Nowhere man

David Cameron is the apotheosis of the postmodern politician. A cloud of unreality and inauthenticit

A reason that Anglo-American acolytes of Jean Baudrillard inspired mockery is that they never quite saw the playful side of the brilliantly
mischievous French theorist. His forte was the simulacrum, or imperfect imitation of reality, and its gradual dissolution into a nihilistic state, towards which he was convinced society as a whole was heading. If that is the case - and we are currently not short of pointers - there seems no reason to exclude prime ministers from the general flight from reality.

And sure enough, watching David Cameron in the leaders' TV debates, Cameron posing in front of No 10, Cameron impersonating a commoner in Whitehall, a spectre among the masses, who has not experienced a hallucinatory feeling, a sense of insubstantiality?

“An awakened dream of communication", Baudrillard called such manufactured personages and events, leading to "an implosion of meaning". It comes about, he suggested, when media and reality are short-circuited, rather than acting as poles between which mediation takes place. The result is "a single nebulous state whose truth is undecipherable". Fans of the simulacrum or not, we see the truth of that all right, and its implication for our politics. Which leads naturally to the question: in the copper-bottomed sense of the word, does David Cameron exist?

It would have been fun to read the master on the subject, in one of his satirical newspaper columns. In his absence (he died three years ago, aged 77), we must look for an answer to his writings, approached, of course, in an earth-creeping Anglo-Saxon frame of mind. For us, the immediate reason to question our Prime Minister's reality is Cameron the cutaneous curiosity: press a thumb to his uncannily glaucous skin, you feel, and an indentation might be left, as on a wax fruit or a Madame Tussauds effigy.

If the surface of the man is suspect, we are entitled to probe deeper. What better analytical tool (as we must say) than Baudrillard's four stages by which reality morphs into a simula­crum, before vanishing altogether?

It begins with the image as a true reflection of reality, and already Cameron scores poorly. To see just how poorly, think of Winston Churchill, a man better born than our Prime Minister but who never pretended to be other than he was. Cameron, on the other hand, spends his life ­affecting not to be the aristocrat he in any case isn't, quite.

Comparisons with Churchill are unfair, but it is reasonable to cite him (or Clement Attlee, come to that) as a touchstone of solidity against less substantial moderns. It was Tony Blair's 1997 victory, I would suggest, accompanied by the swarm of image-mongers that infested No 10, that marked the onset of our abstraction from reality and entry into a virtual political world.

Again, appearances are the clue. Think of the Blair-Cameron grin, then of their puckered-browed sincerity, and you have it. Try pasting those expressions on to other postwar politicians, and they don't fit. That is because, after 13 years, we are well into the mimetic era.

Give or take his siren suits, Churchill, image-wise, was a non-manufactured product: he didn't ponce about on bikes, and he smoked plutocratic cigars not for effect, but because he liked them. He was a genuine man of action, who fought in wars as well as running one. He took graver decisions in a day than Cameron will take in a lifetime, yet no one ever saw him doing the lip-biting thing Cameron the made-up man has adopted from Bill Clinton, to tell us how tough it is at the top.

The second stage of the Dante-esque descent through mime into nullity, Baudrillard tells us, is the image as perversion of reality. For this, Cameron is a natural, a man whose phoniness is positively dandiacal, bordering on the ex­quisite. A nebulous state of unreality shrouds everything he does. His bottomless dressing-down wardrobe, the apparently nanny-less home of working parents, the obscurities of his pre-parliamentary career - with him, nothing is as it seems.

Getting away with itOf the rock-loving, bomber-jacketed, "yeah, right" kinda guy in search of a counterfeit public image, it would be tedious to speak, though his career deserves a mention.

Cameron's pre-political "action" consisted of the usual McJob as a youthful adviser to Norman Lamont at the Treasury. Advice based on what expertise or experience, exactly? And against what pressure of competition was the pseudo-appointment made?

