Some years ago, I listened to speeches by contenders for leadership of the Conservative Party. One was David Cameron and the other was David Davis. Both myself and my ex listened carefully. Independently we came to the conclusion that David Davis was the better of the two, because he seemed to have clear ideas as to what he wanted to achieve. He seemed to have what Dr Samuel Johnson would have described as “a bottom of good sense”. By contrast, Cameron struck both of us as not having any principled base from which to work. He kept saying (I paraphrase) that we needed to throw all the possibilities into the pot and debate what should be Conservative policy. It seemed almost as if he was a blank sheet of paper. But his piece of paper was smooth and somehow plausible and, in the event, the party chose Cameron and his blank sheet of paper.
Since he won the leadership of the Conservative Party, David Cameron has united the Conservatives; brought the party from a pitifully low number of MPs in Westminster to a slender majority; fought two General Elections and is now serving his second term as Prime Minister. On the face of it, The Boy Has Done Well.
And yet…. And yet somehow…. Somehow things have suddenly gone pear-shaped for someone who has been described as a remarkably lucky Prime Minister. After Ian Duncan Smith’s ‘Quiet Man’ resignation on Friday 18th, this Sunday’s press report that the Conservatives are not just split, but almost in a state of civil war. And this is despite being in power against the weakest and most ineffectual leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition for well over a century. This is at a time when the Conservatives really should be consolidating their power. So what is going wrong?
The only way to answer this question is to look as carefully as we can, at the character of the man himself.
This is what we know:
With the exception of three years working in Public Relations, David Cameron has progressed almost effortlessly from Eton to Oxford University and then gone straight into politics via a First in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. As far as I can tell, he has never run his own business or worked with ordinary people of any description. He has never made or produced anything that anyone else has ever wanted to buy. Apart from the assembly of the odd piece of IKEA furniture (with a little help from Nick Clegg) he is not recorded as having ever worked with his hands. We do not know if he is even capable of wiring a three-pin plug. Presumably, his only real contact with the public will be via his MP surgeries. As he has been Prime Minister for as long as he has, these will not have been many. His many family holidays in Cornwall may actually bring him in contact with the odd waitress or bar staff, but mostly he will surrounded by the filtering fence of security. Socially, he is alleged to prefer to move amongst the rich and powerful of the Cotswold élite. His working day is spent mostly amongst his own inner circle who also happen to be dominated by Etonians. In accordance with his PR training, his policies are presented in well-crafted soundbites. Prime Minister’s Questions are stage managed, invariably successfully, against a wooden and unimaginative opponent.
This background provides opponents on the Left with ample fuel for their screeching, name-calling politics of envy.
But it really does not matter
The Anglo Saxon peasant traditionally bothered very little about what his Norman feudal overlord thought about him and his family. What mattered most was that said feudal overlord provided security, justice and competence. Above everything else, the lord of the manor had to be competent.
It is said that governments do not win elections, but that they lose them. Actually, this is not the whole story. Both governments and oppositions can lose elections. This is what happened in the 2015 General Election when Labour, led by Ed Miliband, were seen as weak and incompetent. So more people voted for the Tories because they were doing a decent job of holding the country together. The most vital difference is that between the competent and the incompetent. The electorate, like their Anglo Saxon forebears, will punish incompetence. And they will do it, not from the top down, but from below.
So, I maintain, David Cameron will continue to be Prime Minister for as long as he is perceived to be competent. The moment the image changes from ‘competent’ to ‘incompetent’ then he will lose. The Conservative Party is well aware of this principle. That is why they are capable of regicide with such ruthless efficiency. The honourable leader steps down the moment they are weakened by events. The more stubborn are knifed.
So David Cameron’s background, education and adult c.v. matters little in the eyes of the electorate. What matters is how he manages the situation from now until referendum day. And that will depend upon his political character.
At least in part, David Cameron’s political agenda has been shaped by the events of his own life. The devotion and commitment that the Camerons gave to their son Ivan was total and very obviously real. James Kirkup assesses Cameron’s conviction in politics to be social reform, and that balancing the budget and the EU are boring for him. Samantha Cameron has undoubtedly been a hidden but important influence on much of what Cameron has done in government. Legislation for gay marriage probably made very little difference in terms of the numbers of people who wanted it, but is an indicator of Cameron’s ideals. Other small things in Cameron’s first term suggested at the time that the Liberal Democrats were influential in achieving social reform; but government since 2015 has suggested that there was very little influence needed by the Lib Dems – Cameron was already there and doing it.
