Cameron Should Scrap His Tired Old Script

The Prime Minister acts like a figure from the era of Clinton and Blair. Their style of politics is dead and he needs a new one

Features UK Politics
Slam dunk footage: David Cameron told Tory MPs that images of him watching basketball with Barack Obama were more important than press criticism of the government — but few British voters were impressed (Credit: Getty)

In 1992, Governor Bill Clinton agreed to allow a leading documentary-maker inside his campaign as the Democratic primary season got under way. A pioneer of direct cinema, or cinéma vérité, D. A. Pennebaker had been part of the team that made Primary, the classic 1960 account of John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey’s battle in the Wisconsin Democratic primary.

But his most important subsequent films were about rock stars such as David Bowie. In Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars Pennebaker captured the singer killing off his famed persona live on stage in order to facilitate another reinvention. An earlier film was Don’t Look Back, the quintessential 1960s chronicle which recorded Bob Dylan on tour in Britain at the height of his powers.

How appropriate that more than 30 years later, when the 1960s generation made its first proper run at the US presidency, it should be Pennebaker who was there to record the Governor of Arkansas retaking the White House for the Democrats. There was a symmetry to it. Clinton was young enough to have shaken Kennedy’s hand as a teenager, dodged the Vietnam draft, smoked pot (although not inhaled) and appreciated Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde album.

The resulting Pennebaker documentary on Clinton’s election, The War Room, filmed 20 years ago and released in 1993 after the inauguration, has proved to be an immensely influential piece of work with a questionable legacy. It may have been seen by only a small audience, but it set the tone for two decades of political combat on both sides of the Atlantic. On its release The War Room was devoured by communications specialists and junior spin-doctors looking for tips on how to manipulate a message and manage the media.

The Clinton campaign team was too smart to allow much access to the candidate himself. In the film Clinton was presented as a rock star, appearing in close-up only a few times to create the illusion of intimacy. Instead, the cameras focused mainly on charismatic strategist James Carville, the so-called “ragin’ Cajun”, and communications director George Stephanopoulos as they battled with journalists and fired up their young workers at campaign headquarters. The effect on screen was postmodern. The campaign was inverted, with Clinton in the background and the spinning of his hard-nosed operatives pushed to the fore.

The Carville and Stephanopoulos analysis was that the Democrats had recently been far too weak and ill-disciplined to win. If they wanted to beat the conservative machine and the power of the media they would have to run a different kind of campaign. Out would go what they thought of as self-indulgence and in would come all-controlling “message-discipline”, rapid rebuttal, constant use of focus groups and polling, relentless incantation of an opponent’s weaknesses and concentration on the concerns of middle-ground voters. The now over-used phrase “it’s the economy stupid”, to remind Clinton’s staffers of its potency as a weapon against George Bush, was Carville’s mantra. Despite their candidate’s notable weaknesses, in the shape of his famous “bimbo eruptions”, it worked.   

There was marketing, bullying and chicanery long before The War Room, but the Clinton campaign refracted and glamorised those activities to such an extent that they became standard electoral technique. What British political professionals often call the “Blair playbook” is actually the Clinton manual, written by Carville and Stephanopoulos. A hungry New Labour learnt the script from the Clinton campaign and the Cameroons, who so admired Tony Blair, were keen to follow his lead. The problem with chasing fickle fashion is that it is easy to go out of style.

According to the Blair blueprint, a good-looking young leader and a “time for a change” mantra would deliver Tory victory in 2010. But it didn’t. What went wrong? Without realising it the Cameroon Conservatives were using a script that was already going out of date. In the crisis of 2008 finance and the banks went bankrupt. Now it is politics — or the post-1992 approach — that has gone bust.

This is not just a Conservative problem. All the large mainstream British parties are in trouble and do not know how to respond to deep unpopularity, public resentment and the erosion of traditional boundaries. The Conservative response seems to consist mainly of pointing out that Labour leader Ed Miliband and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg are more unpopular than David Cameron.