Next came seven years as a PR in a downmarket TV company. At this, Baudrillard, a greater master of media theory than McLuhan, would have pricked up his ears. "Media stupefaction" was a speciality of his, and Cameron was engaged in a lot of that. "Glib and superficial" was the TV regulator's description at the time - not of Cameron, of course, but of the output of Carlton TV, the company he worked for.

Churchill wrote history, Harold Macmillan published books, Margaret Thatcher was a lawyer and a chemist. Cameron shovelled TV trash into the maw of the masses. His way of making a crust, and why not? Ethically it is fine, in the way running an escort agency or a pole-dancing club is fine: the mugs are there to be conned and someone's going to do it. Just don't moralise at us when you have.

But Cameron has, without respite, earnestly lamenting our "broken society". A perversion of the image of Prime Minister, surely? Well, yes and no. Yes, because the blatancy of the hypocrisy is indeed surreal; no, because, like his model Blair, as a modern man of feeling, Cameron is unfazed by his contradictions and at ease with his bullshit sincerity.

In pushing programmes such as A Woman's Guide to Adultery for Carlton, he was doubtless genuine in his wish to bring entertainment and distraction to the labouring classes. Sermonising about the sanctity of the family, he is genuine again. When he said one thing, he felt he meant it, and when he affirmed the contrary, he felt the same. So where's the problem? I doubt you could persuade him there is one.

And if Baudrillard is right, and we are heading towards a society in which surface feeling is all and reality optional, maybe there isn't. This would explain why there has been so little censure of, or even comment on, his effortlessly changing masks. But then we are a country more thoroughly marinated in fantasy than most. Hence our overblown banks and stupendous personal debts. Like our celebrity actors or models, role-playing is what we do, often rather well. What matters is the confidence to carry it off, and there it is hard to fault him.

Except for that single delicious moment when the nebula parted and the truth broke through. Asked whether Samantha wasn't a bit posh,
he replied, not at all: "She's rather unconventional. She went to day school." As a Frenchman, Baudrillard could never have relished the full fruitiness of a remark whose social and cultural preconceptions leave us agape.

Which leads to stage three, when image and reality divorce entirely. This doesn't mean Cameron being exposed as a fraud; nothing so simple. It happens when the reality he claims to represent ceases to exist, even though the system does everything in its power to prevent it. "Immense energies," said Baudrillard, "are deployed in order to keep this simulacrum standing upright, and to avoid the brutal de-simulation which would confront us with the obvious reality of a radical loss of meaning."

For the moment, he is getting away with it, jauntily upright as ever, striding about "comme un grand", as the French say, for all the world like a genuine person. But, in the long term, systems fail. How can it happen? Well, a judge is judicious, Confucius said, otherwise he is not a judge, and similarly with prime ministers. You cannot have as Prime Minister a simulacrum so boldly and blandly false that the very existence of both him and his job come into question.

Yet there he is, notionally occupying our top office. How did the electorate come to instal a smirking apparition in No 10? There are many reasons, but one has been given insufficient emphasis. Forget politics; think of the national mood, then of Cameron as virtual Prime Minister, a construct designed to bring consolation to a nation in danger of shrinking in every sphere other than its population.

Baudrillard has a passage suggesting how such phantasmagoric creatures can emerge: "The great event of this period [recent times], the great trauma, is the decline of referentials, these death pangs of the real and the rational that open on to an age of simulation." Feeling that history has ceased and they are living in a void, people cling to nostalgic symbols, to retro fascination, "no longer so much because they believe in them, or still place some hope in them, but simply to resurrect the period when at least there was history . . ."

The chimera melts

It would be typical of Cameron's incomprehension of his country to fail to see that what attracts a fair proportion of his voters is less his blokeish style than the nostalgia his good breeding and born-to-rule ethos (columnists have used such phrases) cannot help but inspire. In other words, he is the man many a mother fantasises about their daughter bringing home.

