The recent upsurge in political outsider parties and individuals—Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the United States and Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain—is commonly understood to be the result of a creeping ‘anti-politics’ sentiment gripping western electorates.
All the more remarkable it is then that David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party and doyen of the British establishment, thundered home so convincingly in May’s General Election.
We live in anti-establishment times yet Cameron is as much a part of the British establishment as it is possible to be. A descendent of King William IV, an old Etonian and a former patron of the exclusive but unofficial students’ Bullingdon dining club at Oxford University, Cameron got his first job at the Conservative Research Department. He got the position because Lord Lexden, who at the time worked there as Deputy Director, received an anonymous telephone call from Buckingham Palace tipping him off about “an outstanding young man.”
In their new book, Cameron at 10: The Inside Story of 2010-2015, the historians Anthony Seldon and Peter Snowdon portray Cameron as anything but outstanding. Instead he comes across as a decent yet ordinary chap who during times of crisis falls back on a congenital sense of self-belief peculiar to those of his privileged background.
Sadly for the authors the book has been nudged from the headlines by a more scandalous biography written by Conservative Party donor Lord Ashcroft and the journalist Isabel Oakeshott. Unlike Seldon and Snowdon’s measured and thoughtful tome, the Ashcoft/Oakeshott account makes a number of extraordinary claims, including that the Prime Minister inserted his penis into the mouth of a dead pig. One suspects, however, that at least some of the revelations in the Ashcroft/Oakeshott book are motivated by spite—Ashcroft was reportedly upset at not being given a job in government by Cameron and has as a consequence ‘squealed’.
Undoubtedly a capable individual—he would hardly have got this far were he a fool—Cameron’s public image as a safe pair of hands is largely the product of an extraordinary self-confidence derived from his traditional upper class upbringing. Behind the facade Cameron is, as the authors point out, a “short-term, reactive” Prime Minister who failed to win an easy election against the hapless Gordon Brown and who opened the pandora’s box of Scottish nationalism by unnecessarily offering the Scottish National Party an independence referendum.
Indeed, for all the Prime Minister’s breeding, Cameron at 10 establishes a sense of Cameron’s intellectual ordinariness. The following paragraphs are fairly typical of the book:
“He [Cameron] believed in a Conservative attachment to family, personal responsibility and patriotism. But it did not translate into an all-encompassing vision in the Thatcherite sense.”
“As Prime Minister, he travelled lightly, guided by his own convictions, largely unaffected by voices from history or academe.”
“Reports that Obama thought Cameron a ‘lightweight’ at their encounter in July 2008, which Obama’s team denied, had caused embarrassment.”
As so often with those who are born into obscene wealth, one suspects that Cameron is a more attractive figure precisely because of his moneyed upbringing; with Cameron there is none of the grasping avariciousness which came to characterize previous occupant of Number 10, Tony Blair. Cameron’s Chancellor George Osborne is the more ideologically driven of the double act. Osborne is of a distinctively liberal bent (free markets and free love) whereas Cameron’s Toryism is of the common sense one-nation variety. This is not to say that Cameron lacks any principle—mid-way through the previous parliament Cameron embroiled himself in unnecessary rows with his party over gay marriage and Britain’s foreign aid budget—rather that Cameron lacks the sense of divine mission possessed by those politicians encumbered with a rigid ‘worldview’.
Cameron is a Tory sentimentalist rather than an ideologue, and it is this sentimentalism which exasperates the right-wing ideologues in his own party and the ‘realists’ in the military establishment. The former resent the fact that Cameron would rather build a Coalition with the Liberal Democrats than form a minority government with them; the Generals want a more hard-headed foreign policy and less hand-wringing humanitarianism. Ex-chief of the defense staff Sir Dave Richards characteristically dismisses Cameron’s interventionist instincts in Libya and Syria as part of the “Notting Hill liberal agenda”. Meanwhile John Sawers of MI6 tells Cameron his plan to bomb Libya is not in the “national interest” but is being proposed purely for “humanitarian reasons”. Lacking any religious text or secular dogma to fall back on, Cameron can only feebly reply that “It is important we do these things.”