This seems to be more than just a blip. Those in the Westminster village who say that the British have long mistrusted their leaders are underestimating the scale of alienation and potential for further fragmentation in a system that is so widely mistrusted. Turnout at the last general election was only 65.1 per cent; until 2001, turnouts were above 70 per cent. Britons have long moaned that voting changes nothing, but a greater number believe it true enough to not bother taking part than did even 20 years ago.

British voters’ scepticism has deepened into outright cynicism about the motives and credentials of those who seek to lead. This is reflected in the marked rise of other parties, meaning a hunger for alternatives. In the Bradford West by-election, that old-stager and playboy socialist George Galloway pulled off an extraordinary victory over Labour that not a single member of the political class saw coming. Journalists, this one included, did no better, seeing it purely in narrow Westminster terms of whether or not Ed Miliband could increase the Labour majority in the constituency after the Chancellor’s rather botched Budget. In the event Galloway won by more than 10,000 votes.

That opens up the worrying possibility of more ethnic identity politics and contests in which a party such as Galloway’s hard-left Respect vehicle might be able to marshall an Islamic block vote.

In Scotland, it is the separatist Scottish National Party that is riding high, with Labour in trouble and the Lib Dems on the verge of wipe-out. The Conservatives still have only one MP north of the border and they have made little impact in the devolved parliament in Edinburgh either. A significant element of First Minister Alex Salmond’s appeal is that he defines himself in opposition to Westminster and the old party structure. It may not be enough to secure him full Scottish independence, but all the parties other than the Conservatives are starting to push for even more devolution of the kind that has weakened the bonds of the UK.

Then there is UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party, feasting on Tory discontent over the compromises the prime minister has made with his pro-EU Liberal Democrat coalition partners. It is regularly hitting 7 per cent in polls and in one survey scored as high as 11 per cent.

The mood is fractious and that is before the vast bulk of the government’s cuts designed to get the deficit under control are introduced. Ministers admit that soon the government will have to come back for another round of spending reductions, which will only further fuel resentment.

It is not just in Britain that the mainstream parties are being challenged. On the far-left in France’s presidential election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Left Front demanded the confiscation of earnings above £300,000 and railed powerfully against international finance, while Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front denounced globalisation.

In Germany, the Pirate Party has started rising in the polls, to the astonishment of its founders, who have not had time to organise even the most basic party structures. Disaffected young voters seem to find the ramshackle platform of free file-sharing and open access to all internet content attractive.

After the financial crisis and the ongoing eurozone emergency, with youth unemployment shockingly high and such uncertainty about the prospects of the West, there is a palpable mistrust of alleged experts in general — economists, journalists, etc — and politicians in particular.

In Britain, this remoteness from the public and widespread resentment is not what the early adherents of the war room and the “permanent campaign” envisaged. Greater responsiveness to public mood would surely please the public? The use of polling and research between elections as well as during campaigns was supposed to make candidates and parties much more in touch with the desires and impulses of voters, particularly those floating in the middle ground.

But steadily it came to have the opposite effect because it looked so obviously inauthentic and calculating. Before the Iraq War when Tony Blair really did discover his irreducible core — muscular liberal interventionism — he was either not believed by significant numbers of Britons or suspected of having questionable motives. They could see the wiring and diagnosed fakery.

The parties have only just begun to grapple with the consequences of these developments. But it is worth reminding ourselves why they got themselves so hooked on imagery and attempts at media manipulation in the first place. Watching The War Room again it is not hard to see why Clinton had such a dramatic impact on Labour in the 1990s. Here was a training film for progressives, frustrated by the seemingly endless dominance of their conservative opponents. In Britain, among the Labour über-modernisers who were deeply depressed by yet another general election defeat in 1992, the effect of the Clinton victory and the ruthless way it had been secured was electrifying.

Labour had made earlier doomed attempts at improving its marketing, under Neil Kinnock’s communications chief Peter Mandelson. But those efforts looked juvenile when compared to the glamorous game of hard-ball played by Clinton’s campaign professionals. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown visited Washington in 1993 and were given a warm welcome by a new administration which was keen to tutor potential allies. John Major’s Conservatives had aided the Republicans in the 1992 election and Clinton would not forget it.

