An elusive leader, best when things are brokenby Philip Collins / November 12, 2015 / Leave a comment
It is both a strength and a weakness of a political personality that we cannot be quite sure who they are. A certain elusiveness means a politician can avoid being fixed and defined by events. Too little definition means a politician has nothing to draw on during the bad times. It is a difficult trick to pull and respect is therefore due to a man who has already been leader of the Conservative Party for a decade and Prime Minister for five years. It is also the conundrum that faces the biographer. What, in all the multitude of detail, is the telling fact? Where is the representative story? Who, in essence, is David Cameron?
There are now two blockbusters, one from the now established team of contemporary historians, Anthony Seldon and Peter Snowdon, and one from the intriguing combination of Michael Ashcroft, the Tory donor, Conservative peer, serial pollster and once would-be Tory minister, and the political journalist Isabel Oakeshott. I can testify to Cameron’s elusiveness. When he became Tory leader in 2005, I was part of Tony Blair’s team in Downing Street who had to work out how to deal with him. The Blair entourage and Gordon Brown’s entourage, not for the first time, differed. The Brown team were convinced that Cameron needed to be defined early on as an ideological Tory of the worst stamp. The Blair team thought that was wrong on two counts: first, that it was arrogant to suppose that a politician can be defined principally by his opponents and, second, that it was too low a bar.
If Labour declared Cameron’s modernisation project to be entirely fictitious, then every counter-intuitive political move would look like a victory. There was another, unspoken, problem which is that none of us quite knew who the real David Cameron was. He had come late to the process of modernisation within the Conservative Party and his conversion seemed somewhat reluctant. The compromise we reached was that Cameron would try, without much conviction, to shift the Conservative Party but that the party would drag him back to the right.
After Cameron’s speech to his party conference in October that analysis looks weaker than ever. He chose his biggest political address of the year to talk about a series of social problems: adoption, mental health, family breakdown. He took standing ovations from his party on issues that fall to the left rather than to the right. The speech was, strategically, an echo of George Osborne’s two days before. Politically, it was an indication that the Cameron Conservative Party was not about to leap back towards the right-wing comfort zone just because Labour had vacated winning territory and shifted to the left. Indeed, it was a strange week in Manchester because this was a Tory conference in which a hardline speech on crime, immigration and terrorism from a Conservative Home Secretary was a discordant note, rather than the central theme.
The question remains after Manchester, though, of whether this shift was more than a tactical manoeuvre designed to cement his party in power. Those around Cameron, who talked extensively to Seldon and Snowdon though rather less to Ashcroft and Oakeshott, insist that it is more than this. Here, they say, was the real David Cameron. Here, rather than in the internal blood feud of Europe or even the crucial question of fiscal conservatism, you find the Prime Minister’s irreducible core. There is passion lurking beneath that relaxed exterior and it could be called, if the phrase hadn’t already been mothballed, the big society.
We now have 10 years of leadership, five of which embraced the whole nation, to test that idea and here are two weighty treatments, more than 1,000 pages the pair, to help us come to a verdict. The Ashcroft and Oakeshott book is already notorious. Whatever judicious prose is to be found within its covers has already been overshadowed. The volume was an event before it was a book. Whether the trashing of its reputation was worth a day’s headlines about an incident with a pig’s head at a hedonistic university party (not that it is likely ever to have happened) is a matter for the authors. I asked Oakeshott this question on stage at the Cheltenham Literature Festival recently and sensed some buried regret. When you read the incident in the context of the book, though, it is completely incidental.
The real damage has been done at the start by Ashcroft. Ashcroft’s decision to write a preface, separated from the main body of the text and solely authored, is understandable. The book comes freighted with the knowledge that Ashcroft feels slighted by Cameron, most notably his belief that the Prime Minister reneged on a promise to make him a defence minister. It has been an open secret since then that, as Ashcroft puts it, their relationship was “somewhat strained.” Ashcroft maintains that his motivation in writing the book was not “to settle scores” but anyone who feels the need to write a preface making that clear is probably protesting too much.
There are many moments in this book when it doesn’t seem that it is really about David Cameron at all. For a biography that is some deficiency. That impression is enhanced by the fact that Ashcroft’s disavowal in his preface comes immediately after an unseemly parade of his own dissatisfaction. He promises to tell the full story in his autobiography, and I for one can wait. After that bombshell, Oakeshott has her work cut out to make sense of Cameron and there are passages where it seems she is not trying that hard. Both the scene and the tone are set in the opening chapter, entitled “Chipping Snorton,” which describes a New Year’s Eve party Cameron attended in Oxfordshire as “loud, boozy and perhaps not entirely free of class-A drugs.” The sources, like the pig observers, are all anonymous.
In Cheltenham, Oakeshott conceded that these were stories which would, at best, make diary items in a broadsheet newspaper. The unedifying speculation reaches fever pitch in a chapter about Cameron’s trip, as an 18-year-old in 1985, to the Crimea. Two men approached Cameron and his companion and asked them to dinner. Was this a failed attempt to recruit the future Prime Minister to the KGB? The fact that the source died two years ago does not prevent some more speculative guesswork. Once we get past the prurience and innuendo there is a buried thesis here. It is that Cameron is an empty vessel. He is good but not very good; reasonable but not driven. Though my reference is altogether too lofty for the prose style employed, Ashcroft and Oakeshott paint Cameron as Prufrock: “an attendant lord, one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two,” but no prince. In fact, they have assembled enough lurid stories to leave the impression that, like Prufrock again, Cameron is “at times, indeed, almost ridiculous— / Almost, at times, the Fool.”
