His book’s out now. 752 pages of hardcover, hardcore truth to set the record straight. Like a lot of politicians, David Cameron was always the same thing. From when he seeped into the public consciousness in 2005 to his resignation in 2016, he always gave the impression of a man who approached leadership like Manuel from Fawlty Towers — ‘I learnt it from a book.’ He learnt politics as a second or third language but wasn’t quite fluent. There was something about him that was not of the real world. Something fake.
Others have put that down to his pre-politics job as a PR professional. You hear phrases like ‘he has a PR man’s charm.’ This is certainly not complimentary. Like saying he has the personal warmth of an estate agent or the integrity of a reporter from The Sun. Cameron’s charm and fakeness were indivisible and often the same thing — like that dress from the internet which some thought as blue and black, while others thought gold and white. The confusion of Cameron’s image was best displayed during the 2010 election campaign where he used airbrushed posters that were simultaneously dreadful and successful.
Accompanied by a range of banal and not snappy slogans, his moon face loomed over the people like a naff Big Brother from 1984. To be honest, I might have preferred ‘War is Peace’ or ‘Ignorance is Strength’ as at least these clearly came from whatever the best PR firm Orwell’s 1984’s had to offer. Instead, we got “We can’t go on like this. I’ll cut the deficit, not the NHS.” How boring. How obvious. How minimally compelling. How fake.
As leader, Cameron would have endorsed these images. What was the logic? ‘Can we capture the fact that I am charming?’ he might have said. ‘But not too charming, just the charm of a PR man, but with an unsettling fake-ness that is enough for the public not to love me — even at the start of my premiership — and I have to enter a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Got it?’
Cameron had three great weaknesses as a politician. The first is this fakeness. The second was a blind spot for personal loyalty and the third is arrogance.
Personal loyalty is a good quality. Loyalty to your family, to your friends, to your colleagues, to the people you went to school with. However, Cameron’s time as prime minister was marked by him rewarding his friends beyond the point of competency.
Take the case of Jeremy Hunt. He and Cameron both went to Oxford at the same time. They were both members of the Bullingdon Club. Hunt was minister for Culture Media and Sport in Cameron’s first cabinet and soon faced serious allegations that he acted wrongly to allow Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation to take over BSkyB. Before the Leveson enquiry could clear him of ‘actual bias’ in November 2012, there was maximum pressure from Parliament for Hunt to resign and at one point it looked likely he just had to go. But Cameron promoted him to Health Secretary in September. Why did Cameron make this decision? He probably thought that Hunt was somewhat capable for they were somewhat similar characters. But at the point of Hunt’s lowest reputation, Cameron decided to reward him, indicating Cameron was happy to promote based on loyalty to the man, and not competency.
Andy Coulson did not go to Oxford. He grew up in a council house and started work as a journalist at 18. Cameron appointed Coulson as Director of Communications for the party in 2007 and for the Prime Minister in 2010. Four years later Coulson was in prison, convicted for conspiracy to hack phones. Cameron knew this was possible in 2009 when allegations against Coulson were mounting. Cameron commented at the time:
“It’s wrong for newspapers to breach people’s privacy with no justification. That is why Andy Coulson resigned as editor of the News of the World two and a half years ago. Of course, I knew about that resignation before offering him the job. But I believe in giving people a second chance.”
Here we see Cameron’s worldview. Something wrong happened (phone hacking) and merely by the perpetrator resigning from his job, it is enough for the scales of justice to be reset. If you are Cameron or a friend of Cameron it is acceptable that you can simultaneously acknowledge your guilt and also create your own fitting punishment. Then Cameron charitably hands Coulson one of the most influential jobs in the country — the soon to be Prime Minister’s spin doctor.
In his book, Cameron ruefully writes that he thought Coulson “a good guy, a nice guy” and
“It wasn’t only that I believed his assurances, it was that I very much wanted to believe them.”
Cameron wanted to believe him. In the real world, a normal member of the public in the dock or at a job interview can only dream of a judge or boss taking the same view on justice or employability. A huge slice of the benefit of the doubt because you’re a nice guy.
Why is this important? During the Cameron years, the theme of an elite running the country returned. Like in Andrew Neil’s thoughtful documentary in 2011, just after Cameron appointed his first cabinet, the negative consequences of a perceived or actual ‘old boys’ club running the country flowed through the collective British mind like a returning varicose vein, twisting our relationship with politicians.
But the point is that Cameron did not see this. Personal loyalty was a great blind spot. He didn’t see that promoting people when maybe they should actually resign or face the same consequences as everyone else for illegal behaviour would come across — and be — bad for the country. Cameron valued loyalty at the expense of many other things and as a result promoted people based on being good chaps, rather than what they did. This is not a meritocracy. It breeds mediocrity at best.
Finally, there is the arrogance. Our view on what is or isn’t arrogant may have changed recently what with Vladimir Putin invading Ukraine and getting away with it or Donald Trump boasting of sexual assault and getting away with it. David Cameron’s arrogance is different. It is the quiet arrogance that he was special and pre-destined to be great. And that as a result of this inevitability the ‘right’ decision or consequence would always be made or happen. Because he was special.
A lot of this comes from the language around his arrival to power. He was anointed ‘the heir to Blair.’ He was next in line — almost by birth — not just to be Prime Minister but to be successful and charismatic — even if by his actions this wasn’t true. And listen to the language when he speaks about the role of Prime Minister himself. He wanted to be Prime Minister in 2005 because:
“I think I’d be good at it”
And later resigning as Prime Minister pained him because:
“It’s the job I love”
There is little empathy here and a lot of assumption that he just should be Prime Minister. What he would do in government is at best secondary to some natural law that states he should just have the job.
This view was compounded in John Humphrys’ final interview on the Today programme this week where he interviewed Cameron. The former Prime Minister was finally pushed into giving a short one-line answer about what ‘Cameronism’ could be defined as. He said it was:
“The right thing for the economy and the best thing for society. That’s what it was all about.”
Yes, but, what is the right thing? What is the best thing? This is the question the people ask of their leaders and we expect a clear response so we can decide. Thatcher would say the right thing was to roll back the state and let the market organise and deliver services and there is no such thing as society. Fine. Corbyn would say society needs to be put back together again and the state should play an activist role in bringing political and economic power to the public. Fine. But with the PR man’s charm, Cameron says little. He allows you to paint him as you prefer, for he is a blank page — despite what his book says.
Most Prime Ministers are arrogant of course. You don’t get to the top of that tree without it. Perhaps this is linked to the theory that most Prime Ministers are, in the end, brought down by the thing they think they are best at. Eden — Foreign Affairs, Thatcher — Personality, Blair — Image, Brown — The Economy, and Cameron? Well, Cameron thought he couldn’t lose. Until finally, he lost profoundly.