Awe-struck Blair and Brown concluded that Labour needed to do what Clinton, Carville and Stephanopoulos had done. But back in London, the Labour leader John Smith was unreceptive and sceptical. Smith was an old-fashioned leader, who thought that it was best to start by applying your principles and beliefs to the problems of the day. Then, in as unflashy a way as possible, you should make the case and hope that sufficient numbers of Britons would vote for your programme and party.

The modernisers thought that this had been precisely the problem in the 1992 general election, when Smith’s tax-raising shadow Budget cost Labour so many votes. Far better, surely, to work out what voters wanted to hear and to let them hear it. Principle was not being dumped entirely, they said, it was just being updated with historic weaknesses ironed out and potential negatives abandoned. Later, this would cause many problems when the party tried to say one thing on tax but do another.

When Smith died suddenly in 1994, Blair and Brown had their chance and set about implementing what they had learnt in Washington. The tough tabloid hack Alastair Campbell was hired as communications chief. The late Philip Gould, the pollster who had done so much to help Kinnock, became even more of a crutch for Blair. For the 1997 election Labour built a state-of-the-art campaign headquarters in Millbank Tower in Westminster and called it (surprise, surprise) the War Room, consciously invoking the spirit of Clinton’s election and subsequent re-election in 1996.

The conduct of campaigns was transformed but, even more importantly, the way in which modern leaders thought about politics was altered, for the worse. In the Clinton campaign we saw the early efforts at what later became known as “triangulation”, the process by which a leader attempts to transcend left/right terminology and sit above ideology or even ideas. The high-spending, high-taxing Left’s weaknesses on the economy could be neutralised by the execution of an outflanking manoeuvre. To this end, New Labour borrowed the economic rhetoric of its opponents claiming that it would be more prudent than the Conservatives. Once in power, and wanting to increase spending on public services, it found that it had to increase taxes by stealth to pay for it. When spending really took off, and Labour was unwilling to be honest about the true scale of tax rises required to cover the bill, deficits were expanded at the top of an unsustainable credit-driven boom.

Thus the gap between rhetoric and reality was widened to the point that the very bond of trust that “prudent” New Labour had been founded to reestablish with the electorate was eventually destroyed.

But that took a very long time to happen. Partly, this was due to the virtual nervous breakdown that the Conservative family decided to have in the interim in response to the rise of New Labour. Blair seemed to have suspended or ended normal politics. In the US, the Right regrouped and George W. Bush won two elections. In Britain, New Labour’s earliest incarnation was so electorally successful that it obliterated the opposition. In the US system there are checks and balances, with strong states and a need for a president to work with a legislature in which his party may not have a majority. Executive power is deliberately constrained.

In a parliamentary system there are far fewer limitations, and the scale of their 1997 election victory went to the heads of the main characters in New Labour. Brown claimed to have ended the economic cycle by “abolishing boom and bust”.  The spin turned out to be hubristic hokum when reality intervened and there was the biggest bust since the 1930s. Blair, at his height, messianically described New Labour as “the political arm of none other than the British people as a whole”, a sub-Marxist statement that would have been comical if it had not been so sinister.

These dizzying developments all but destroyed the confidence of the Conservatives; John Major’s party imploded and successive leaders of the opposition went down to defeat. The young band of Tory modernisers who eventually took control of a traumatised Conservative Party argued that they would have to replicate rather than renounce the Blair model. Many in that group not only respected the leader of New Labour, they actively admired or even idolised him as “the Master” who had transcended ideology and mastered the media.

In this way the early Cameroons emphasised subjects such as the environment to burnish their leader’s liberal credentials and confuse their opponents. Here was classic Clinton/Blair triangulation. Cameron aimed to avoid anything that reminded floating voters of the Tory party’s past views on crime, Europe, tax or immigration. The economy was initially seen as an irrelevance: the new Tories broadly accepted the terms of the “end of boom and bust” settlement defined by Gordon Brown. They promised to “share the proceeds of growth”, until — suddenly — there wasn’t any. Not having crafted a coherent critique of Blair and Brown’s economic analysis before the crash, they were in no position to benefit when it failed spectacularly.

