David Cameron: The crowning moment
The old Etonian has shown his party that he is not too privileged to appeal to voters. But, having taken the Tories to the threshold of No 10, can he now persuade them to embrace Nick Clegg?
Sunday 09 May 2010
For some people, David Cameron can do nothing right, and for many Lib Dems, the current coalition talks are a bridge too far. The fact that he is the son of privilege, went to Eton, joined the appalling Bullingdon Club at Oxford and enjoyed a seemingly effortless rise to the top of the Conservative Party pretty much disbars him from any sort of approval, and most of all from the office of prime minister. Britain, surely, is past the time when the school you went to is enough to secure you a comfortable job, membership of White's and as much claret as you can drink.
And for those who despise the unchallenged Home Counties middle classes, I have news of the ultimate confirmation. He plays bridge. "He is an absolute natural at it," says someone who has sat across the table from him. What more need you know, than that he plays the game most redolent of comfortable, nose-clean, drawing-room complacency? This man, surely, has none of the qualities needed in a prime minister?
But this is lazy. Mr Cameron could not possibly have got to the top of the Conservative Party without some remarkable gifts. He doesn't deny the extraordinary good fortune of his upbringing, but other qualities have lifted him out of the "bloody nice blairk" category of one of comedian Harry Enfield's caricatures.
Five years ago, Britain had become – irreversibly – "a social democratic country". Conservative governments meant sleaze, splits over other-worldly EU issues and an ageing, impossible-to-lead party. There was only one answer. The party badly needed... David Davis, for heaven's sake, or so it seemed.
For months, Mr Cameron's campaign meetings could have been held in a phone box. It had been axiomatic for decades that the party didn't want another Etonian leader. Privilege in the social democratic age was a vote-loser, so surely he was a non-starter to lead the Nasty Party, whether it liked that tag or not. It is both facetious and true to say that Mr Cameron had to overcome a lot of advantages to get to lead the largest party in the UK parliament.
For those who see nothing redeemable in him, the argument as to what qualities – beyond ambition – he shares with the Lib Dems may be closed. For all his fluency, he struggles to answer the "what's it all for?" question. If you were to look into his soul to find the injustice that gets him bouncing out of bed at six in the morning, he'd probably have to get back to you. He doesn't assume the world is unfair, making politics a pastime that pays, as much as a means to a public-spirited end. He gets angry at social ills, sure, but it is not his default position, and he may need leading to them.
Surely our politicians need more of "the vision thing". Is the Big Society the answer? Evidently not, from the evidence on Britain's doorsteps, although Mr Cameron will have been saddened by that, for that is the authentic him, and the volunteering, look-after-your-neighbour spirit goes right back to a deliriously untroubled childhood and the example of his parents, particularly his mother. Call him old-fashioned, because that is what he is.
But if the managing of power is what politics is all about, he would take to it like a duck to water. He prides himself on being practical and being good at "putting a team together", both of which may mask an awareness that being an implicit Conservative is not enough for those looking for fire in the belly. But his brain, allied with what the literary critic James Wood calls "a certain sweetness" of nature (and manners that Gordon Brown could learn from, by yesterday's accounts) and his preternatural comfort in his own skin help to make him a respected chairman of the board or cricket captain.
He is at his best under pressure, and possesses more toughness than might be suspected. He might have been put on earth for this weekend's talks with the Lib Dems, having been, in the words of a former teacher, "fascinated by the business of politics". He will be intimately acquainted with, for example, just how aggrieved the Liberals were at Harold Wilson's sop of an offer to consider electoral reform in 1974. "He opened with a low bid," says a friend. Mr Cameron would see that as a legitimate gambit. Lib Dems may see it as an insult.
If Mr Cameron has an obsessive's knowledge of political minutiae, he also has a complementary emotional intelligence. He is good at empathy and its uses. Nick Clegg's claim last week that he wanted the election campaign to go on for weeks will have been noted. Mr Cameron will have noted a man enjoying being a player, an ego susceptible to flattery. Some of his backbenchers, though, will tell you his empathy is a quality he too often forgets to deploy. They complain that his leadership is remote and high-handed. Life is great if you're in Dave's in-crowd, but if you think the party's run by a public-school clique, you're unlikely to show him the loyalty he would need to get bills passed.
He also faces another potential backbench problem. As Phillip Cowley, professor of government at Nottingham University, puts it: "Two-thirds of the MPs are new. A lot are very naive and inexperienced people, and he simply needs to be able to get them to turn up. It's a management problem rather than an ideological one."
So will Dave win Nick over? He is not used to being unsuccessful at seduction, whether with girlfriends or employees. When he seduced his own party, they were prepared to listen to difficult truths in the cause of victory, but he hasn't quite delivered that. He has tried hard to see off the hangers and floggers, and if he can get the Lib Dems on board without too big a sell-out, his assured rise will continue, but it's a tall order. Indeed, if he is constrained by his coalition partners, it will be in a way that strengthens his hand against the remaining Neanderthal ranks behind him. I am sure he'd love to tell his new friend Nick that two years ago he was seriously considering scrapping Trident, but was talked out of it.
But now, having not quite sealed the deal with the electorate, his party is getting impatient with the Steve Hilton gimmickry, as they see it, and the keenness to catch passing winds. He has never been keen on electoral reform. He thinks it's too European, and almost all of his party agrees – with Michael Portillo, the godfather of modernisation, a shining exception. The malcontents would presumably prefer a Tory minority administration to a sold-out one. But they may yet miss the chance to have either. Those who say Mr Cameron will do anything to become prime minister may be about to find out if they're right.
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