Licence To Chill? Not Yet, Prime Minister

David Cameron is a decent man whose consensual style has worked well so far. But the fight of his life — on Europe — may yet undo him

Europe Features UK Politics Western Europe
The Prime Minister: Don't chillax quite yet, Dave (illustration by Michael Daley)

What kind of man is David Cameron? It is strange to be asking this question of someone who has been leader of the Tory party for 10 years, Prime Minister for more than five, and about whom there exists a colossal amount of information.

That vast corpus has just been enriched by the publication of two hefty books about him: Call Me Dave, by Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott (Biteback, £20), which is a biography from cradle to the present; and Cameron At 10, by Anthony Seldon and Peter Snowden (William Collins, £20), a blow-by-blow account of Cameron’s first stint as Prime Minister. Both have many illuminating stories to tell about him, the product of impressively exhaustive research, but neither quite succeeds in turning the key that might open the door into the Prime Minister’s soul.

All the same, the effect of reading these books has been to shift my views a little. The charming and slippery ex-PR man without deep and abiding convictions may not have been supplanted, but more subtle and human touches have been added. I find I like and respect him more, and yet oddly my sense of foreboding about the future has increased.

Call Me Dave, despite having generated much vulgar mirth because of its anonymous and uncorroborated story about the young Cameron’s private parts and a pig’s head, turns out to be generally fair and balanced. Admittedly it is further disfigured by an ill-advised preface from Lord Ashcroft’s venomous pen in which he reveals his personal grievances against Cameron. But once the story gets under way, I assume for the most part in the less vengeful hands of Ms Oakeshott who is the acknowledged writer of the duo, one quickly forgets the motives that may have inspired the biography.

Most surprising to me was by the recurring suggestion in their book that au fond Cameron has a sweet and generous nature. Former school matrons, and friends and acquaintances from school and university, attest to it. Though a couple of journalists claim he bullied them when he was the PR supremo at Carlton Television in the late 1990s, there are very few stories which show him behaving in a low way, and many are to his credit. Which of us would fare as well if put under the Ashcroft/Oakeshott microscope?

It is true he is almost unthinkingly ambitious (at 14 he declared without having shown much interest in politics that he was going to be Prime Minister), and capable of ruthlessness. We saw how at Prime Minister’s Questions he loved to play Flashman to poor, heavy-footed Ed Miliband. But if he knows how to be shitty, he is not a shit. On the contrary, his nature is sunny and well-meaning. I even found myself reinterpreting some words of congratulation he had uttered after I had delivered a eulogy at a friend’s memorial service in 2007 at which he was present. He twice complimented me, which seemed excessive. I assumed then that he was trying to oil up to a journalist, but now I wonder whether he wasn’t going out of his way to be kind to a stranger, offering words of reassurance to someone plainly exhausted by making a testing speech that was probably not particularly good.

Of course, we should never be starry-eyed about the people who rule us, but I submit the proposition that, his sense of entitlement and flashes of ruthlessness notwithstanding, Cameron is unusually decent for a leading politician, as well not unpardonably (in view of his considerable gifts) confident.

With the elegance and self-assurance of one of those natural cricketers at school capable of scoring a hundred without breaking sweat, he has eased his way forward through life apparently effortlessly. There were sadnesses, of course: his father’s disability, and later, and much more tragic, the serious illness and death of his first child, Ivan. But the early misfortune was mitigated by his father’s good cheer and lack of self-pity; and the latter, when it came, could be dealt with because he was such a well-balanced and grounded person.

Call Me Dave describes a privileged, almost idyllic childhood during which he was blessed with loving parents and at ease with his siblings. It might be possible to emerge from such an Eden full of resentment against the world, and yearning to set it right, but it would be surprising. There is an absence of hardness deep down, a sometimes fatal softness, which comes from his background, and is linked in some way to a lack of guiding principles.

Most of us grow tougher as we get older, and doubtless David Cameron has done so, but I don’t think this unguarded benevolence has left him. If he were a dog he would be an enthusiastic Labrador, bounding up to strangers with automatic good will and lack of suspicion, his tongue lolling out ready to bestow a lick, and reluctant to bare his teeth even when provoked. (He does, however, bear unLabrador-like grudges. Two prominent Tory MPs have told me that he has not spoken to them since being, in his view, crossed by them.) There is also an innate languor that can make it difficult for him to work up his energy levels. Both books supply endless examples of this trait — from the disappointingly flat major speech he made at the beginning of his leadership bid in 2005 to his seemingly passionless electioneering during the first part of the recent election campaign.

Even when all cylinders are firing, and the cogs in his reputedly Rolls-Royce mind whirring away, our Prime Minister can be outmanoeuvred by more seasoned operators or simply nastier men. Looking back over the rather bumpy five years of his prime ministership under the Coalition, there are countless examples of his being misled or even tricked, and giving more ground than was necessary.

