron can make a compelling case on the move and off the cuff, Sunak has the earnest, scripted delivery of a head boy leading the school assembly. His speeches and interviews send listeners to sleep – unless he is asked a question he believes to be unfair, as is increasingly happening, at which point he will snap into defence mode. (Remember his tetchiness when challenged on rising mortgage rates by a distressed homeowner on a radio phone-in, or his awkward laughter when questioned on the timing of the election.) His attempt seem more relatable by sitting down with his wife for a cosy chat with Grazia just made him look awkward and robotic. Right now, Tory MPs are sweating at the thought of Sunak on the campaign trail, and the damage his tendency to veer between boring and brittle could do to their already dire poll numbers.

Rather than helping to bolster Sunak, there are now genuine worries in No. 10 that Cameron is overshadowing him. This has potential policy implications for Downing Street (the Foreign Secretary has, for example, taken a tougher line on Israel than the PM, exposing the divides within the party). But even if the pair were entirely in lockstep, Sunak would be in trouble. The ease with which Cameron has slipped back into the role of representing Britain on the world stage and the effortless authority he is able to convey highlights the weakness and chaos of the Sunak regime.

When Cameron stepped down as Prime Minister, giving his final speech on Downing Street before humming his way back into No 10 for the last time, the consensus around his performance was mixed. Yes, he had won the Tories two election victories, but the first one didn’t fully count (because it wasn’t a majority) and all the energy after the second was focused on a massive foreign policy gamble that drastically backfired when the UK voted to leave the European Union. Other than the legalisation of same-sex marriage (implemented against the wishes of a sizable chunk of his party), his main legacies appeared to be austerity and the beginnings of the Brexit psychodrama.

Cameron, went the Westminster refrain, had been good at being Prime Minister, but that didn’t make him a good prime minister. His slick confidence, polished charm and ability to seem like he knew what he was doing wasn’t enough. Britain didn’t need an “essay crisis” prime minister, able to pull together a glitzy presentation at a moment’s notice – it needed someone who was prepared to do their homework.

No one can accuse Rishi Sunak of not doing his homework. Cameron’s successor in No. 10 (skipping a few in between) seems to relish studying – poring over spreadsheets, agonising over focus groups, attempt to govern by formula, as though the perfect solution for whatever challenge he faces will reveal himself if he only reads enough.

That solution evidently does not exist. But even if it did, in an ecosystem of constant media, communication is a not a nice-to-have but a key function of governing in itself. Ever since the shine came off the Blair administration, successive PMs have struggled with the communications part of their role. Too polished, and they risk being seen as specious – more style than substance.

But the current PM seems to have forgotten it is part of his role at all. And Cameron’s presence at his side is a constant reminder of his failure.

[See also: The new Tory divide on Israel]

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