While David Cameron has spent the last few days trying to "shine a light" on the plight of Tamils in northern Sri Lanka, I have tried to do my own spot of torch-shining on the Prime Minister himself from inside the bubble that travels with him on these foreign trips. It has not been easy. Cameron is a fine political actor, and being a journalist in the press pack is different, of course, to belonging to his inner circle that can see his every private move.
But here are some observations:
Cameron seems truly exhausted
Not just from the long flights across time zones last week (evidenced by his sleepy referral to his country, in a talk with students in Calcutta, as "the United K" and to the typhoon in the Philippines as a "famine") and his non-stop schedule in India, Sri Lanka and Dubai (despite vigorous early morning swims), but more generally.
He is frustrated, perhaps, with the job of trying to satisfy Nick Clegg and the Tory party, while all the polls show it is unlikely that Cameron will win in 2015. So, when he told the management students in Calcutta on Thursday that the job of Prime Minister was like being in an "asteroid shower" – things flying at him all the time – it felt like he really meant it.
He is planning to fight the next election like 1992
This idea has been doing the rounds since before the last election – pitch the Tories against a high-tax, high-spend Labour party. Now the PM has said it, more or less. While in Colombo, I asked him what it is that John Major had – and that Cameron has not – that enabled him to win an election outright for the Conservatives?
The PM left a careful pause before replying: "Look, I don't want to judge that, that's for political historians and commentators to do." Cameron, who with Steve Hilton was a young member of the Tory campaign team in 1992, then joked: "He had a very bright team in Central Office at the time."
But the real answer, that the PM himself surely sees, must lie in how the public sees Cameron, an Old Etonian, at a time when their living standards are squeezed, and how they saw Major, a grammar school boy from Brixton, in 1992. Where you came from shouldn't matter, as Cameron always says. But the PM and his team must realise that it does.
Cameron insisted that "no two elections are the same" but said: "There are some similarities – he faced a Labour politician who wanted to tax more, spend more and borrow more, and I am facing a politician who wants to tax more, spend more and borrow more. He produced some posters that said Labour would deliver a double whammy of higher taxes and higher interest rates."
Another comparison is that Major was the underdog going into the '92 election, and it is clear that the Prime Minister is now in that position too. So Cameron just needs some more of Major's blue-collar everyman in his top team. He can't sack himself, but, now that the economy is recovering, George Osborne's strategy has been justified – so perhaps Cameron should replace him as Chancellor with the comprehensive-schooled Yorkshireman William Hague. He may be a rich Cabinet minister now, but at least Hague sounds like he understands what poorer families are going through, and perceptions do matter.
This option has been suggested before, and rejected. But if he wants to win a majority, Cameron should reconsider. Oh, and who were the four ministers who, with Cameron, represented the British government at a business conference in Delhi on Thursday? Nick Boles (Winchester), Greg Barker (Lancing), Jo Johnson (Eton) and Oliver Letwin (Eton).
He cares deeply about the freedom of the press
Of all the things that Cameron saw in Jaffna, the Tamil capital of Sri Lanka, on Friday, it was the graphic pictures of murdered journalists at the Uthayan newspaper that moved him the most. That morning at a briefing with British reporters in Colombo, Cameron almost lost his temper with a Mirror journalist who asked him about class. But at least that reporter was free to put the question, and does not face reprisals from Downing Street when he gets home. The PM was genuinely angry when he raised the intimidation and violence against Uthayan journalists with Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and, he says, he will carry those images with him for ever.
Sporting diplomacy often backfires
Diplomacy and sport have long been interlinked – the First World War football match across the trenches between British and German troops; the controversial Boycott and Gooch cricket tours to apartheid South Africa; Tony Blair securing London's Olympics bid in Singapore. Prime ministers find it easy to use football, cricket or rugby as small talk when they meet fellow leaders.
But I am sure Cameron didn't expect to face criticism from Muttiah Muralitharan, the star Sri Lankan spin bowler, when he went to meet him at Colombo Cricket Club's ground, as we report today.
Murali, a Tamil, said the PM had been "misled" by what he saw in Jaffna. As the Prime Minister found out, sometimes the wicket is stickier than it first appears.Reuse content