One of the toughest periods in government for the Coalition came during the Commons vote over military action against Bashar al Assad in Syria in August 2013, a vote the government subsequently lost. However it is the Labour leader Ed Miliband in the book who comes out of the vote reeking of cynicism. Cameron botches the Commons vote for military action against Syrian President Assad but it is Miliband who plays a political game with the corpses of dead Syrian children, blocking airstrikes for political expediency. Despite clear evidence that Assad was responsible for chemical weapons attacks in the Ghouta Area of Damascus, with one eye on the opinion polls Miliband votes down a parliamentary motion for retaliatory airstrikes. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is furious. “I could tell Ed Miliband was thinking this’ll be a good way of absolving his party of Iraq and embarrassing the Liberal Democrats,” the Deputy Prime Minister rages.
There is at times a sense of purposeless about Cameron on the world stage, but his belly to earth conservatism means his assessment of fellow world leaders is unusually sharp. Ukraine’s former President Viktor Yanukovych is “a crook, a deeply unimpressive villain.” Nicolas Sarkozy meanwhile is an egomaniac. Cameron soon grasps that he cannot rely on either the robot-like Barack Obama or the Europhile Angela Merkel. His team view Obama as too emotionless, rational and considered. In the Foreign Office the President is nicknamed Spock after the ultra-logical character from Star Trek.
Cameron’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin is initially cordial but sours over the annexation of Crimea by Russian-backed forces in early 2014. During the initial stages of the crisis, Cameron telephones Putin to inform him that “Your relationship with us will face increasing difficulties unless you stop the aggression.” Putin replies, “This is my backyard. The West has repeatedly humiliated me, over Libya, over Syria, etc., for the last 10 years.” The previous year at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg, Cameron and Putin reportedly find themselves embroiled in a 2 A.M ‘bickerfest’ about gay rights, with both leaders wanting to get the last word in.
It is remarkable in hindsight how stable the Conservative-led Coalition Government proved to be. 2010-2015 was, as the authors rightly note, “one of the most volatile and uncertain periods in British history”. Not only did the Coalition hold out for the duration, but it triumphed in a referendum on Scottish independence, embarked on a massive public service reform program (NHS reforms were so big ‘they could be seen from space’ according to a member of the government) and reduced public spending as a proportion of GDP by as much in five years as Margaret Thatcher managed in eleven.
There were ample opportunities for disaster. Yet the perpetual sense of crisis seemed to suit Cameron the journeyman—a politician who is rarely outstanding but who remains for the most part unflappable.
Cameron at 10 is a fascinating book, but it is also a somewhat starry-eyed account which looks at events during the days of the Coalition Government through an establishment lens. Thus Cameron’s ‘success’ in reducing public spending ignores the millions of people on the receiving end of ferocious cuts to welfare and public services. Emergency food banks are only mentioned on a single page of the 500 pages, despite there being a million requests for emergency food aid in the last year of the Coalition Government.
Part of the reason David Cameron’s star has shone brighter than it ought to have done in recent years is the poor quality parliamentary opposition he has faced since being elected Conservative Party leader in 2005. When Ed Miliband became leader of the Labour Party in 2010, triumphing over his more impressive brother David, Cameron’s team are said to have been sitting around a television set in 10 Downing Street ‘fizzing with excitement’. When Cameron refuses to take part in a head-to-head television debate with Miliband in the lead up to this year’s General Election, it is according to a member of Cameron’s staff because “anything better than Miliband defecating on the stage will be a plus for Labour”.
Knowing this, one would have liked to have been a fly on the wall in Downing Street when curmudgeonly left-winger Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party.
Yet even the most doctrinaire leftist will at some point in the book find himself warming to a man who has just pushed through the toughest deficit reduction plan ever enacted in peacetime Britain. Cameron’s instincts are those of his class, and thus it is harder to despise him in a way that one might rankle at a politician such as Margaret Thatcher, a grocer’s daughter who in carrying the torch for the Conservative Party is felt to be besmirching her own class and traditions.
As to how history might remember Cameron, it probably won’t—at least not in the sense that it remembers transformative Prime Ministers like Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher. But the PM ought perhaps to consider this a blessing—had he risen to power in a more epoch-changing period his limitations would, as with his Coalition’s NHS reforms, likely have been visible from space. Fortunately for Cameron, at a time when the populists are bloviating at 1000 decibels the presence in Number 10 of an ordinary chap with both oars in the water looks rather agreeable.