Show Hide image

Cameron’s leadership — a holiday persistently interrupted by reality

The Prime Minister has long positioned himself above the fray, at the expense of a coherent message

For a prime minister to lose one holiday to events may be regarded as a misfortune. Two in a month verges on carelessness.

David Cameron didn't retreat to a Tuscan villa, sensing that wanton pillage was about to erupt on the streets of London. Nor did he slink off to a Cornish cottage in full knowledge that Libyan rebels were about to surge into Tripoli. He is allowed to go on holiday and was just a bit unlucky that the news rained on his barbecue.

There is, however, something resonant in Cameron's twice-forfeited vacations; something that describes the governing style of a man who has cruised through life. A holiday that is persistently interrupted by reality might be the emblem of his leadership.

It isn't a question of physical absence from No 10 (although some Tories doubted the wisdom of flying off on an African trade mission in July at the height of the phone-hacking scandal). The problem is more the Prime Minister's leisurely habit of mind that leaves him vulnerable to nasty surprises.
In case anyone had forgotten about Cameron's complacency over phone-hacking, new allegations have emerged that Andy Coulson continued to receive payments from News International (NI) while working for the Tory leader in opposition. The NI perks only stopped shortly before he followed Cameron into No 10. The Conservative Party, Coulson's employer at the time, claims not to have known about this supplementary income.

Cameron appears not to have asked. The extraordinary aspect of the saga is not that the Prime Minister made bad decisions, but that he seems to have been consistently uninterested in the truth.

Double fantasy

Cameron has a sharp mind but not an enquiring one. He parries well in parliament and opines prettily on television. He does not, however, immerse himself in detail; nor is he famed for his attention span. One minister describes the experience of briefing the Prime Minister as similar to teaching a bright and restless child, willing to learn but unable to listen.

The government's most ambitious public services reform to date - Andrew Lansley's NHS bill - turned into a fiasco largely because of Cameron's inattention and lack of intellectual curiosity. He devolved all responsibility for a vital policy area to his secretary of state and seemed to notice what Lansley was cooking up only when the stench of political crisis drifted over to No 10. The Prime Minister wasn't on holiday then but, in terms of his engagement with a critical brief, he might as well have been on a sunlounger by the pool.

This detachment was initially a deliberate strategy. Cameron was intent on learning from the mistakes of his predecessor. Gordon Brown was an obsessive micromanager who paralysed government with a need to know every detail before making decisions. He refused to delegate. Cameron, according to one former adviser, entered No 10 "determined to be the anti-Brown". He let it be known that he was happy to be seen as "more a chairman than a chief executive".

The NHS fiasco put a stop to that kind of talk. Yet senior Tories still complain about the lack of focus in Downing Street. A common gripe is the foggy relationship between Andrew Cooper, director of political strategy, and Steve Hilton, Cameron's main policy adviser. The two men have overlapping briefs and different temperaments. Cooper, a pollster by trade, is focused on positioning the Tory party to win a second term. He tends to judge policy in terms of its utility in that mission. Hilton is more ideological, especially in his distaste for the civil service, which he sees as a monstrous, bureaucratic anachronism. He is impatient for change and prone to flights of policy fancy. (A memo of some of his bizarre notions, including ignoring EU law and scrapping maternity leave, was leaked to the Financial Times in July, probably by one of those civil servants he so mistrusts.)

The two rival strategists are not in conflict; but nor do they work in concert. "It isn't exactly dysfunctional," says one Tory insider. "It's just separate." Crucially, no one seems to know where Cameron's instincts lie. He seems to bathe alternately in warm, Hiltonian fantasy and cold, Cooperite calculation.

The result is the absence of a coherent message that Tory MPs can pass on to their constituents about what the government is for, other than cuts. Complaints that surfaced in opposition about the infuriating vagueness of Dave are re-emerging. One normally mild Tory tells me that he is "ready to explode" over the lack of a positive economic message. Many more are restive over Europe. A new Eurosceptic group of roughly 70 backbench MPs is being formed with the explicit purpose of lobbying the government to "reverse the process" of European integration. One of the group's founders tells me that an auxiliary goal is to turn the idea of Britain's exit from the EU into a mainstream proposition.

Above the fray

That isn't official Conservative policy. Or is it? Hilton is increasingly hostile to the EU; Cooper sees the obsession with Europe as a proven short cut to the electoral wilderness. What is Cameron's view? Like so many things, it isn't clear.

This isn't just a problem of organisation. There is something in the Prime Minister's temperament that stops him from engaging consistently in policy. He needs pressure to perform. He rises to the occasion when emergencies demand a statement in the House of Commons. He deployed stock parliamentary bravura to stabilise his position over phone-hacking and the riots. Having dealt with the matter in hand, however, Cameron goes into standby mode, waiting to be fired up by the next big event.

At first, this looked like a clever strategy. Cameron floated presidentially above the fray, intervening only when there was good news to be delivered or a crisis to be resolved. This calculated hauteur infuriated Labour frontbenchers, who felt that they couldn't get close enough to land blows on the Prime Minister. Yet the sheer volume of crises - at home, abroad, in the economy, on the streets - makes Cameron's patrician distance look more like unexplained absence. He doesn't have a coherent enough vision for the country to be authentically presidential and, without that side of the strategy, he is left simply floating. That is not a good look in a prime minister.

Rafael Behr is chief political commentator of the New Statesman

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Gold