The crash should have been the warning that the Cameroons were following the wrong course. But instead of rethinking, they hastily patched together a decent position on deficit-reduction but otherwise carried on much as before in copying early Blair. That Clinton/Blair method already seemed a tired response before the last election, something the Conservative leadership failed to notice. Even when it was updated by Barack Obama, and the media joined in the hype, it only narrowly won him the presidency in the midst of a recession against an unconvincing John McCain.

It should also have been a warning when in 2005 Armando Iannucci produced the brilliant The Thick of It, lampooning control-freak New Labour and their modernising Conservative opponents, both operating on an ever shorter spin-cycle. Instead, the Westminster village bought the DVD box-set, enjoyed the joke and carried on.

In one sense the conduct of the Tory modernisers was baffling. Imagine if Margaret Thatcher had based her 1979 election campaign on the assumptions and marketing techniques employed by Harold Macmillan in 1959, or if Clement Attlee had the practices of 1925 in mind when he took on Churchill in 1945. But the supposedly modern Cameroons took as their road-map an outdated guide, and acted as though Clinton, Blair, various memoirs and Pennebaker’s film had taught them how tough-minded, supposedly sophisticated operators should behave if they wanted to win.

In the end, what they produced in the 2010 election campaign wasn’t even a convincing copy of the Clinton/Blair playbook. They had their war room and drilled their candidates to be ultra-loyal in the name of victory, but it wasn’t clear to them — or the country —  what it was they were trying to sell other than the idea that it was their turn to be in power. It was as though they were working from a facsimile that had been reprinted so many times it was only a pale copy of the original.

Recently, the Prime Minister was questioned in Downing Street about the faltering performance of his government by worried members of the backbench 1922 Committee of Tory MPs. Was his media operation good enough to cope with the attacks from a press that has turned nasty? Cameron replied that newspapers no longer matter, and that what matters are television pictures. He said that he was most proud of the footage of him and Barack Obama attending a basketball game, flying on Airforce One and dining at the White House. That the stage-managed trip looked as though it was from another age, scripted by Iannucci, seemed beyond his ken.

The Tory leader is much more than the caricature painted by critics who call him a public relations lightweight. His sensibility is classically English; his shire Conservatism has deep roots. The Tory leader is not a libertarian, being principally interested in the space between free markets and the state. Hence the attempts to encourage a “Big Society”. 

But that is not how it looks to many people, other than his best friends. His allies complain that after almost seven years as Tory leader the public still has no clear idea of who the real David Cameron is beyond all the photo-opportunities. That is ironic. Voters didn’t want another Blair. Cameron, who thought they did, presented himself as the young, dynamic, optimistic, family-oriented leader and expected it to work in 2010 as it had in 1997. He is a sincere and even-tempered fellow who just wants to be Prime Minister, but that — amid the crisis of capitalism and a collapse in public trust — is not enough.

A pragmatic Cameron clearly plans to ride out the current discontent, hoping that if the economy recovers sufficiently and Labour continues to fail to get its act together then that will suffice. Perhaps he is right. But I think the situation is worse than he or much of the political class currently thinks.

There is a raging hunger for authenticity. Cameron, for all his government’s radical education and welfare reforms, seems too hedged in by the compromises of coalition and a reliance on the Blair playbook to respond to the challenge. Conservatives should not fool themselves into presuming they will automatically find the answer to what comes next. Perhaps a new leader from the Left — channelling populist anger — will emerge later in the decade to fill the vacuum instead. Many in Cameron’s own party know that something is up and have started to think about what happens when he goes, probably midway through the next parliament. They won’t be looking for the next “heir to Blair”.

The danger for Cameron is that he looks as though he is living in an era — the age of Clinton, Blair and the War Room — that is already history. “You were the future once,” he said to Blair across the Commons chamber. It was a good line at the time, but how long before a rival says the same of him?