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Ben Harris-Quinney: Cameron still has time to create an international legacy that can win him the next election

Harris-quinney BenBen Harris-Quinney is Chairman of the Bow Group and International Security Research Fellow. Follow Ben on Twitter.

For all of the analysis, debate and discord, I often wonder if politics is not far simpler that the acres of pontificating text produced every day on the subject may suggest.

30 years ago French sociologists conducted an experiment in which they took photos of their last 8 Présidents de la République, and their electoral challengers, to a remote African tribe with limited connection to the outside world or knowledge of French history. The tribe was asked to pick a victor and, by majority, they guessed all 8 Presidents correctly.

Experienced psephologists will perhaps balk at the relevance or scientific integrity of their experiment, but Kennedy and Blair have been the flag bearers for the increasing truth that in this era, at least in the US and UK, it is almost impossible to return to the quietly effective, grey suited policy wonk of old. Leadership means looking, as well as acting, like a leader. In a political context, it isn’t just looks, it is strength that matters, and being considered a strong leader rarely comes quickly, but it is the most important accolade to win.

In July 2010, Lady Thatcher said “The trouble with the world today, is that there are no leaders of great strength”, and she was quite aware that David Cameron was Prime Minister; she may have even considered him in making the statement. Today, with full the faculty of her youth, I do not doubt that she would view the modern Conservative Party, or its executive, with a degree of suspicion usually reserved for an opposition party. But the man who has set out to expel her lingering claim to the Conservative architecture is not someone she would dismiss now as the open necked estate agent she first met in 2005.

There has been much written this week about David Cameron’s increasingly hopeless cause in winning the next election, and even that he is incapable of winning anything. He may be arrogant, he may make reckless, catastrophic errors on policy and strategy, but he is a winner, and his persona is growing in strength at home, but also abroad. Hence a Presidential campaign has been selected as his only chance of victory. The great advantage a President has, over any challenger, is the ability to stride bravely and make one’s mark on the world stage, where any pretender to the throne will languish in ignominy. This was a very significant element of Blair’s decade long dominance of British politics, exemplified by President Bush’s refusal to meet with Michael Howard when Leader of the Opposition.

I disagree very strongly with the way the Same Sex Marriage Bill was rushed through Parliament, and I feel the porous nature of the legislation will come under great scrutiny in the coming years. It is a bell-weather issue, and if David Cameron remains Prime Minister after the next general election, it is probably the end of the Conservative Party having any great claim to traditional conservatism. On the other hand, it may also herald a throwback of the voice of a British leader being the strongest on the world’s stage.

His commitment to neo realism, or nEU realism closer to home, has, if he stays in power, set him on the course to become one the world's strongest voices, and to set a tone to the new world order of international affairs: the global race.  That may be as much to do with Americas' decline and the inability of the leaders of emergent powers to connect with the global population, but while Hilary Clinton may have publically coined "smart power", David Cameron is quietly building up to living it and making its application his own. I am not sure commentators have fully realised the significance of Cameron’s achievement in committing a skeleton ground and air force to assist in the liberation and security of an (increasing) number of African states without major US support, but it would not be outlandish to claim that his swift and low-risk success in Africa is already more successful and relevant than the decade long mire of full ground war in Iraq and Afghanistan, culminating in a seat at a negotiation table with the Taliban. Certainly, those that have now taken power following the Arab Spring, are by no means definitively superior to their predecessors, some are arguably worse, but David Cameron will be far more popular among their number, and in the wider world, than former President Blair is.

Despite the deep concern and confusion from the continent as to exactly what course David Cameron has set himself in renegotiation, reorganisation and referendum on the subject of the European Union, Angela Merkel is ready to take him seriously, because he has grown into a serious man, with a strong voice in the world.

Less than a month before the US election, following the first Presidential debate, a number of polls recorded had Mitt Romney as much as ten points ahead of Obama, when it came to the polling booth, those ten points had disappeared, and swung decisively to the opposite column.  Being more popular abroad than at home can be a dangerous path for a leader, but it can have the effect, particularly when set against opposition like Ed Milliband, of making a leader “too big to fail”. Unthinkable for a public to deprive a nation of its greatest ambassador; that must be the perceived strength and credibility that David Cameron is attempting to grasp.

I would confidently travel to a remote African tribe with a picture of Cameron and Milliband taken today, knowing that there will only be one winner. The more difficult task in 10 years time might be finding the African tribe that did not already know who he was. 


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