This may have a bit to do with wanting to hide away from the post-election realities for as long as humanly possible but, at first sight, David Cameron’s reshuffled team has a potently fictional look. Picture a collage of the PM framed by those entitled to attend his Cabinet, and the cinematic reference point is unmistakable.
A bunch of faux-diffident toffs (Boris, Oliver Letwin), a smattering of strong women (Anna Soubry, Amber Rudd), a couple of ethnic faces (Sajid Javid and Priti Patel), a token disabled (the crutch-using Robert Halfon) and a token village idiot (Iain Duncan Smith)… Imagine a group photo of the ensemble, stick Andie MacDowell in the foreground at the PM’s side, and you are startlingly close to a publicity cast shot from a Richard Curtis movie wedding.
Perhaps that’s no surprise when the worlds of Curtis and Cameron are so similar. Both glide between homes in Notting Hill and the Cotswolds, and both project the benign authority of the public-school golden boy (Curtis was head boy of Harrow). But it goes beyond education and straddling the metropolitan and bucolic along the M40, and even shared fondness for drafty country churches and the blethery goodness of the Anglican faith.
Curtis’s filmic signature – the message that purity of heart conquers all in a society which (though socially liberal) belongs in spirit to the mid-1950s – strikes me as coming as close to anything to Cameron’s belief system. It’s the ostrich world view that if you have money and you mean well, all you need to inhabit a nostalgist’s paradise is shut your eyes to the horrors elsewhere. In About Time, Bill Nighy and son literally had only to close their eyes to be transported back to happier days.
As fantasy, of course, even so smug a utopian vision can be a delight. Curtis is no Billy Wilder, and a monkey recovering from a full frontal lobotomy would have directed Love Actually better than he did. But despite the mawkishness that underscores all his work – be it the hilariously feudal Dibley parish council or Hugh Grant’s stammering serenading of American hotties with lines from David Cassidy – he is such a funny and often charming writer that the pleasure, however guilty and begrudged, is irresistible.
In the real world, bereft of sharp one-liners and sight gags, shorn of the inevitably happy ending, it isn’t quite so appealing. With Iain Duncan Smith back at works and pensions, a dystopian nightmare awaits. If Cameron was sincere in renewing his claims to compassionate one-nation Toryism, retaining IDS suggests he was sincere in this sense alone – that his one nation is the nation of the Richard Curtis film in which you never see the homeless, and where every disabled person – like Gina McKee’s character in Notting Hill and the new Tory chairman Robert Halfon – is a self-sufficient high achiever in no need of state assistance.
Why he reappointed IDS is a matter of conjecture. Some say no one else would touch the job, others that George Osborne will need a reliable lightning rod when the electrical storm of public indignation about the persecution of the vulnerable begins. Yet it cannot be denied that targeting the neediest, as IDS has done apparently in the homeopathic belief that treating poverty with more poverty is the way to cure poverty, is a popular policy. Cameron has the mandate to let him finish the job he has so callously and cack-handedly begun.
If IDS’s intellect sites him as the Government’s answer to dim-witted Dibley verger Alice Tinker, one Cabinet newcomer belongs to an earlier chronicler of upper-middle-class romantic mores than Curtis. A glance at the jowly features of John Whittingdale, the new Culture Secretary, suggests an uncanny resemblance to Mr Collins, the hyper-unctious curate in Pride and Prejudice as played in the immortal BBC dramatisation by David Bamber.
“Immortal” and “BBC” are words that no longer naturally belong together. Where Mr Collins spent his life trying to please his terrifying patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Whittingdale has been promoted to delight Rupert Murdoch, whom he named a decade ago as the media figure he most admired, and the BBC looks alarmingly mortal as a result. Judging by Whittingdale’s recent imbecility about the licence fee being a more pernicious levy than the poll tax, the admiration has survived phone-hacking intact, if not enhanced. The wet dream of the reactionary right-wing press, but above all Murdoch, to see the BBC weakened beyond recognition may soon bespatter the bedsheet. Like most newspaper people, I resent its domineering internet presence. But for all the conceit and complacency that afflict every vast bureaucracy, it remains the last truly great British institution and projector of civilised British values to the world. Whittingdale’s oncoming assault is more than a repayment to Murdoch and the other press barons whose titles fought so valiantly for a Tory government. It is a full frontal attack on those values themselves.
A BBC paralysed by dread about the charter renewal cannot be relied upon to report the inevitably tragic results of Duncan Smith’s additional £12bn of welfare cuts as we are entitled to expect. No doubt this is another reason for Whittingdale’s rise from chairing the Media Select Committee in the Murdoch interest.
Anyway, enough with the gloom, and here’s wishing every member of the Cabinet well in their Richard Curtis cocoon of pretend inclusivity, fake social equality and general, all-round chocolate marshmallowy scrumptiousness. If the rest of us are heading for a Ken Loach nightmare, David Cameron will know how to shut his eyes to that.Reuse content