David Cameron, Prime Minister, six months on
Tomorrow, David Cameron will have served as Prime Minister for six months. Here's my take on what he's like, how he's doing, where he's going.
David Cameron is the ultimate Conservative establishment politician... I remember being taken to lunch - at Whites! (of which his father was Chairman) - by Cameron, shortly after being selected as the Conservative candidate for Wycombe, some ten years ago. The place and the timing were illustrative. Cameron isn't exacly a toff, but he's posh, and the ultimate Conservative establishment politician. No place could better have demonstrated where he feels comfortable. He's spent time outside politics - the dip into television, while waiting for a safe seat - but he's a professional to his fingertips. No run-of-the-mill action could better have shown his attention to detail than initiating lunch with a future colleague, who might perhaps be useful to him in the future. I tend to divide posh people into two groups: the sort who won us the Empire (or at least governed it), and the sort that lost it. Although I can picture Cameron signing away Hong Kong, he's essentially one of the former. One can imagine him being sent out to calm the natives in the Upper Nile or to sign death warrants after the Indian Mutiny. It's not hard to see that high-foreheaded, pink-cheeked, prim-mouthed face framed by a seventeen-century Bishop's wig, or topped with a tricorne.
...Who's re-invented himself, successfully to date, as the People's Dave... Labour were presented in 2005 with a new Conservative leader who was the son of a stockbroker and a magistrate, is an Old Etonian, has shot deer, and was a former member of the Bullingdon Club. On paper, they could have nailed him as an out-of-touch rich kid (and tried). In practice, they failed to pin the charge on him. From the moment George Osborne introduced him at his campaign launch as "my friend Dave", he breezed smoothly on as huskies-driving Dave (though we hear less from him about global warming these days), Desparate Housewives-watching Dave, cycling Dave (he more or less escaped the embarrassing business of the official car chugging along behind), grammar-school-trouble-eluding Dave (the selection row was the low point of his Opposition years) furious-about-the-expenses-scandal Dave (his treatment of out-of-favour MPs was pitiless, and has not been forgotten), not-quite-election-winning-Dave (he doesn't like being reminded of his failure to quite pull it off, and discourages conversation on the subject). He's implementing a huge spending scaleback with painful consequences for many people, but the gloss and shine haven't worn off him, at least yet, although the personal photographer row isn't doing him any good.
...With a touch of the Prime Minister in "Love, Actually". You remember him, dancing around Downing Street playing air guitar? While I can't quite see Cameron doing the same, he's something of the easy-in-his-skin, quick-on-his-feet Hugh Grant character in the film. This a sign that the Steve Hilton branding isn't all fake. For a politician, Cameron is extraordinarily uncomplex ("first class temperament" will surely have featured in his school reports). He's middlebrow. He is hands-on. He grows vegetables, or did. He can cook (a big mark in his favour). He is affable and quick-witted. I suspect that all this communicates itself to a certain tranche of voters, especially women, and when doubled-up with Nick Clegg, in their Richard Curtis chums routine, conveys an certain sunniness of nature (though note that none of the Tory MPs who've crossed him, the Mark Fields and the Patrick Mercers, have been rehabilitated). This helps to explain why Labour's desired image of him as a sneering axe-man hasn't taken root. As, more profoundly, does the distressing memory of Ivan Cameron. I think that the death of the Prime Minister's son is deeply ingrained into the picture that many voters have gradually built up of him.
