Johann Hari: Cameron is wily but he's beatable

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The Independent Online

At the next election, the Brown stuff will hit the fan – and the British people will elect a blank space. David Cameron is known to us through a series of slick sound-bites and husky-hugging images. But beyond the great PR, what will we be getting? Dylan Jones, editor of GQ, has just published a series of interviews with the Tory leader called "Cameron on Cameron". It's mostly sycophantic swill – "David Cameron is the last person to call himself a genius..." – but if you root around, there are clues to the man behind the hologram.

The PM-in-waiting has built a string of images that create a fanciful David Cameron who is Normal and Nice. Here's an example: last week, Cameron holidayed in Cornwall, and summoned the press to photograph him playing Frisbee while his wife giggled in Boden catalogue swimwear. Then he waved goodbye and went on another holiday – on a £150,000 fleet of private yachts hired by his multi-millionaire father-in-law. Cameron insistently says we should judge him on his personality. He tells Jones, "Character is far more important than policy ... I think you should always trust your gut feelings about everything." So let's look at how the gut that would guide the nation was formed. Cameron tells Jones a series of stories about his own life.

He says he got his first paid job in politics this way: "I saw an advertisement in a careers' bulletin for a job in the Conservative Research Department, and thought, I can give that a go, and that was the job I got ... I went for an interview and I got the job." But he didn't get it – he was turned down. So he got his uncle – the Queen's equerry – to call from Buckingham Palace and suggest his boy get taken on. That's how David got his break in politics.

This privilege has given him a warped view of Britain. For example, Cameron complains that "the papers keep writing that [my wife, Samantha] comes from a very blue-blooded background", but "she is actually very unconventional. She went to a day school." Does going to a day school make you "very unconventional"?

This world-view, although it may seem trivial, is at the core of his policies. He tells Jones: "You could say, in this age we should just tax rich people more, but I don't think that's the right answer." He says "redistribution" has "reached the end of the road". Indeed, Britain's current social stratification is fine: "I don't buy these class things because they are all going." Maybe in his world it is. But the vast sociological evidence is not in dispute: after 30 years of Thatcherism, if you are born poor, you will stay poor; if you are born rich, you will stay rich. Social mobility has stopped. While Cameron sends his spokesmen to emote about this, in conversation with Jones he shrugs it off.

Indeed, Cameron will deepen the gap by dismantling the too-small, too-late Labour programs that are trying to start up mobility again. He would stop the £40-a-week given to poor students to stay on to sixth form. The only "solution" Cameron has presented to growing inequality is to punish the "undeserving" poor.

He will whittle down services largely for the children of single parents – SureStart, Family Credit – to pay for tax breaks for wealthier married couples. He is, Jones notes, a "huge fan" of the Wisconsin model of welfare reform, which cuts off single mothers from benefits for life after two years – whether they are prepared to work or not. Cameron singles out these "time limits" as crucial. He talks about how much he loves Nessa in Gavin and Stacey – but his policies would impoverish her.

The nature of Cameron's salesmanship is even clearer on the issue he used back in 2005 to decontaminate the Tory brand: global warming. He tells Jones he first became alerted to the urgency of this issue by Margaret Thatcher in 1989. But why then was he silent about it for the next 16 years, except to mock wind farms as "giant bird-blenders" and demand "a massive road-building program?" Now photo-ops have done their job, he has reverted.

He delivers a Clarkson-style rant against the pedestrianisation of city centres, and puts a chasm between himself and Zac Goldsmith: "We have a lot of people on the environmental team and he's one of many. He doesn't overpromote himself but I think sometimes people attach an enormous amount to him." Ouch.

On foreign policy, Cameron also lets his teeth show. He calls George Bush "very intelligent", and effectively endorses McCain for President. In 2005, he introduced McCain to Tory conference as "the next President", and now brags: "I'm a huge fan of John McCain and think he would make a great president." He repeats this point several times. About Obama, he says he made "a fantastic speech but I suppose he probably didn't do enough", and stresses "I don't see serious similarities".

Cameron's McCainiac approach to the world was clear in his response to the Georgia conflict. There are many issues where Putin is unequivocally thuggish and should be challenged, including the cyber-war on Estonia, the gas-based bullying of Ukraine, and the sheltering of the man who murdered Alexander Litvinenko on the streets of London. But Cameron, with McCain, has chosen to challenge Putin on one of the very few areas where there are shades of grey: the people of South Ossetia really don't feel part of Georgia, and do want independence backed by Russia. Cameron's extraordinarily aggressive stance on this signals a sabre-rattling foreign policy – when all our sabres are engaged elsewhere.

Yet there is one cause for hope buried in this little book. This man is beatable. the scenario I suggested – a Cameron victory – is not inevitable. His current lead in the polls is built solely on Brown's haplessness and a sweet, fluffy mask that can be tugged off. If Labour gets itself a leader who can expose this spinning dervish – and offer a vision of a fairer, less unequal country – then this book could yet end up where it belongs: in the remainder bin of history.