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David Cameron as Prime Minister: "a splinter of ice at the heart"

  Cameron signature
by Paul Goodman

Looking at David Cameron after a year as Prime Minister is a bit like looking at a portrait from a new angle.  We've gained views that we didn't have before, but the picture we see remains the same.

  • He's a "lucky general", at least to date.  Let's start with the most fragile observation first, because luck can easily change.  But to date, most of the big political breaks have gone his way: I listed them last week in the aftermath of the AV referendum.  He's needed skill as well as luck - perhaps the best illustration being one from opposition: his nerveless conference speech without notes which, with George Osborne's proferred tax cuts, helped to avert the 2007 election that Gordon Brown might well have won.  Good fortune can always change.  But so far, Cameron's had it in plenty, and is the big winner from last week (Alex Salmond excluded).  AV was defeated.  His party won a bigger share of the vote than Labour in the local elections.  Its poll ratings haven't collapsed - far from it.  And his Coalition partner is weaker, which brings with it opportunities as well as problems.
  • He may have passed the maximum pressure point on the Coalition.  The AV referendum was the issue on which the Coalition negotiations could have broken down.  Cameron told the 1922 Committee that they had to concede it to their potential partners, because otherwise Labour would grant the Liberal Democrats AV without a referendum.  This turned out not to be true.  If Britain had voted yes to AV, the concession would have come back to haunt him: there could even have been a leadership challenge.  But now that it's voted no, the negotiation details are mostly of interest only to historians.  The referendum itself was always likely to strain relations between the coalition partners.  Now that it's passed, it's hard to think of other issues that will do so to the same degree, barring some European crisis.  With one bound, Cameron is free, at least for the time being.
  • He's a natural Prime Minister...  Although the Downing Street operation is often dysfunctional, his own working methods are extremely orderly.  He rises early to do his paperwork.  He retires early to spend time with his family.  He determined from the start to be less of a Chief Executive than a Chairman: the realities of government have put pay to this ambition, but he isn't a control freak in the mode of Tony Blair, let alone Gordon Brown.  He isn't frightened of taking decisions.  The civil service like working with him.  Insofar as coalition allows, he's restored grown-up government after the adolescent antics of New Labour - not milking the Commons Bloody Sunday statement, as Blair would have done; not rushing in new gun laws after the Cumbria atrocities, as Blair would have done too.  Like his hero, Macmillan, he believes that "quiet, calm deliberation disentangles every knot".
  • ...From Britain's traditional ruling class, a potential vulnerability for Number 10...  Cameron isn't a toff exactly, but he's certainly posh.  The great Royal Wedding tailcoats turnabout was a sign of how sensitive Downing Street is on the issue, how big a vulnerability Team Cameron believe that the class issue could be for him.  Or rather, not class exactly, but the accusation that sometimes comes with it: "Cameron's out-of-touch with ordinary people."  This is an image which he's been at pains to dispel from the start: remember the bicycle, those huskies, the champagne ban at Tory parties; think about the budget holidays in Cornwall or the cheap flight to Spain for Samantha Cameron's fortieth birthday.  But I still can't help thinking of him as "Grabber" in the Molesworth books, who was "Head of Skool, Captain of Everything, and winner of the Mrs Joyful Prize for Rafia Work".
  • ...Who hasn't lost his popularity - yet.  Popularity is probably the wrong word.  No Prime Minister is ever acclaimed for long.  But there's little evidence yet that Cameron is unpopular with most voters, in the sense that Thatcher and Blair eventually became.  (Nick Clegg has acted as a lightning conductor.)  And there is some evidence that he remains popular with Tory ones, if not with all Tory MPs and many party activists: his attacks on AV may have speeded a shift to the No camp by Conservative voters.  I suspect that a residual memory of his family tragedy lingers with women voters, and would like to see some up to date polling on his popularity with them.  The good husband, hands-on, can-cook, vegetable-growing, man-from-a-Richard-Curtis movie aspect of his character remains more or less undiminished.
  • None the less, he has a splinter of ice in his heart.  The phrase is Graham Greene's, describing his professional journalistic account of a mother screaming for her dead child.  It is a reminder that no top-flight politician can be as nice as he pretends: and being Prime Minister, after all, means taking responsibility for decisions that can bring death in their wake.  The debit side of the ledger is not so much Cameron's losses of temper (getting angry isn't always a bad thing) or his beating-up of Miliband in the Commons (which is part of what he's there for), as a certain ruthlessness that runs alongside his sentimental streak.  Andrew Lansley hasn't been well treated.  Caroline Spelman was abandoned by the Prime Minister during PMQs.  No-one who's crossed him has been rehabilitated: Mark Field, Bernard Jenkin, Patrick Mercer.
  • He hasn't yet won the trust of his party, despite last week's AV and local election wins.  As I wrote earlier, one of his heroes is Macmillan, and the similarities and differences are worth pondering.  Macmillan was in many ways a party outsider - a '30s rebel on economics and foreign policy, rescued by the war from backbench obscurity.  Cameron, by contrast, is the ultimate insider, having served first CCO (as it was), then Michael Howard as a special adviser, then Iain Duncan-Smith as a front-bencher, then Howard again as a manifesto author.  But, like Macmillan, he exudes a faint sense of detachment from the party into which he might as well have been born.  (Ferdinand Mount, one of Thatcher's policy unit heads, is a cousin.)  There are more obvious reasons for the lack of trust which the AV result may help to heal.  But none, perhaps, that gets so close to the heart of the matter.


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