Alan Watkins: That nice Mr Cameron is turning nasty

The Tory leader has had a good year, but he risks becoming crudely belligerent even as he delights his cheering backbenchers
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The Independent Online

Mr David Cameron has had a good term; indeed, a good political year, beginning with his party conference last October. But is he not – how can one put this tactfully? – in danger of over-reaching himself? I ask because a note of crude aggression has become more evident lately.

There was an example of this during the final instalment of Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday. Mr Cameron called Mr Gordon Brown a "useless Prime Minister". Naturally, the Conservatives behind him were delighted. Those boys will cheer anything just as the more despondent characters on the Labour benches have been drilled to yell: "More, more," when Mr Brown accuses Mr Cameron of having "no policies", or produces the latest batch of doubtful statistics on the National Health Service or whatever it might be.

Prime Minister's Questions, as an event, was not meant to be a feast of reason or a festival of light, though when it began, almost by accident, in 1961, it was certainly conducted on more decorous lines than it has been in more recent times.

Open and unashamed partisanship came in with Harold Wilson in 1963, when he first had Sir Alec Douglas-Home against him. Harold Macmillan he treated more circumspectly. At least, Wilson had some wit. He used to sit up half the night thinking up jokes.

Mr Tony Blair preferred the bludgeon or, in modern terminology, the baseball bat, as once he accused Sir John Major, then unknighted, of following his party, whereas Mr Blair led his. Labour might be in a better position today if Mr Blair had done a little less leading in his time. But that is by the way.

The most recent importation into our politics is what the libel lawyers call "vulgar abuse". This does not mean, as some people understandably take it to mean, that the words complained of take on an even more serious significance, on account of the crudity of the language used. On the contrary: the law cannot be bothered.

It is the same with Mr Cam-eron's charge that Mr Brown is useless. In a similar way might someone say to her companion: "You've been to college and you earn squillions of pounds in whatever it is you do, and you still can't put a screw in straight. I tell you, Andy next door would do it in seconds. You're useless."

A handy variant in scenes of domestic discord is "pathetic".

Do the voters really like this or want this? Scriptwriters, or people who write about scriptwriters, tell me they do. In television comedy, the level of crudity has grown in the past decade and perhaps over a longer period.

In the mid-1960s I had a brief spell of writing political sketches in addition to my usual work. It was at the fag-end of the so-called satire boom. The most tricky part of the skill was to bring a sketch to an end.

A few years later, the problem was solved by the Monty Python team. Instead of arriving at a conclusion, the participants would be crushed by a weight or shot; or they would simply announce they were bored and wanted to get on to something else. Television comedy has followed the same course ever since.

I would not wish to push the analogy between television and politics too far. But even 25 years ago, you would not have found one politician calling another hopeless, useless or pathetic. It may be, of course, that Mr Cameron's use of insulting language about Mr Brown is a sign of that very likeability of which we have heard so much. He tells us straight, he's not afraid to speak his mind. For myself, I rather doubt it.

In any case, likeability in a politician is a modern phenomenon. Opinion polls ask their respondents whether they would like to have a specified politician "as a friend". But Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George were thoroughly unreliable. Stanley Baldwin was regarded as a nice man, and his reputation, in eclipse after and even before his death, has now recovered. But few would have thought of making him a friend. The question did not arise. It was the wrong question to ask. But the pollsters constantly asked the same question about Mr Blair, and overwhelmingly came up with more or less the same favourable answer, at any rate until the last phase.

The voters, however, did not much like Margaret Thatcher, even if they elected her on three successive occasions. Oddly enough, I do not recollect any question asking whether the citizens would like Mrs Thatcher as a friend. Perhaps the question would not have been asked in the 1980s; more likely, merely to ask the question would be to supply the answer. Even so, she was by all accounts a sympathetic listener to those of her colleagues who found themselves in difficulties of one kind or another.

A state funeral is now being talked about. During Churchill's funeral, a Saturday, I watched a rugby match. When Charles married Diana in St Paul's, my television remained blank. On the day of Diana's funeral, a Saturday likewise, I found myself on holiday in Lyon, I switched off the television in my room and went out to lunch. Baroness Thatcher will not receive any preferential treatment.

Mrs Thatcher did not try to be liked. Mr Cameron does, as Mr Blair did, with a fair amount of success in both cases. But it may be that Mr Cameron is not as nice as he looks. It is usually assumed that it was Churchill who first said this about the left-wing Labour MP Ian Mikardo. The point was that Mikardo did not look nice at all. So the same joke cannot really be made about Mr Cameron, though people take different views about other people's looks. The same remark is attributed to the Oxford don Maurice Bowra, speaking of the writer Cyril Connolly.

Public opinion is as fickle as the summer weather. A year ago, Mr Brown was being praised for those exact qualities which were said to be lacking in him today. It was not that he was dislikeable, exactly; it was, rather, that he was serious, even earnest; above all he was not Mr Blair. We now know that he was much closer to Mr Blair than most observers (not I) thought at the time.

It was in an interview in the New Statesman recently that the interviewer made a comparison with the saturnine Heathcliff, the hero, if you can call him that, of the novel Wuthering Heights. It was on the reading list at school and I failed to get through it, as I have not managed to do to this day.

It was the interviewer who brought this up and not Mr Brown, who treated the reference with self-deprecation. Immediately, Westminster exploded with hilarity, dithering heights being a particular favourite with the legislators.

Curiously, another woman interviewer, in another paper – The Daily Telegraph – had drawn precisely the same comparison a decade earlier when Mr Brown was Chancellor. On that occasion there were no scornful remarks. How apt, people said, how very apt! But then, time changes perspective.

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