David Cameron's big secret: he's not a great politician

Fortunately for the country, however, he's a lucky one

14 May 2015

4:00 AM

14 May 2015

4:00 AM

This was a vital election. A Tory failure would have been an act of political treason. Five years ago, the UK was grovelling with the PIGS in the fiscal sty. Our public finances were in a deplorable state, the financial system was in crisis and growth had disappeared over the economic horizon. No one has paid enough tribute to Messrs Cameron and Osborne for the sang-froid they displayed in the face of such adversity, and for their success.

Not only that: we have two long-term structural problems in this country, both of which Lady Thatcher sidestepped, both of which David Cameron tackled. The first is welfare. In its corrosion of morale, its sabotage of élan vital, our welfare system creates an underclass. Any travel-stained kid with two legs, two arms, semi-competent English, an honest face and a willing manner can walk off a bus from Warsaw and into a job. So why do we have 1.8 million unemployed?

There is one obvious reason. To use Alastair Campbell’s contemptibly complacent phrase, we have bog-standard comprehensives, which turn out children only equipped to live on welfare. There again, the Tories acted, with the Gove reforms.

The radical changes in welfare — IDS’s agenda — and education are not just legislative. Within another five years, they will have changed the culture, in the same way that Margaret Thatcher’s trade union reforms did, and will be irreversible. That would not have been true if Mr Cameron had lost this election, which he came perilously close to doing — and it would have been his own fault.

There is one profound misconception about David Cameron. He began his career in that great political nursery, the Conservative Research Department. He then became a political adviser, and afterwards was alleged to have worked as a spin-doctor for Michael Green, though his role was broader. He spent many evenings around many dining tables discussing his party’s future. So when he became PM, there was a widespread assumption. Whatever else he did, he would be a superb politician.

That turned out to be entirely wrong. He has been a seriously important Prime Minister, with more to come. He may yet end up with a claim to greatness. But of all the post-Churchill premiers, he has been the worst politician bar two: Anthony Eden and Gordon Brown (yes, I mean it: not as good at politics as Alec Home).

As a politician, DC has one stonking defect. He is too normal. In William Waldegrave’s recently published and unputdownable memoir, he says that John Major was ill-equipped for prime-ministerial leadership because he was not ‘odd enough, ruthless enough or strange enough’. Something similar is true of David Cameron. He is too gently rural, philosophically pragmatic, eupeptically English. ‘Dearly beloved’ could be his motto. Churchill and Thatcher, the great warrior politicians, were seeking to compensate for inner incompleteness. David Cameron is seeking to express an inner calm.

That sounds impressive: not so. Most British voters are not inwardly calm. Many of them lead lives of quiet desperation. David Cameron’s self-assured body language grates on them and his background does not help. A lot of voters are ready to let social resentment tip over into voting behaviour. Mr Cameron is not the man to dissuade them, especially as his excessive rationality leads him to a combination of Heathism and vulgar Marxism.

‘Action not Words’ was the title of Ted Heath’s 1966 manifesto: the right phrase, if you were up against Harold Wilson — but not if you believe it. In politics, words are action. You need them to mobilise support. Although this does not mean chronic dishonesty, à la Wilson, you have to explain yourself. David Cameron is a highly articulate man, but he has been hopeless at explaining himself. Even after five years, millions of voters do not know who he is, what he believes, what are his values. Crucial arguments were never presented. How can anyone talk about austerity when the budget deficit is more than £70 billion? Given this government’s record, why should the NHS be a political liability? All this is maddening, because he has surrounded himself with formidable advisers. The personnel of the Downing St policy unit, plus closely linked special advisers such as Rupert Harrison at the Treasury, a future prime minister, were much the most impressive such grouping in British political history. Yet they were hardly allowed to brief anyone. As for David Cameron’s Downing Street press operation, since the departure of Andy Coulson, who was first-rate, it has not been worth Bernard Ingham’s fingernail clippings. Fortunately for the PM, he did have two other spokesmen working flat-out on his behalf: Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon.

Like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, David Cameron is a lucky politician. If Labour had been led by Alan Johnson and if the Liberal leader had sounded like John Arlott, the Tories could not have won this election, which would have been a disaster for the country. When he is accused of being an essay-crisis politician, the PM bridles. But it is true. Such is his self-assurance that he can relax in adversity, confident that when a big innings is called for, he can saunter out to the middle and score all around the wicket. He has never failed yet. Even so, he should be more considerate to those supporters who do not have his nerves of steel.

