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What David Cameron can learn from Andrew Strauss's KP problem

Both England's cricket establishment and the Conservative Party are struggling with insurgent outsiders.

What should be done about brilliant individualists who don’t play by the rules? That is the dilemma preoccupying two highly conservative English institutions. The English cricket establishment is agonising over the future of the hugely talented maverick Kevin Pietersen. And the Conservative Party is weighing up whether Boris Johnson, who has used the Olympics to reassert his populist credentials, is a realistic candidate to lead the party as well as London.

In both cases, the debate about the prospects of an outsider quickly morphs into a referendum on those already in power. If David Cameron had secured a majority in 2010, or looked very likely to win one at the next election, there wouldn’t be any midterm speculation about Johnson. If Andrew Strauss were scoring many runs and England hadn’t just been beaten 2-0 by South Africa in the Test series, he wouldn’t feel under such pressure about the estrangement of Pietersen. Supporters of Pietersen are usually critics of Strauss, just as supporters of Boris are usually sceptical about Cameron. Could Boris be prime minister? Should Pietersen be brought back into the fold? It is another way of framing the question: how good a job is being done by the man in charge now?

Very modern manager

“Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere;/ Nor can one England brook a double reign,” Prince Henry says to Harry Hotspur in Henry IV, Part 1. But these parallel stories – Strauss and Pietersen, Cameron and Johnson – are much more interesting than the common tale of two big characters who cannot fit into one space. They are studies in differing kinds of ambition, alternative routes to the top.

The similarities between Strauss and Cameron are more exact than those between Pietersen and Boris. At university, both Strauss and Cameron showed a marked disdain for outward ambition. Cameron displayed no interest in student politics at all; it would have seemed deeply naff to be so earnest at such a young age. In the same way, Strauss was never talked about as a future England captain, mostly because he seemed so casual and disorganised. “Captain us?” a university team-mate said later. “He couldn’t even find his kit.”

Did Strauss always have deep ambitions that were well concealed by his politeness and reserve? Or did he realise only by increments – as he gradually worked his way through the field – that he could go so far? I’ve never been sure of the answer. Perhaps he isn’t, either.

Both Strauss and Cameron have an instinctive grasp of modern establishments and how to navigate a path through them. Each finds that the language of modern leadership comes naturally. Strauss is much further into his career than Cameron; 35 is quite old for a professional sportsman and we can already judge him an excellent captain of England. He was an exact contemporary of mine at school, university and in county cricket. When I was captain of Middlesex, I played alongside him. We talked a lot and there was a lot of common ground.

But, from the outset, I realised Strauss was far happier using the language of modern management. Hearing phrases such as “360-degree assessment” and “lines of accountability” was enough to make me want to retreat into a dark room with a revolver. Strauss, however, was innately at ease with the way the role of captain had evolved. He is a natural CEO, and instinctively understands the remit of his responsibilities. Looking back over all those conversations, I can see that he was much better at understanding what wasn’t possible, what wouldn’t play in the political environment. I leapt, sometimes naively, to what I thought had to happen. Strauss had many leadership gifts, but he also grasped the limitations of what could be achieved.

The two “outsiders” – Boris and Pietersen – have less in common. Pietersen is gauche and prone to PR disasters where Boris is engaging, highly intelligent and socially gifted. Pietersen recently gave an emotional press conference at which he complained, “It isn’t easy being me in this England dressing room.” It is hard to imagine Boris saying to the media, “It isn’t easy being me in this Conservative Party.” If he did, he’d be laughing as he said so.

Audacity of self-belief

Pietersen’s YouTube video, in which he stated his love for English cricket, was clearly an attempt to use his popularity among fans to gain leverage in his negotiations with the England management. Appealing directly to the people is exactly what Boris does all the time. Both men know that people love watching them perform, that the crowd thrills to the audacity and total self-belief they bring to the stage.

And yet, both Pietersen and Johnson find themselves outside the accepted establishment of their professions. To the untrained eye, Boris’s Latin quips and unapologetic eccentricity may look quintessentially conservative. But Conservatives aren’t supposed to behave like that now. It is revealing that the most savage anti-Boris pieces in the press often come from Blairites. There is a second, private coalition in politics – between Blairites and the Tory modernisers – and it finds Boris’s popularity uncomfortable. He offends a central consensus in the political establishment that politics ought to be conducted in a particular style.

For the time being, the England cricket team is without its best player. And the parliamentary Conservative Party is without its most popular politician. The difference is that Pietersen has been dropped on the grounds of team unity, whereas Boris chose to be Mayor of London. But do Conservatives mean it when they say that the party couldn’t possibly welcome back Boris at Westminster, because he has promised to serve a full term as mayor? And does the cricketing establishment really want to turn its back on England’s best batsman because he acts before he thinks and has become alienated from the core of the team?

After all, when an English establishment says it is taking a clear stance, especially on an ethical matter, it usually means it is mulling over what best suits its own interests.

Ed Smith’s “Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters” is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99).

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?