The picture is impressionistic and the swirling details, deliberately, do not penetrate the surface. The method is the message: Cameron is a wide boy but not deep. He wants nothing other than the title and he carries it all off as moderately well as an attendant lord can. It is probable that, in the search for the core of David Cameron, the Oakeshott to consult might be the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott rather than Isabel.
Cameron is a man with dispositions and inclinations of temperament rather than fixed beliefs. He is not a man on a mission but a man who sees a society that might be better. He no more comes armed with a theory than the plumber uses a theory of the bathroom to inspect the broken tap. Cameron is at his best when things are broken and he can set about fixing them. This is why his early slogans pretended something he has never really believed—that Britain is broken. Broken politics, economy and society. This is to place Cameron very much within a conservative philosophical tradition, and the question as to quite where in that tradition is one that preoccupies Seldon and Snowdon.
Cameron at 10, unlike Call Me Dave, reads like the work of a single author. Seldon and Snowdon could be a single person called, say, Seldon, or perhaps Snowdon. They see Cameron not as a latter-day Harold Macmillan, the patrician ruler to whom he is most often compared, but Stanley Baldwin, especially in his days as second-in-charge in the coalition led by Ramsay MacDonald between 1931 and 1935. There is something in this but perhaps not enough to survive as a settled verdict. After all, Baldwin had a decade before he lost an election by placing the Tory party on the side of national protection and against free trade. Baldwin really was a manager and he really was someone who, in a more relaxed age, knew how to take it easy.
Seldon and Snowdon’s extraordinarily detailed account of just how much the Prime Minister has to do lays to rest the nonsense that Cameron is lazy. He doesn’t come across as a modern Baldwin. He does, however, emerge from their portrait as one who answers the famous description in “If” by Baldwin’s cousin Rudyard Kipling.
The trade of politics swings from triumph to disaster in quick succession and Cameron seems to treat those two impostors just the same. Seldon’s previous volume Brown At 10 was a portrait of a man teetering on the edge. By comparison, Cameron copes admirably. In fact, a far more recent comparison suggests itself, one that Seldon himself has seeded. This book is the latest in a series, beginning with Blair, in which Seldon and various co-writers have sought to depict the premiership in exhaustive detail. Taken as a box set, the Brown book reads like a madcap escapade between the two serious practitioners, Blair and Cameron. The parallel extends into policy too. In health, education and welfare, the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition and now the Conservative government extended reforms that were begun in the later Blair years.
Seldon’s first Blair book took the conventional view that Blair was good at first and went bad. His second, more complete, book took the opposite and, in my view correct, view that Blair didn’t know who he was at first but gradually found a governing philosophy in office. With due allowance for their differences, Cameron has carried much of this on and the continuity between the two volumes is clear. The difference may be in the degree of ostentation displayed by the two principals. Blair carried his mission on his sleeve. Cameron is much more sotto voce.
Seldon and Snowdon do not make Ashcroft and Oakeshott’s mistake of disallowing achievements that come from other members of the government. On this their judgement is sound. Cameron has been a permissive rather than a demanding premier. He may not be across the detail of the free schools revolution but Michael Gove knew he had the political cover to push the policy through. Blair was all over the policy, driving it on. Cameron let it happen.
The point remains, though, that he could have stopped it and chose not to. The authors of Cameron at 10 give him the credit for that licence, as indeed they should. The limitations of their book are the limitations of the form. They make a good case that Cameron may leave office with a surprisingly substantial legacy. But we cannot really know because the question of Europe threatens everything. If Cameron loses the EU referendum then it will dominate his legacy as much as Iraq dominates Tony Blair’s. This is the problem with writing history while it is still unfolding. All events change in the light of their consequences and it is impossible to come to any verdict yet on the pivotal event in Cameron’s time as prime minister. He could yet turn out to be the man who saved the union and kept Britain in the EU. He could be the man who took Britain out of Europe by accident and thereby fatally wounded the union. And all points in between: we just don’t know yet.
One of the virtues of historical writing, the benefit of hindsight, is not available to the contemporary historian. Seldon and Snowdon fill the gap with detail, of which they have an abundance, perhaps too much. It must be axiomatic that any first draft of history that cites me as an authority requires a second draft. Certainly, if you want to know what was in the washing machine while Cameron and George Osborne were discussing policy, Seldon and Snowdon are your men. Not all of this will survive the process of historical recollection, which will be a slow winnowing out until the important events survive.
The comprehensive coverage of Cameron at 10 means that this will be the source from which that winnowing proceeds. That is why, in the end, the Seldon and Snowdon book is the superior volume. It is not just the way it is written but the purpose. Seldon and Snowdon are only concerned with Cameron as prime minister. They write sensitively and unobtrusively about the sad death of Cameron’s son Ivan and his wife and children are regular characters in the story, but all only in as much as they elucidate the way Cameron does his job. In a way, the public focus of the book makes for a more rounded picture of the private man. Seldon and Snowdon have written a book which adds to our knowledge.
As a more conventional biography, Ashcroft and Oakeshott are competing more with Francis Elliot and James Hanning’s excellent 2007 book Practically A Conservative. They unearth plenty of new information but the reader does not trust much of it and their judgements seem irredeemably compromised by Ashcroft’s preface.
Practically A Conservative remains the right verdict, and it is the one that Seldon and Snowdon come to. It is true in both senses. Cameron is a practical rather than a theoretical man. He is also prepared to shift his party along if he believes he needs to. Seldon and Snowdon do not spare Cameron on his blind spots, especially on foreign policy, but they clearly admire the Prime Minister and regard him as a worthy occupant of the office. The big question will now be set. We shall soon find out if they are right.