It should be easier for the Tories to win the next election. There is no reason why we should not have four years of economic growth at 2.5 per cent, which would make the country almost £200 billion richer. The northern powerhouse should be delivering northern votes. The deficit is manageable as is Europe. Scotland is a problem, but not for Toryism in England. Still without an economic policy, Labour will have to rely yet again on telling lies about the Tories’ plans to wreck the NHS. This assumes that a lot of voters are like eight-year-old children on a dark night, easy to scare with a ghost story. That is unlikely to work. Enough people will have noticed that the NHS has not been wrecked.

But the factors in the Tories’ favour would be even more effective if the PM would stoop to political conquest, devote time to explaining himself, and not wait for the essay crisis. Even if he sticks by his decision and does not fight another election, he could make life easier for his successor.

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  • monkey

    Actually Cameron is a very good politician. He plays the game of politics extremely well – every bit the PR man. The problem is he doesn’t really stand for anything and he doesn’t really know what he wants to do. He wants power and is not bad at getting it. Beyond that, however, he lacks vision (big society, anyone?), courage (witness how he bucked the Salisbury Convention on gay marriage) and tends towards small-mindedness (unwilling to actually spell out a future for the UK in or out of Europe).

    • Kin62

      You forgot about his lack of judgement, shown by everything he has ever had to do with Scotland

      • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

        ….and his serious undermining of our armed forces with his idiot penny pinching.

  • Mellow Yellow

    Welfare does NOT create an ‘underclass’, the rich DO. Yes, in a democracy WE, the underclass FORCED them to gives us the bare minimum. Could THEY survive on that? NO! David Cameron confessed as much, live on TV!

    • Callipygian

      Thicko Pinko, more like.

    • Dogsnob

      The rich have in fact, created the underclass by paying for the welfare that keeps them in Stella and skunk and crap sofas and heat and an ignorance which is fiercely proud of its shortcomings.
      That way, they are subdued and the field is clear for the rich to carry on living the life to which they have become accustomed.

  • thetrashheap

    He is an unapologetic liar. A snake oil salesman. He doesn’t believe in anything and is a PR man at his very core.

    Which sadly makes him a good politician in the age of sound bites.

    His only redeeming feature is that he isn’t a idealistic twonk, like his most recent competition.

  • John Carins

    The Tories want to occupy the centre ground. A place that they believe will guarantee them perpetual power. In order to be at the centre it is important not to show what you actually believe in. Any glimpse of what Mr Cameron and the Tories actually stand for will only provide ammunition for their detractors. This is why Labour are now so keen to move towards the conservative centre. Both parties want to use the glib, “one nation” as their ideological crutch.

  • davidofkent

    People will always act in their own interest. If you offer them free food, they will head off to the food banks. If you offer them money to sit around at home, they will take it and sit around at home. If you offer them money every time they have another child, they will keep on having children, until the noise is too much for them, of course. Welfare must return to a needs-based system with no regard whatsoever to silly ideas of ‘relative poverty’. This is a land of opportunity – ask the Poles. When I no longer see welfare recipients pushing their buggies with a cigarette in one hand and a smartphone in the other, I will judge that we are heading in the right direction. OK, I know that’s a bit OTT, but we must reverse this insane welfarism.

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      Do you object to providing someone with no work £70 a week? Or a pensioner with £110 a week ( the vast majority of the Welfare budget is pensions) , or is it someone with a child getting an extra £2.90 a day?

      • Lina R

        The welfare state should support those in genuine need – the disabled/ill, pensioners and those who are unable to find work. However it’s high time the culture of having children and expecting the taxpayer to foot the bill comes to an end. There are too many children growing up in fatherless/workless homes. The welfare state has played a huge role in fuelling this. Single mums are always prioritised when it comes to social housing even if they’ve never paid a day’s income tax in their life. The true poor of the country are single people in low-paid work often living in private rental accommodation and certainly not earning £26k-a-year.

        • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

          The welfare state does help the sick, disabled,workless and elderly. Why do you object to helping children? All societies need a future generation. Since Labour and the Liberals introduced the welfare state, families have moved from having 5 children to having 2 or fewer. In fact we have been at replacement levels for 3 of the last 35 years.

          • EnosBurrows

            S/he objects because s/he has a hard heart and would rather that the poor abort their children.

          • little islander

            abort their pregnancies.

        • Alex

          Who then will pay your pension and medical care? We need replacement rate and the middle class are too busy working their lives away for some rich capitalist’s profit to reliably have two kids each. It’s either that or an immigrant slave class.

          Children must be prioritised. Would you have them homeless? If I had to cut benefits I would cut child related benefits too but the thing is we don’t actually have to cut any of it at all, it’s all a massive lie.