You could argue that his pretences will be stripped away by the cares of office, forcing him to mature, urgently, into a person. A comforting notion, but Baudrillard never mapped a procedure whereby a simulacrum soaring into the void could thrust into reverse, and re-enter reality. In any event, for Cameron to shuck off layers of spurious imagery and "be himself" is not an option (too dangerous, as that "day school" remark shows), any more than Samantha could ditch the mockney and speak in her true accent.

This is not to say that he faces imminent catastrophe. To date, he has performed as a perfectly plausible prime minister - plausibility ­being, of course, the simulacrum's defining characteristic. Yet, as the months pass and reality gnaws away, the wear and tear on the fake persona could bring out the top-down instincts held in check by the egalitarian façade. Already there are signs of patrician impatience and irritation, as for the first time in its life the Cameroonian construct stares responsibility in the eye. Note his petulant attempt to slap down the uppity plebeians of the 1922 Committee - his first action in office.

As we get deeper into the cuts and the firings, and the recalcitrance of the public, the Tory party and its allies grows, our PM will do what PR folk invariably do in a tight situation: if you have trouble selling the goods, you rebrand them. Which will mean jettisoning the smarm and going for a tough-guy, Thatcher-Churchill image. A more authoritarian style might suit his prickly temperament, and to that extent he might appear more genuine, in so far as such words retain their force. Yet success will depend on something deeper than temperament: character, and in that respect Thatcher and Churchill, or for that matter John Major, had something Cameron can never aspire to possess - authenticity.

It is early days and, fair-minded Brits that we are, we must give the man a chance. In an era of relative ease and plenty, plenty of people - cosseted people especially - mature late. Alas, often too late. So perhaps there is no way out, either as a make-believe image fraying under the strain of events, or as himself. As austerity bites and opposition spreads (our trade union leaders seem authentic enough) over time, his political fortunes could decline to the point where we reach the fourth and last stage of Baudrillardian degeneration: implosion, after which nothing remains, neither person nor image, as the entire chimera melts, scowling or smiling wanly, into the ether.

Here, we are in the realms of imagination, though the psychology is sound enough. Remember those electoral hallucinations. If Ca­meron is not Cameron, let alone Prime Minister in any normal sense, he exists only as a vagabond image, detached as a kite that has lost its string. For once a true reflection, some might say, of his country.

Man of mystery

It could take a while to happen - years perhaps: the British, impressionable folk attached to their illusions by a force of nature, do not abandon them in a hurry, convinced to this day, for example, that 700 lords and baronesses inhabit the Palace of Westminster. These folk, simulacra themselves, from modest backgrounds often, put on white fur and vermillion robes to elevate themselves into their role, while the Prime Minister wears populist gear in factitious repudiation of his. And Baudrillard is the kooky one?

A strange race, the British, forever straining up or down, so few people on the level. Amazing it has kept as upright as it has, though this may be harder in future for our rulers. In the end, circumstances crowd in, people notice, start to nudge one another - and before you know it the word gets round that there's less there than once imagined.

Naturally, we will treat a Frenchman's extravagant lucubrations with irony. Yet that, too, is a way of distancing ourselves from reality, and Baudrillard has that exit covered. Irony, he observed some time ago, is not what it was. No longer is it an outside view of things, a stance or affectation, a way of seeing. Today irony has passed into things and has become an intrinsic part of life:

The Japanese feel a divinity in every industrial object. For us this transcendental feeling is reduced to a little ironic glimmer, but even
so it is still a spiritual form. For us pagans and agnostics, irony is all that is left of the sacred.

As the irony is not so much in the mind as in the thing, or person, this makes us part of the joke. Which gives us less to laugh about.
I reach for what most will dismiss as exotic theory to explain the man Cameron because there seems no more rational way to account for the apotheosis of the Prime Minister and his tribe - a Kabbalistic mystery without parallel in modern times.

George Walden is a former diplomat and was Conservative MP for Buckingham (1983-97)