A large part of the driving force behind the Conservative social reform agenda has been driven by Ian Duncan Smith, who as party leader from 2001 to 2003, instigated much of the reforms to Conservative thinking that have led to the One Nation Conservatives that Cameron has attempted to move into political thinking. However, IDS is also a passionate Eurosceptic, and in part that not only led to his own downfall as leader, but also to Cameron’s impatience with “….banging on about Europe.”
So, far from being an entirely blank sheet of paper upon which ministers could write their own aspirations, David Cameron probably does have real reforming passion underneath his otherwise Patrician Tory exterior.
But then there is everything else:
From the very beginning of his career, David Cameron has been acutely aware of the Euroscepticism within his own party. This little quote from his PPC submission to the Witney Conservative Association demonstrates that:
Note that he has not suggested we should go as far as Brexit, only that we should reclaim powers and/or prevent further loss of sovereignty. His words leave plenty of wriggle-room for manoeuvre when negotiating with reality of politics. Nevertheless, this statement gives the impression of considered Euroscepticism.
As leader of the Conservatives in 2007, he made his now infamous “Cast iron guarantee” to give the public a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, which created the post of EU President and removed UK vetoes on a wide range of issues. The Treaty was a massive power grab by Brussels. Even so, by November 2009, David Cameron had changed his mind and used the excuse that Lisbon was not a Treaty, but was now part of European law. The more secure his own position as leader and the closer he got to actual power, the more overtly Europhile he became.
In January 2013, Cameron made his Bloomberg speech in which he set out his vision of what he wanted to achieve in reforming the EU – prior to a referendum in which the choice would be a simple “In” or “Out” vote. He set his timetable for the referendum being before the end of 2017. The reasons for his apparent change of heart were the continual pressure from Nigel Farage, and others in his own party, who persisted in reminding him of his “cast iron guarantee”.
Meanwhile Europe was beginning to wake up to the influx of refugees and economic migrants who were arriving on Greek Islands from Turkey. Over the course of the summer and autumn of 2015, it was becoming clearer by the day that the migrant problem would get worse, exacerbated by Angela Merkel’s open invitation to Germany for most of North Africa and the Middle East. The Schengen agreement allowed vast numbers of people unimpeded travel across Europe with no checks. With them came between 3000 and 5000 Islamic terrorists. It was clear that the migrant problem would get worse; and that untrammelled immigration was a big fear factor whenever the subject of Brexit came up. Cameron decided to hold the EU Referendum on 23rd June 2016 – a good deal earlier than anticipated. This was a calculated gamble: that the worst of the next influx of migrants will happen after this, in late summer 2016 – as suggested by this UNHCR graph. The numbers so far this year suggest that the 1.8 million that arrived in 2015 will be exceeded.
At the same time, Cameron has shown a surprising, but consistent, willingness to encourage Turkey’s accession into the EU – in both 2010 and 2014. This is despite the certain knowledge that Turkey has a population of 70+ million and that it is engaging in a very nasty war with the Kurds. Turkey may actually be aiding and abetting ISIS in what could be an ambition to re-establish the Ottoman Empire. Turkish accession to the EU could be construed as a further expression of this ambition. Turkish accession means that Turks would be given EU passports, with all the implications for further immigration into the EU and the UK.
This is what Cameron has said and done, but what are the implications for his character?
The Choices – There are three possibilities to explain David Cameron’s behaviour over the EU referendum:
- That he is an out-and-out Europhile, has never been anything else and that he has nevertheless hidden his admiration for the EU behind an assumed Eurosceptic façade in order to get himself elected and promoted within his party to the position he now occupies. Having reached that position and having thoroughly enjoyed himself, he is now doing whatever he thinks is necessary to continue that position.
- That he started off as a genuine Eurosceptic, but has since been dazzled by the trappings of power and the political bling that it brings. And also that he has had a Damascene conversion to the cause of the EU.
- That he has a cunning plan: to look as if he is going through the motions of giving the EU a respectable chance of redeeming themselves by genuine reform. In this, he would have to be taking on the persona of an army signals officer who is caught far behind enemy lines, and who has the moral and physical strength of character to call down artillery fire upon himself.