One was Scotland. Whether he needed to offer the Scottish Nationalists a referendum on independence so soon after they had won an overall majority at Holyrood in the 2011 Scottish elections is debatable, but it is surely undeniable that he foolishly ceded control of the process to their hard-headed leader, Alex Salmond. Cameron allowed him to propose the wording of the question, lower the voting age to 16, and, worst of all, choose the date of the poll. Salmond not unnaturally gave himself as much time as possible in which to build his case while the Prime Minister had his mind on other things. Eventually he woke up to what was going on, and realised he might be about to preside over the dissolution of the United Kingdom. Gordon Brown then helped save the day by making storming speeches. As soon as the result came in, Cameron succeeded in providing the touchy Scot Nats with a grievance by instantly declaring his determination to introduce “English votes for English laws”. Mightn’t he have waited a week or two?    

Even the seeming milksop Nick Clegg managed to shaft the Prime Minister on at least one occasion, as both books relate. The Lib Dem leader’s ill-conceived plans to reform the House of Lords were scuppered by rebellious Tory backbenchers. A bad-tempered Clegg used this setback to justify not supporting the boundary reform which had been agreed as a quid pro quo for the AV referendum. (Voters had contemptuously thrown out the Lib Dems’ baby.) The proposed changes to constituency boundaries were reckoned to give the Tories as many as 20 extra seats, so Clegg’s skulduggery seemed likely to deprive them of a majority at the 2015 election. Cameron was cross, but nothing like as cross as he should have been, and did not even threaten to dissolve the Coalition.

Perhaps it was in his dealings with the Murdoch empire that Cameron showed the greatest naivety and lack of guile. His insistence on appointing Andy Coulson, former editor of the News of the World, as his spin doctor in defiance of much well-informed advice was an act of stupidity. The most inexperienced journalist in the world could have told him it was inconceivable that Coulson had been unaware of the phone hacking which in 2007, when the appointment was made, was already known to have been rife at the Sunday red-top. Even more inept was Cameron’s frenzied wooing of Rebekah Brooks — editor of the Sun before she became Murdoch’s senior manager in Britain — during which he bombarded her with texts, popped in and out of her house, which happened to be near his own in Oxfordshire, and even rode her horse. His closeness to Coulson and Brooks made him vulnerable in 2011 when the Guardian published what turned out to be a partly inaccurate explosive allegation about phone hacking at the News of the World at a time that it was run by the very people he had recklessly embraced. So it was that he announced in a panic an inquiry into the ethics of the entire press, earning the undying resentment of several newspapers including the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph.

In foreign affairs, too, Cameron has often acted in a well-meaning way without thinking through the consequences. Along with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, he championed the bombing of Libya without reflecting that the removal of the monster Gaddafi might create a vacuum that would be filled by Islamic fundamentalists, who would be far more dangerous to Western interests. In Syria he for a long time regarded President Bashar al-Assad as a greater threat than Islamic State, and would have bombed Assad after the tyrant’s shocking use of chemical weapons had he not been thwarted by the House of Commons.

He did admittedly show determination and stick to his guns over a few issues that mattered to him: gay marriage, increasing the international aid budget and, of course, deficit reduction, though this was a common enterprise from which he could hardly resile. Some may argue that in reshuffling his friend Michael Gove from Education Secretary he showed a measure of toughness at odds with my notion of a generally soft-hearted and easy-going Prime Minister who seeks to avoid dust-ups whenever possible. Perhaps. Yet according to Cameron At 10 he did this in the most roundabout way imaginable, only summoning the courage to say to Gove after a good deal of dilly-dallying over several months: “Of course you can stay at Education if you want, but I’d really like you to take on this new job [of Chief Whip].”

The Cameron who emerges from these and other dealings often does not recognise manifest rogues more street-smart than him. (Look at some of the sleazy people he has elevated to the House of Lords. Can’t he see how ghastly they are?) His instinct is to be consensual and conformist. He is a clubman at heart. Sometimes he thinks with his heart rather than his head, as happened when he was on holiday in Cornwall and was told about Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Our Prime Minister doesn’t at all mind bombing tyrants from a distance, but with most politicians, and most people, he doesn’t much relish a personal fight.

There is a story in Call Me Dave which sums up his attractions and weaknesses. Ashcroft and Oakeshott travel to Sochi on the Black Sea (no expense is spared, Ashcroft reputedly being a billionaire) where they dine with an unidentified top Kremlin source. This mysterious person belittles Cameron and Britain, and claims that Vladimir Putin regards him as “slippery” and as “someone who would not give a straight answer to a straight question”. He also asserts that Putin was irreversibly offended when Cameron lectured him in private about the bad treatment of homosexuals in Russia.

