Overrated: David Cameron

The real Tory leader is not a socially progressive moderniser but a throwback to a bygone age

Overrated Politics

There is something slightly fly about David Cameron. Or as Robin Harris, former director of the Conservative Research Department and Cameron’s first employer, put it: “I don’t think that in any shape or form he could be described as a Conservative in philosophical terms. He has no principled sense of direction; his only sense of direction is upwards. The opportunism he displays is deplorable.”

David Cameron is not very nice. The only time I met him he was leader of the opposition and annoyed to have been introduced to me. He showed his displeasure by clicking his heels like a petulant Prussian aristocrat as he shook my hand. I had expected charm at the very least and, even though I understood why he was irritated to have been distracted from some powerplay of his own, I was surprised.

I had thought of Cameron as being a normal modern leader, a man whom the Tories had chosen because he was not weird like Michael Howard, Iain Duncan Smith or William Hague. But instead I was faced with a throwback to a bygone age which I was only dimly aware still existed.

It is this clinging to entitlement which is most strange about Cameron and leads some people to overrate him. But it is not enough to expect privilege, upbringing and money to give you the “right instincts” to rule. And it is that mixture of desire for power with petulance and a very limited sense of the strategic which marks Cameron out as a second-rate leader.

By his own lights David Cameron is failing. He said he wanted to modernise the Tory party. And yet the Conservative party today is more old-fashioned, more out of touch and wealthier than it has been since 1963-64 when Sir Alec Douglas-Home was in charge. Many of the men in the cabinet are millionaires. There are few women of prominence and only four are senior ministers. The sole ethnic-minority woman, Baroness Warsi, has been hounded from the party chairmanship. And Steve Hilton, on whom so many hopes of modernisation had rested, has gone back to California.

The party is divided on Europe (again), obsessing about immigration (again) and tempted to tack to the right to counter the UKIP threat. It is understandable that so many people, who are struggling to pay the bills, now say that they don’t think the party understands their concerns.

Bizarrely, the only thing that has been progressive recently is the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act. And though I wholeheartedly support the legislation, it does not fit into any kind of strategy of wider participation of women or minorities, nor is it part of a bigger drive to encourage marriage like tax breaks. It stands alone as a piece of policy without context. No wonder it has bemused many traditional Conservatives. And no wonder a majority of Tory MPs voted against it. 

Cameron does not seem to have any idea where he is leading the country. Most great leaders do. The vision thing can be oversold, but in hard times people need to know why they are going through the pain and that it will be better at the end. Yet as Steve Bell in his Guardian cartoons so aptly portrays there is something sadomasochistic about the government’s approach. We are expected to endure pain for pain’s sake. The objective is not clear and so the method is questionable — no fiddling of the figures or there-is-no-alternative speeches are going to make that better. 

Coupled with the pain is the question of risk. David Cameron has launched us on a risky course of action. As a Labour politician, I am in favour of a more Keynesian and collective approach, but the country might be more sympathetic to Cameron’s policies if they felt he was taking some of the risk himself. Churchill was a popular leader when the public felt that he was facing the same risk of invasion by the Nazis as they were. They liked him much less in peacetime when he was a toff who was not.

And that is the problem with Cameron and his mates. We guess that they will be all right because they will buy their way out of trouble, bail out to some tax haven or retire to a grouse moor while the rest of us are left behind to pick up the pieces of their failed experiment. Worse, we think they might end up enriching themselves vastly from the deals which are being done with the private sector over education and the NHS. 

A socially regressive Britain, dominated by white men, sold off to the highest bidder to pay debts we are not even sure all need settling, to the sole profit of a small privileged elite, is not the country that even the deepest blue ladies of the Tory shires dream of. It is certainly not the country most of us, reliant on public services and with financially precarious lives, want our children to grow up in.

After 1964 the country rejected the old patrician class of politician and voted in people more like themselves: Heath, Wilson, Thatcher, Major and Blair. The problem with the Tories is that since 1997 they have been unable to find anyone to lead them who is at all like us. David Cameron is a terrible mistake. The party overrated him, and now they are facing the consequences.