To examine which of these three categories Cameron actually falls into we need to categorise his recent behaviour:
Controlling the Narrative – To be absolutely fair to David Cameron, he has allowed the referendum to proceed with a fair question to be answered in the ballot box. But he is said to express impatience with members of the Tory party who “bang on about Europe”. Indeed, he is also said to find the subject of the EU rather boring. Despite this, he has sought to control events and headlines at every stage of the story so far. For example, the timing of the referendum, as noted above, is an attempt to ensure that mass migration events are less likely to happen in the run up to the the 23rd June. There has been the moratorium on Eurosceptic cabinet ministers speaking in favour of their cause, until the last possible moment allowed by the rules. There has been massive Tory overspending on by-elections and also target seats in the General Election – as exposed by Michael Crick on Channel 4. The day of the Brussels bombing, he refused to make any connection with the bombings and the insecurity of EU borders. This all suggests that he attempts to shut down any debate about any events that contradict the pro-EU message.
Contempt for party members and voters – Since he has been leader of the Conservative Party, membership has halved to about 100,000. Those members who have not cancelled their direct debits are dying off, as the average age seems to be about 70. This has catastrophic consequences for the ability of the party to fight an election of any kind, as it is the members who are the ones who volunteer and go around banging on doors and leafleting. The problem stems partly from the imposition of preferred candidates by Central Office who tend to be young ambitious bag-carriers. There is also the problem of gender quotas which immediately constrains a local association in its attempts to find the best candidate for the job.
In a recent PMQs Douglas Carswell asked a perfectly sensible question and was crushed and derided by the Prime Minister by way of reply. He had no need to do this, but it gave us a glimpse of the contemptuous savagery that Cameron can display towards those he considers have betrayed him. This same attitude resulted in Douglas Carswell having to fight illegal massive overspending by the Conservatives, not only his by-election after having crossed the floor to UKIP, but again at the General Election. This overspending in itself portrays a level of unscrupulousness at the heart of the Conservative Party. It also suggests a contempt for the electorate and the electoral process, that they think they can get away with it. There is no evidence, yet, that David Cameron authorised this, but it is clear that the over-expenditure was authorised at the highest levels.
Personal ruthlessness –
When various MPs and Cabinet Ministers have either defected or taken a principled stand by resigning, Cameron’s response is said to be explosive. The recent ‘beasting’ of Boris in the House of Commons was an unforced display of personal animosity. Cameron is known to have been incandescent about Ian Duncan Smith’s resignation. Whilst both protagonists have been polite about each other in public, it is absolutely apparent that knives are being sharpened.
Cameron’s display at PMQs towards both Ed Miliband has been instructive in terms of the way in which he is prepared to get really personal in highlighting his opponent’s weaknesses. In the case of Miliband, it may have been justifiable in that Labour presented a real threat to the Conservatives. But Corbyn is hopelessly weak and there must be more humane ways of putting down the terminally hopeless. But surely, there must be a way of neutralising Corbyn without looking like a jeering teenage schoolyard bully.
Two events – the overspending at elections and the budget prompted resignation of IDS – have produced two potential fall guys. The first is the party chairman, Andrew Feldman; the second is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. It is easily possible that these will be asked to fall upon their own swords if the events which they oversaw get further out of hand. This is a kind of sacrificial firebreak strategy in order to contain the damage away from Cameron himself. If it is necessary to protect Cameron, Feldman and Osborne will have to go.
Failure of Strategic Thinking – There are several topics which fall into this category, all of which are worth a separate blog on their own:
- Defence procurement
- Defence and foreign policy (e.g. Libya)
- Transport infrastructure
- Tax simplification
In all of these there has been a lack of medium and long term thinking. The corollary of this is that there has been an obsession with short term soundbites which are made solely to maintain the grip on power. This was a particular feature of Tony Blair’s government and one which Cameron has copied assiduously.
This superficial and short term response to deep seated problems provides a caricature of that politics is just a game for overgrown schoolboys from a particular class. It does not provide solutions to the long term challenges which will face us in the next one, two or three decades to come.
Conclusions – From The Choices above, it is fairly clear that there is no Eurosceptic cunning plan. Cameron does appear to have the qualities needed to draw fire upon himself for the good of the country. We can therefore reject the third possibility.
He is an intelligent man and surely, cannot have been so naive as to to be drawn into the beguiling mesh of the EU political bling – endless summits, limousines, guards of honour and so on – from a position of mild Euroscepticism. There is nothing to suggest that he has experienced anything like an epiphany when faced for the first time with the wonders of the European Union.
This leaves the only remaining option – that he is profoundly ambitious and seeks power for the sake of his own career and self indulgence. That he is competent at a certain level is undoubted, but beyond a certain point that competence breaks down because of his failings.
Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, David Cameron does not appear to have the qualities needed to negotiate out continued relationship with the EU in whatever form that relationship takes.