He's a man of the Tory left. This follows from the above. By training and experience, he's a child of the Thatcher inheritance - the Major years, during which he served as a special adviser, were overshadowed by her presence - but by inclination and temperament, he's an old-fasioned, upper-crust, One Nation Tory. What makes him exceptional is the brains - he took a first - and the drive, which, attractively, doesn't seem to have been evident at Oxford: he didn't take up the student politics malarkey. But from inside his Francis Pym, a Ferdinand Mount sometimes gets out. (Mount, the former head of Thatcher's Downing Street Policy, is a cousin.) In other words, he's got the capacity to get hold of an idea and the capability to shape it. That the one he's settled on is the Big Society is characteristic. Whether you like it, loathe it or laugh at it, it chimes in perfectly with the head prefect aspect of Cameron's nature. (He told the Party Conference in this year's speech to "get stuck in".) And it has a certain Edmund Burke through Disraeli to Harold Macmillan continuity. Cameron had a photograph of the latter in his Opposition office, and brings to politics, as the Macmillan did, that sense of a slightly bemused uncle trying to jolly along an out-of-control children's party.
He's made the Government in his own image... Ignore, for a moment, the Liberal Democrats, and scour the ranks of the middle-ranking-to-junior Ministers. Greg Barker, Henry Bellingham, Richard Benyon, Hugh Robertson, Hugo Swire, Ed Vaizey - all are, like Cameron, well-heeled One Nation types. Then there's Alistair Burt, Edward Garnier, Damian Green, Dominic Grieve, Nick Hurd, David Lidington, all also men of the pragmatic party centre-left. There are counter-balancing appointments from the right, of course. But it goes almost without saying that while Cameron's ruthless (he sacked Swire, a friend, from the Shadow Cabinet), he's also adroit, and looks after his own (Swire is now, as I said, back on the front bench and with a red box). These people have a Cameronesque flavour. They are, on the whole, public-spirited, decent, hard-working, pragmatic, natural members of the governing class, who however bright are not usually inclined to pursue ideas for the sake of them. Above all, the first trance especially are the kind of people he trusts, and his core team - Ed Llewellyn, Steve Hilton, Andrew Feldman at CCHQ, Kate Fall - are, similarly, people he feels comfortable with and has known for years. They set the tone for the Government. The charge of elitism has perils for him and this approach to appointments is risky.
...And, consequently, the Liberal Democrats seem to be a natural part of it... Imagine not knowing who Ed Miliband is, and spending half an hour with him, talking about anything other than politics: his background, where he lives, who his friends are, what he reads, his likes and dislikes. I bet you'd leave the room with a hunch that he votes Labour. I'm not so sure that in a similar situation you'd part from Nick Clegg certain that he votes Liberal Democrat. A lot's been made of the ease of the Cameron-Clegg partnership since that Downing Street garden press conference - even, perhaps, since the Coalition negotiations. The Richard Curtis film comparison's made frequently, but an aspect of it hasn't been picked up on: namely, that it still feels surprisingly like a relationship of equals: the caricature of Clegg as Cameron's fag - or, the other way round, as Jeeves to the Prime Minister's Bertie Wooster - hasn't really taken root despite, in the first case, the efforts of the cartoonists. The Cameron-Clegg relaxedness seems to have taken root among most of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Ministerial teams (Departmental tensions are usually between Tory Ministers). This is remarkable, if you think about it, given the hatred - to put it plainly - which has existed between the two parties on the ground for so long.
...But although it's a Cameron Government on the surface, it feels more like an Osborne one deeper down. For most voters - and for that matter most ConservativeHome readers, according to our surveys - the core political issue of the moment remains the Government's approach to the economy. This has been driven, since the banking collapse, by George Osborne. I'm not trying to draw false distinctions between the two men on the point - Cameron stands with his Chancellor - but during moments of pressure (which are, after all, rather telling), Cameron's demonstrated his natural tendency to conciliate, smooth over, and blur. He did it at Davos before the election over economic policy (and has done so since from time to time). He did it again at Party Conference over child benefit. Osborne's disposition, by contrast, is to set dividing lines, as he's done over deficit reduction and housing benefit. The Coalition has a string of of pluses: it's strong on public service reform, the welfare overhaul and localism. It has some major weaknesses, principally the constitution and criminal justice policy. Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove, and Eric Pickles are examples for their colleagues to follow. But neither they, nor even the Prime Minister himself, seem to propel the Government forward. On the surface, there's David Cameron, the Big Society, and his apparent desire to turn Britain into a kind of giant Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. Below it, there's George Osborne, reining back spending and plotting Labour's demise.