          You’ll be happy to learn the benefit cap was just window-dressing: almost nobody receives as much as 26k – plus that is per household, not per person. Those who were, the people behind the Daily Mail headlines, were in London often in emergency accommodation for a couple of weeks, the bill extrapolated out to a year.

          The main thing with social security expenditure is pensions (aging population) and housing benefit (housing bubble). Solutions to those things are elsewhere.

  • HJ777

    “How can anyone talk about austerity when the budget deficit is more than £700 billion?”

    When did it go up to £700bn? That’s about 40% of GDP!

  • jeffersonian

    ‘David Cameron’s big secret: he’s not a great politician’

    Hardly a secret. Despite his political luck, he’s still a man utterly devoid of principles or conviction other than his own ambition. And to think that our relationship with the EU as well as the future of the United Kingdom may be decided on his watch…god help us.

    • Callipygian

      utterly devoid of principles
      Unlike you to be silly, Jeffersonian: of course he has principles, and fine and decent ones, too. What you mean presumably is that he’s not your idea of a ‘conviction’ politician. But Putin, for instance, is a ‘conviction’ man — so is Miliband — and I’d rather have the likes of Cameron.

      • jeffersonian

        Thanks for the backhanded compliment 🙂 I myself would take Margaret Thatcher over either of the three you mention.

        • Callipygian

          Well, yes. But unfortunately she hasn’t mastered that ol’ resurrection trick : )

          • jeffersonian

            If only…

  • paul

    Cameron is a JOKE !!

  • Callipygian

    Interesting article: thanks.

  • pobinr

    Brilliant CONservative though. Delivered on nothing yet gets voted in again. Probably more out of fear of SNP & Labour than anything else.

  • Terence Hale

    Mr. Cameron as the most powerful politician in British politics must be obedient with power.

  • Malcolm Stevas

    “..when he became PM, there was a widespread assumption. Whatever else he did, he would be a superb politician”
    Huh? On what planet was this assumption made? I was just one of seemingly huge numbers of people who questioned DC’s credentials since he appeared to have no “real world” experience bar some minor stuff in PR (cough, spit) and was just another smarmy wonk. “Superb politician”? I don’t think so. “Lucky” is the key word in this piece.

  • ohforheavensake


    It’s not a secret.

  • stuartMilan

    Cameron has the professional depth of a cigarette paper

  • TNL

    it is worth stressing the point that this article makes about the leaders Cameron has faced – a tired Tony Blair, eyeing up the exit door; a Gordon Brown, whose fall from political credibility was as fast as it was devastating; and Ed Miliband, the worst leader of the opposition to contest an election since the 1980s. Throw in Nick Clegg as the Liberal Democrat leader – a man so naive that he thought that the Tories would not exploit his party in the coalition as much as possible – and you have a Conservative leader who has been operating on cruise control because his opponents have been just so terrible.

    Could he have upped his game had them been better? Possibly. But I do think that a Cameron up against a Blair at the very top of the latter’s game would have been no contest, and it would have been Cameron flying off to Ibiza the day after the election had he come up against a truly great opponent.

  • Andy M

    This isn’t a secret, it is widely acknowledged. The only reason he is in power is because, despite being a terrible politician and leader, Milibrand was even worse and the Labour party in general are always going to be worse than the Tories. But in terms of actual good leadership, Cameron is lacking in that area completely. He isn’t taken seriously in Europe, or around the world. We need a leader who is willing to tell other world leaders what to do..

  • mikewaller

    Arrant nonsense! In 2010, Cameron faced a peaceful version of the problem which confronted Churchill in 1940: a country on the brink of catastropy. Like Churchill, he dare not be too frank about the true scale of the threat because of the potential effects on sterling, the costs of borrowing and the damage it would do to other forms of external support. Worse for Cameron, whereas the threats confronting Churchill were so obvious that even the most purblind fool could not deny them, the state of the nation’s finances are so unimaginable to most people that millions would quite happily have blocked it out of their minds and got back to good old “spend, spend, spend. [Poor old Edwina Currie paid the price of giving the British too much of the truth with regard salmonella!]

    Also like Churchill, but for different reasons, he needed coalition partners and managed to achieve what the clowns on the Tory right could never have brought about, a coalition with the Lib-Dems on terms which proved disastrous for them. Contra to the profound joy of the clowns referred to above, I think the history will treat Clegg et al far more generously than the electorate insofar as they did what the country needed; but if a willingness to butcher ones friends and/or erstwhile allies is another sine qua non of an effective PM, here too Cameron has to score very highly. All in all, my feeling is that Cameron and Osborn are very effective political realists, whereas Anderson et al are those most unworldly creatures:political thinkers!