An elusive leader, best when things are brokenby Philip Collins / November 12, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.