Last Night's TV: Plenty of blues but not enough soul

Dave Cameron's Incredible Journey, BBC2
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If Michael Cockerell had dug and dug and come up with the news that at one point in his life David Cameron had worked as a hostess in a transvestite bar in Rio, hoarding his tips to pay for a gender-reassignment procedure, it could hardly have startled me more than the revelation at the heart of the documentary Dave Cameron's Incredible Journey. Apparently, not so long ago, Gordon Brown was a popular Prime Minister and Cameron was regarded as a no-hoper. Can this be true? It seems highly unlikely, and yet harking back through the fog of time I do seem to hear a bell ring, ever so faintly.

If you were looking for a fable for the mutability of political fortunes, the suddenness with which a narrative can be reversed or erased, Cameron's two years leading the Conservative Party could have been tailor-made. His career has been, as Cockerell memorably put it, "a roller- coaster ride, filled", as he went on to explain for the benefit of those to whom this was a new expression, "with highs and lows". For much of that time, the narrative coming out of Westminster had Cameron as a nice-looking boy with a few smart moves, but short on the muscle and experience needed to be a serious contender. All it took was a general- election scare and a seemingly off-the-cuff party conference speech to turn the world upside down.

Cockerell has been trailing Cameron for most of those two years, and through good luck or foresight had an eye on him even before that. When Michael Howard was Tory leader (God, yes, Michael Howard, I'd almost forgotten he ever existed), Cameron and his friend George Osborne, at this point still looking almost shop-fresh, were working with him on tactics for Prime Minister's Questions, and Cockerell had the footage. Cockerell's doggedness was established early on in this film, when Cameron was caught at this autumn's party conference in Blackpool, facing a television interview at seven o'clock in the morning: "Good morning, Michael," he called to our reporter, "you're up early." And throughout the film, Cockerell could be seen smiling enigmatically in the background with those shadowing skills, he could probably be making more money as a private detective, or a hitman.

The film swum efficiently through Cameron's tenure: the cycling photo-ops with the chauffeur sneaking along behind, the trip to the Arctic to melt glaciers, the cringeathon of the "hug-a-hoodie" speech (though, to be fair, he didn't use that phrase). Along the way, viewers were treated to analyses of Cameron's presentational skills by a panel of spin doctors: Alastair Campbell, the Conservative ad man Tim Bell, and the Liberal Democrat Lord Razzall (as in "Razzall-Dazzall"?). This must have looked like a good idea on paper, but in practice it divided too clearly along party lines. Watching Cameron make the election speech that turned him suddenly into the frontrunner for the Tory leadership, Campbell could only manage a grudging admission that he was "all right", rather than trying to explain just why the speech was so effective. Conversely, watching the embarrassment of the "web-Cameron" video, when young Dave tried to demonstrate his 21st-century credibility as tech-guy and understanding father, Tim Bell insisted against all sense that it was highly effective: "What's clever about that is that kids use webcams" (I don't think Lord Bell has actually seen what they use webcams for: not broadcasting footage of themselves standing in a kitchen). The same pattern was repeated among the pundits Cockerell had interviewed anti-Cameron Tories such as Simon Heffer and Kelvin MacKenzie, and pro-Cameron Conservatives such as Alan Duncan and Nicholas Soames.

What was disturbing about this was how entirely the programme concentrated on Cameron's presentational skills, as though they were the only salient political fact. There was some discussion of Cameron's reputed fiery temper. Michael Portillo, who used to be above him in the Tory pecking order, admitted to having heard rumours from those below that Dave wasn't always as charming as his superiors thought. There was also some discussion of the role played by Cameron's PR adviser, Steve Hilton, an intriguing, somewhat shadowy figure (though maybe that was just the way the cameras caught him), described by one associate as a "pint-sized Rasputin". Here, I reckoned, was the basis for a really interesting documentary.

But otherwise, the film made little attempt to scrape away the veneer; and what used to be the essential questions, about policy and underlying philosophy, were almost completely ignored. I can't remember being more baffled by a political slogan than I was by the Conservatives' "Vote blue, go green" for the local elections in 2006. How can you appeal to voters on an environmentally friendly platform when you have no declared policies to help the environment? Cockerell is rightly admired for his penetrating political documentaries; but here, faced with the task of taking apart Cameron's spin, he seemed oddly content to play along. I don't know if this film counted as a victory for David Cameron; I'm sure it was a minor defeat for democracy.