If this tale is true, one wonders what the Prime Minister of Great Britain was doing poking his nose into an internal matter that was not his business, and which was bound to rile Putin. And yet there is something touching about this story of the decent and well-meaning Cameron troubling himself with the fate of Russian homosexuals. There is a naivety, too, since it is inconceivable that a bully and a bigot like Putin would ever take the blindest piece of notice of Cameron’s well-intentioned strictures. The Prime Minister undermined a relationship in a cause that could not possibly succeed.

And so we come to Europe, which will almost certainly be the defining issue of this Parliament, and of David Cameron’s premiership. He never wanted a referendum but was bullied into holding one by Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers. His negotiating stance has been almost risibly feeble. In essence his message has been that he is confident he will reach an agreement with our European partners which he can recommend to the British people. This has not put other EU member states under any kind of pressure to offer him very much. Even so, it is clear that some leaders are astounded that he is asking for so little.

Many of Cameron’s weaknesses — his evasiveness, his dislike of confrontation, his small-“c” conservatism, his predilection for being on the inside — have been on show as talks have rumbled on. He has never publicly set out his terms, arguing that to do so might prejudice negotiations. His critics not unreasonably allege that his refusal so far to state what he wants is in large measure a ruse to conceal the magnitude of his failure. It has become increasingly obvious that whatever deal is reached will not include a right to keep out EU migrants because the free movement of people is sacrosanct in Brussels. Britain will therefore still lack the means to control immigration from the EU. Net immigration in the 12 months to March (the most recent figure available) was an all-time record of 330,000, of whom some 55 per cent came from the EU.

Perhaps at the very beginning of the process he was somewhat more ambitious. Call Me Dave offers an account of an exchange the Prime Minister supposedly had with President François Hollande after a pub lunch in Cameron’s Witney constituency in January 2014. The President asks him what he really wants from a revised EU treaty. Cameron answers: “I want a veto for national parliaments when they disagree with the European Parliament. I want to get rid of the declaration about ‘ever closer union’. And I want to get rid of the European Court of Justice. But I want Britain to stay in Europe.” According to Ashcroft and Oakeshott, Hollande reflects for a moment before replying: “I won’t be able to support you. You’re asking too much, and you won’t find an ally.”

The President’s reported predictions have proved correct. Cameron has not found any allies on substantial issues, and his aspirations have dwindled. He has probably not fought hard enough, Thatcher-like threats and imprecations not being in his nature. Nor has he attempted to frighten our partners into offering greater concessions by raising the spectre of British withdrawal. They know he wants to stay in at all costs because he has foolishly told them so. Not for the first time he has allowed himself to be outmanoeuvred.

What will Cameron obtain? During his speech (much praised by Blairites) to the Tory party conference at the beginning of October, his only commitment was to exempt Britain from the goal of “ever closer union”. There was no suggestion that the clock should be turned back, and no prospect held out that this country will be able to recover significant powers it has surrendered. Another key “concession” reportedly being sought by Cameron — or by George Osborne, who is now conducting negotiations — is a declaration that the euro is not the official currency of the EU. That would seem to be almost meaningless.

Some minor powers may be won back from Europe but any settlement that Cameron and Osborne achieve will almost certainly fall far short of the hopes of backbench Tory MPs, and the Eurosceptic press. The Prime Minister apparently intends to slalom his way through the moguls and around the crevasses, but unless he is extremely lucky (which admittedly he often is) he seems very likely to take a tumble. He will simply be unable to pull the wool over the eyes of the Eurosceptics, and they will not believe his claims to have wrung significant concessions from our partners.

If I am right, Mr Cameron, who hates fights, and whose entire political career has been built on avoiding them, is heading for the mother of all showdowns. With the help of the BBC, the CBI and droves of well-padded business figures expert in inducing fear, he might still persuade the British people that a few fragments of a loaf are better than no loaf at all. But he will not succeed in conning his own backbenchers or, needless to say, UKIP. The almost inescapable consequence of his approach will be a painful rift with many in his party and the animosity of the right-wing press. He could of course avoid that outcome by honestly admitting that he has been unable to secure a satisfactory agreement, and remaining neutral on the issue. That seems highly unlikely — in fact, inconceivable.  

As I write, David Cameron is basking in the sun. He has won the first Tory majority since 1992. The Labour party has turned in on itself. His only plausable rival, Boris Johnson, is marginalised and diminished. So confident is the Prime Minister that he made a centre-ground, even left-leaning, speech at the Tory party conference that might have tumbled from the lips of Tony Blair. In it he reached out rhetorically to the poor and dispossessed. (There was, however, one surprisingly tough-sounding passage about Islamic extremism in Britain that was largely ignored.) Things have never looked so good for our suave, sleek, soft Prime Minister who has filled out a bit, and looks ever more authentically Tory — master of all he surveys.

But there are once-in-a-generation issues in politics that cannot be dodged or massaged away by efficient despatchers of business and consensus-seekers. Europe is one of them. It looms like an iceberg in front of David Cameron and his administration. I am not at all sure he has any idea of what is coming his way.