Christina Patterson: Cameron: from gimmickry to gravitas

A prime minister should, if he is a man, be pleasant but not sexy, youthful, but not 12. The incumbent, as you'll agree, scores well on all these fronts
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The Independent Online

If you couldn't quite call it a transfiguration, it was certainly something similar. One minute, he was hugging a halibut in a fish factory in Grimsby, with an expression that said, "look, I'll do the stuff with the bugs and the rats too if it gets me ejected from this political wilderness". The next, he was standing outside Downing Street, his face shining with a strange light, saying (perhaps I paraphrase here): "Fear not, for I am with you".

Perhaps he had touched the hem of Her Majesty's Hardy Amies frock. Perhaps he had wrestled with an angel. Who knows what miracle, or alchemy, or magic spell it took, but a husky-, hoody- and halibut-hugging PR man, with a childish glee in gimmickry, and a hunger for power so raw that it almost made you wince for his mother, had metamorphosed into a statesman.

It didn't take long to establish that, after a very long holiday and a teenage party announced on Facebook which resulted, unfortunately, in the place being wrecked, the grown-ups were back. This was, they told us, more in sorrow than in anger, no time for histrionics. It was time for responsibility. There would be no fuss, no whining, no nonsense. Just calm, clear and frequently repeated messages about how the mess would be cleared up.

There would also be manners. Excellent manners. Even to the half-wits on the opposite benches, who couldn't, one assumed, be blamed for their background, but could certainly be faced with the consequences of their choices. One could teach by example. One could, like Cicero, deploy wit. One could, like Hugh Grant, deploy self-deprecation. One could be courteous, sensible, and polite. One could, in fact, marinade the opposition, and one's junior partners in the coalition, and one's junior partners on the world stage, and one's subjects (or whatever it is one calls the people outside one's constituency) in charm.

And it worked. We listened to the "emergency" Budget, which, like the gory end of Hamlet, was designed to bring order where there had been chaos (and which seemed to indicate that this process of transfiguration had extended to the PM's chums) and nodded and smiled. Soon, we were offering our neighbours' heads on platters. Sir! Sir! How about the public sector? Their pensions! Their jobs! Their homes! We were rewarded with a little website and a packet of crayons. From the outpourings that followed, it was even possible to salvage a couple of suggestions (heavily edited and re-punctuated) for a press release. We really were all in this together, and it was jolly good fun.

Two months after the election, public satisfaction with the Government was, according to Ipsos MORI, higher than any recorded. Three months on, it has the highest rating of any government since 1979, except for Blair's after the New Labour landslide of 1997. Today marks the 100th day since Cameron ascended the steps of Downing street as the first prime minister of a coalition government since 1974. According to Ipsos MORI, 55 per cent of the population think he's doing a good job. People like my mother, in wistful tones that hint at son-in-laws now lost for ever, say things like "he seems such a nice young man!" Hardened political sketchwriters reach for their poison pens and find themselves writing words like "reasonable" and "decent".

But the "first 100 days" (a concept introduced by Roosevelt) seems inappropriately American for a man as quintessentially English as David Cameron. Let's think instead, while the public sector still exists, of a practice that's widespread in it: the "performance review". It often follows a three-month probationary period, and is undertaken by a "line manager". Assuming that the Prime Minister's is the Queen, who may share her new employee's distaste for bureaucracy (not to mention, since he's a descendant of William IV, and therefore family, embarrassment), let me, in a spirit of cost-cutting, offer myself as a lady-line-manager-in-waiting.

You need to start, Ma'am, with a list of the qualities you think make a good prime minister and then see if the incumbent has got them.

The first one, obviously, is appearance. A prime minister should, if he is a man (and he is almost always a man), be tall. He should have his own teeth and his own hair and that hair should not be red. He should not have a beard or bags under his eyes. He should not look too jowly, too troubled, or too tired. He should look pleasant, but not sexy, youthful, but not 12. The incumbent, I'm sure you'll agree, scores well on all these fronts.

A prime minister should be a "family man". Although the term could technically be applied to anyone whose sperm has collided with an ovum to produce something which qualifies for child benefit, in this context it means a man with a photogenic wife and children of a suitable age for the generation of endearing anecdotes. If the photogenic wife were also pregnant, that would be ideal. The incumbent attains the maximum score in this field.

A prime minister should have a voice that sounds authoritative, but not hectoring, with clearly enunciated vowels and proper deployment of consonants. There should be no discernible accent except RP, which doesn't count as an accent. A prime minister should sound as confident talking to a cashier at Morrison's as to a president of the United States. He should be of good character and even temper, with no evident psychological flaws. He should be energetic, but not workaholic, likeable, but not a soft touch. He should be broadly (if ingeniously) able to answer to the description "middle class". He should appear strong, but sympathetic, decisive, but democratic. The incumbent performs strongly in all these areas.

A prime minister will also want, from time to time, to do things. When there is, as the departing Chief Secretary to the Treasury helpfully pointed out, no money, this is difficult, but the Prime Minister has the option to launch a number of initiatives which relate to the absence of money. He can even make this into a collaborative sport, where people suggest which other people are publicly thrown to the lions. The incumbent has, so far, extracted impressive entertainment value from this sport. He also gave a gripping performance in relation to the Bloody Sunday enquiry, and has adopted a refreshing tone of plain-speaking in what used to be called diplomacy.

In terms of presentation skills, Ma'am, apart from the odd understandable slip (Iranian nuclear weapons, excessive self-deprecation about Britain's wartime record, and a nervousness about milk-snatching which made him look just a little bit inconsistent) I think we'd have to score the incumbent very highly indeed. Where one might feel just a flicker of anxiety is in relation to policy. Education appears to be a dog's dinner. The war on welfare looks about as destined for success, and as well planned, as the war in Afghanistan. And the economy, even before half the population is moved out to shanty towns, is looking "choppy". The big worry, Ma'am, is that the mass cull might kill the very thing it's meant to cure. It's a little too early to say, but I think we'd have to end this performance review by saying that the signs aren't looking good.

Meanwhile, on Planet Zog, a bunch of young men with very few of these attributes, and a woman with pretty much none of them, have been spending their evenings doing just-a-minute stand-up slots on subjects of major interest to trade unionists and Labour party anoraks. Not one of them has given a proper answer to the question of the big black hole and how to plug it. Failing a miracle much bigger than the transfiguration that flipped David Cameron from gimmickry to gravitas, it's very hard indeed to imagine any of them in No 10.

David Cameron looks like a prime minister. He sounds like a prime minister. He acts like a prime minister. It's just such a shame that so many of his policies stink.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

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