Portraits of power

Pictures of David Cameron at work are part of a modern tradition, says Paul Vallely
Click to follow
Indy Politics

It is arguably not the people who are most striking in the batch of behind-the-scenes photographs of David Cameron's first hours in Downing Street. It is their telephones. The new Prime Minister is not the protagonist in this transfer of government. The chief power is that of the omnipresent mobile phone.

In the recent set photographs of the final scenes of Gordon Brown's last day in Downing Street, what unified them were personal relationships. Before the fateful call from Nick Clegg announcing that he had cast his one-man vote in the Conservative direction, Mr Brown's inner circle sat around in high-tension joviality, cracking jokes, telling Greatest Hits anecdotes from their years in power.

That power was ebbing away, uncertainly but inexorably. Mr Brown, Peter Mandelson, Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander had nothing left but one another. The trappings of power were all around them but they no longer connected. They felt cuckoos in what had been their own nest.

In the photographs released now, by the Conservatives, there is a different intangibility. Here are men in search of power, but they are not sure yet quite where it is located. They have arrived in Downing Street – having given a convinced wave to the photographers on the other side of the high-sheen black gloss of the famous No 10 door – only to find that the nearer you get to the levers of power the more you realise they are pulled from somewhere else. So they search for this elusive power through the devices which have brought them to where they have arrived. The world is still elsewhere.

In one photo, Mr Cameron is reading a text. In another, George Osborne, with his feet up on a green baize table, is sending one. In a third, Mr Cameron is waving his phone at Mr Osborne, who peers at it inquisitorially. In one, the new Prime Minister is looking at two mobile phones and a Blackberry simultaneously. In another, though he is reading a sheet of paper, it is illuminated eerily from beneath by the light from the screen of his phone.

Interestingly, in private Mr Cameron looks uncertain and lacking in confidence. Mr Osborne, who often appears like a bumbling schoolboy in public, looks the poised and assertive leader. The Prime Minister is even avoiding eye contact with Theresa May as he appoints her Home Secretary in an empty Cabinet Room. Only when a BBC interviewer arrives, and Mr Cameron puts on his jacket, does the self-assurance reoccupy his face.

It has become a new tradition in recent times to allow a photographer in to capture what once were private movements in a public history. US President Barack Obama did it to mark his first 100 days in power. Tony Blair did it, to mark his 50th birthday, and then found the arrival of the snapper and scribbler coincided with the final days of his decision to send British troops into Iraq. A bit of backroom history was laid bare.

And yet this new behind-the-scenes candour is as manipulable as everything else in the political process. Those famous scenes of Mr Blair walking in the woods with George Bush were not much more than a photo opportunity.

Even so, the shots speak of their era, much as those of Mr Blair walking, like an interloper, in a fleece and open-necked shirt, through the grandeur of Downing Street, as incongruous as were the great grey photocopiers amid the antique furniture.

And the family photographs everywhere in Mr Blair's office – no fewer than seven on the desk before which he sat to draft his speech to persuade the House of Commons that war in Iraq was the right option – betoken an attempt by a lonely man to remind himself that great global decisions were to be taken in the light of doing his best for those he most loved.

Mr Obama was less revealing. There were informal shots of him removing his shoes to enter a mosque, catching a football in the Oval Office, or wearing 3-D glasses during a superbowl party in the White House's family cinema. But the few moments of intimacy – like the sparkle in the eyes of a laughing Hillary Clinton snapped as she talked to Mr Obama in an adjacent room, or the Obama family hug in the president's private study – were not moments of genuine vulnerability.

Those were there in the pictures of The Guardian photographer, Martin Argles, who was allowed to witness Mr Brown's final hours. Cynics were unable to see them – The Daily Mail purported to see the spinmeister's artifice in a pile of framed photographs and a child's book boxed up for removal. But most people were moved by the sight of two small, bewildered boys in their Daddy's office amid the valedictory drama.

Yet in the end it was not the photographs so much as the photographer's access which afforded us the greatest insight. It revealed that the man whom the popular press were accusing of hanging on to power like a squatter had been, in fact, trying to extricate himself with grace. "Nick, Nick. I can't hold on any longer," he told the Liberal Democrat leader who was dragging out the process to extract more coalition concessions from the Conservatives. "I've got to go to the palace. The country expects me to do that. I have to go. The Queen expects me to go. I can't hold on any longer."

Sometimes there are truths which words convey better than a thousand pictures can.