He's a natural Prime Minister... Cameron is a born leader, who reminds me, as he may other readers of a certain age, of "Grabber" in the Molesworth books, who was "Head of Skool, Captain of Everything, and winner of the Mrs Joyful Prize for Rafia Work". He listens, thinks, makes decisions - generally in that order - cracks jokes, writes nice notes to staff, and above all doesn't panic. Like Macmillan again, who was fond of quoting the lines from Gilbert and Sullivan, he believes that "quiet, calm deliberation disentangles every knot". Tony Blair would have milked the Commons Bloody Sunday statement, announced a new gun crackdown after the Cumbria shootings, and been photographed in full-dress uniform chairing COBRA after the Yemen bomb plot. That Cameron did none of these things, but simply got on with the business of government in each case, made me want to stand on a chair and cheer. This undemonstrativeness shouldn't be mistaken for weakness. John Major once said: "When your back's to the wall, it's time to turn round and fight". Cameron wouldn't say exactly the same (as a former colleague pointed out, why pick on the wall?), but he doesn't crack when pushed into a corner, as he proved with the noteless speech at the 2007 Conference which played a part in staving off a snap election.
...Running a flawed operation which needs sharpening up. However, that the Prime Minister is comfortable in his own skin has a downside - namely, that the Downing Street operation, replete with those old friends, is a bit of a comfort zone. In short, it lacks shape: it needs a strong Chief Executive, an external relations unit, a pro-active approach to the lobby (I've heard too many complaints from people I respect to think otherwise), a plan to push its message. "Together in the national interest" is as stupifyingly vague as it is subliminally brilliant: the idea of two parties putting aside their partisan interests to work for the common good has powerful appeal, in the tradition of Stanley Baldwin's "Safety First." But Downing Street hasn't seemed to be pushing the message hard since it was unveiled at Party Conference, and CCHQ still suffers from not being led by a single, strong Chairman who Cameron would treat as a political heavyweight (though the appointment of Michael Fallon has helped). This lack of definition held back the Conservative campaign last May - as we've described in detail - and played a part in the indecisive result. The current fuss about party appointments to the civil service illustrates a lack of forward planning: it's partly a consequence of not straightforwardly appointing more political advisers in the first place, which we've argued from the first was a mistake.
A personal testament. When I was a Shadow Minister, I didn't bother Cameron much. Once a year or so, I'd get a bee in my bonnet about something, and fire off a letter to him. What often happens in such instances is that the Leader calls the MP in, listens for 15 minutes or so, says he quite understands, the situation's very serious, he's deeply grateful to have had it raised, says he's sorry that time's pressing, steers the MP in question to the door...and then nothing happens afterwards. Cameron, however, tended to greet me brandishing the missive in question, annotated with his own notes. "Now, I've got five points about your letter," he said to me, first time round. And more happened as a result of the meeting than I might have expected.
Which may help to explain why I simultaneously admire his capabilities, wonder how he soaks up the pressure, and fond of him, and am amused by him, or at least, by the Combined Cadet Force side of his character. At Prime Minister's Questions preparation with Iain Duncan Smith, he'd often sit silently, brow furrowed, mouth working silently, swiftly scribbling some lines on a piece of paper, before coming up with something that was always well-crafted and usually worked. During a lull in proceedings, I remember John Hayes launching into one of the politico-philosophical disquietations characteristic of him, ending with a conclusion about what conservatives believe and don't believe. "I believe in power," said Cameron, shortly. It's not all he believes in - remember the Big Society. But he thinks that the parsnips aren't buttered without it. This is why I suspect that he wants the Coalition to carry on indefinitely.