Sunday 23 August 2009
Alan Watkins: This is Mr Cameron's silly season too
The Tory leader toes the Washington line and gets sucked into foolish controversies, when he should be riding high
The last month before a general election tends to generate a good deal of excitement. It was so before Harold Wilson won in 1964. It was the same when Tony Blair arrived at No 10 in 1997. On both occasions, expectations were disappointed by the course of subsequent events, though both times I was among the sceptical minority. But that was not what most observers thought at the time.
Mr David Cameron is not a victor who is granted a triumph in advance. There are reservations about his past, and doubts about his future. Recent Conservative leaders who have won elections also saw their qualities depreciated.
In 1970 most of his party had written off Edward Heath as an organ-playing eccentric, a bachelor and, what was worst of all (in the terminology that was then becoming popular), a "loser".
In 1979 most of the voters did not know quite what to make of Margaret Thatcher. She was shrill, suburban and a woman. The smart money was on James Callaghan to serve another term, despite the disasters of his period of office.
John Major was seen as another candidate equally lacking electoral appeal. What was that silly old soap-box that he used to ascend during the election campaign supposed to be all about? And yet the voters accepted Sir John as they were not prepared to put up with Neil Kinnock.
Now, I am not proposing any phoenix-from-the-ashes act on the part of Mr Gordon Brown such as Sir John performed in 1992. Things have gone too far for that. It is rather that Mr Cameron is incapable of creating the same enthusiasm among his following as Wilson, Mr Blair and even Lord Kinnock (unsuccessful though he was) created in theirs.
All three were opposing discredited governments lasting between 13 and 18 years. Mr Cameron is opposing an equally fly-blown administration that will also have lasted 13. Why is there not a more energetic spring in his step?
Mr Cameron is buried as deep in the wastes of Afghanistan as Mr Brown ever was. Indeed, he is submerged even more cavernously than the Prime Minister. It was Mr Blair who got Mr Brown into this mess through his servile support of Mr George Bush. Mr Brown is too irresolute to get himself out – a quality that has marked his entire period of office.
Mr Cameron could have struck out on his own. Instead he followed the Washington line as laid down by Mr William Hague, Mr Iain Duncan Smith and Dr Liam Fox. What a crew! Persons who have an ounce of sense about foreign affairs, such as Sir Peter Tapsell and Mr Kenneth Clarke, are carefully excluded from the leaders' counsels on matters of foreign policy.
And yet, it was not always so, even quite recently. Mrs Thatcher had words with Ronald Reagan over the invasion of Grenada. True she supported the US bombing of Libya in 1986, but she did so reluctantly, causing a split in her party (when Lord Tebbit took the opposing view). In the civil war in Yugoslavia, Douglas Hurd and the Major government tried to keep out of the conflict for as long as they could; and quite right too, in my opinion.
It was only with the arrival of Mr Blair and his moralistic liberal interventionism that matters first began to go seriously wrong – with untold unnecessary suffering, all over the world. And Mr Cameron embellished
the act with his accession to the leadership in 2005. It was then, it may be remembered that he was first dubbed "son of Blair".
At any rate, Mr Cameron is sound on the NHS, or so it appears. He lost no opportunity of telling us how his late son Ivan was cared for by the health service.
I could have done without the morning's adjournment on account of Ivan's death at Prime Minster's Questions on that occasion. An absence from both Mr Cameron and Mr Brown would, I feel, have sufficed. In exhibitionism it was exceeded only by the standing ovation given by the Labour benches (and by a few Tories) on Mr Blair's last appearance at the House. But the morning's adjournment was not presumably Mr Cameron's doing.
Nor was the row over the health service in the week before last. Here I feel quite sorry for Mr Cameron. Mr Daniel Hannan is an ambitious lad of 37 who used to be a leader writer for The Daily Telegraph and sits as a Conservative for the South-East in the European Parliament. He is a free marketeer and likes to be on television or in the papers whenever he can. His disobliging words on the health service were relayed from the United States.
It never ceases to surprise me that the most ridiculous reports from America about this country are given wide circulation in London. This remains so – indeed it is most particularly so – when the person doing the pronouncing is a citizen of the UK. It was so with Mr Hannan.
I have long contemplated a campaign to have carafes of red, white and even rosé wine circulating on hospital trollies in the NHS. This, after all, is the way these matters are managed in France. But it would never catch on, I fear. Busybodies would immediately appear, raising all sorts of objections.
All we can talk about instead is a controversy that has nothing to do with us. Why should we be at all interested in the views of someone like Ms Sarah Palin? It is a concocted controversy from start to finish, got up for the silly season.
Silly the season may be, but at times Mr Cameron does seem to be a rather silly man. Does Mr Cameron really know anything about the Lockerbie bombing? Certainly the Scottish legal system does not appear in a very flattering light. I am speaking of the original trial, or the bits I read, rather than of the hurried events of last week. I do not know whether the supposed bomber should have been in prison or returned to his country.
Mr Cameron is supremely confident: he should have been kept in jail. I do not want to accuse Mr Cameron of obediently following the Washington line, though he usually does. Rather it is that a responsible leader of the Opposition should not allow himself to be mixed up in a quasi-judicial decision, unless the evidence or the merits of the case are extremely clear. Here, both the evidence and the merits are buried somewhere yet to be disclosed or to be revealed.
No, Mr Cameron does not inspire confidence any more than Mr George Osborne does. The latest figure he has taken up is the "Black Swan" man. He is the former financial adviser, now a more theoretical columnist, who came up with the notion that a rare, unexpected event could produce unforeseen and sometimes catastrophic consequences. The black swan is not exactly a catastrophe, but it is certainly rare and unexpected.
This is all very interesting – it goes back to the butterfly in the forest causing a natural disaster – but it is somehow of what an old journalist friend calls "green ink". Green ink is traditionally the medium in which lunatics write to the newspapers. Mr Cameron may be in danger of acquiring a tinge of green – and I am not referring to the ecological movement.
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