John Rentoul: Like it or not, Cameron is a born leader

The Conservative leader's critics underestimate the potency of his ideological flexibility and sheer good manners

Share
Related Topics

There has been something missing for the past seven months, and I have just worked out what it is. It is the sensation of surprise. It was there, very briefly, in the days after 11 May, when it was said on the radio, for example, that the Prime Minister was doing something with Nick Clegg and one wondered why Gordon Brown should be hanging out with the leader of the Liberal Democrats. But it faded fast, and what was striking was how quickly we became used to David Cameron in No 10.

There was a tingle of novelty that lasted for months about the coalition, although that may have been more of a Westminster thing, as there were MPs from two parties on the government side of the Commons chamber. The psychic shape of the House shifted from a two-and-a-half-party system, which had ruled for more than two and a half decades, back to the old binary notation of the 1960s. There is a Government and an Opposition and, for a while at least, a mental pause after Harriet Harman asked her six questions as MPs turned to look for Clegg to ask his two, and then realised that he was sitting, mute, next to the Prime Minister.

That novelty changed to something more threatening in the past few weeks as a large part of Liberal Democrat opinion decided it had been betrayed and its youth wing took to the streets. "But that's the real world for you," as Clegg tells next month's Prospect magazine. And above it all floats Cameron. He has fitted so easily into the role that you might think he had gone to a special school where they train young men to be prime ministers.

In opposition, it was a minor part of Cameron's claim to the top job that he looked the part. But the moment he got the job, his effortless assumption of authority wiped out any doubts about his party's failure to win a majority of seats. Where Gordon Brown, with a stronger constitutional claim, endured three years of carping about the manner by which he came by the office, no surprise attends Cameron's tenure.

Cameron has taken to the business of foreign trips and international summitry as if Eton had role-playing workshops in chatting to Chinese dignitaries. He has turned out to be a pragmatic, pre-Thatcherite Conservative in his dealings with European leaders. He was in Brussels last week, stitching together a "conservative" deal with Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy to freeze the European Commission budget in real terms. At home, he has shown a sure touch, appearing to be the chairman of a collegiate government – one which has the advantage of delegating the unpopularity of tuition fees to the Liberal Democrats – while stepping in to exercise superior power if issues threaten to get out of hand. Hence the "Cameron takes charge of school sports" stories last week.

It was John Reid, Labour former home secretary, who said last week: "He is a better prime minister than he was leader of the opposition. If he had been as successful as leader of the opposition as he now is as prime minister, and as astute, then the Tories would have an overall majority."

Cameron has two outstanding qualifications for being a successful prime minister. One is that his convictions are adaptable; the other is that he is very polite. He is even more polite than Tony Blair, who deployed courtesy as a political weapon to long and deadly effect. When female Labour MPs ask Cameron questions in the Commons, for instance, he always thanks them for raising a very important subject and agrees with them – sometimes even when they are attacking government policy.

Deadlier still, though, might be Cameron's ideological flexibility. Yes, he's a Conservative, but he welcomed a coalition with a minor party, much of the rhetoric of which has sounded as if it were to the left of Labour, without any public awkwardness. Although in private he sees an expletive-filled "car crash" coming on the detention of terrorist suspects, his temperament remains jovial and he jokes about having more trouble with Kenneth Clarke than with the Lib Dems over civil liberties.

Those qualities of upbringing and temperament, I suspect, will see him through. Polly Toynbee, in The Guardian last week, set out the Labour optimist's scenario: Clegg has destroyed his reputation by tuition fees; Cameron will become unpopular when the cuts bite. She sees a "red carpet of opportunity stretching out" in front of Ed Miliband from here to the election.

Well, she is three-quarters right. Clegg has certainly suffered serious damage, and his party will find it hard to recover even if it replaces him with Chris "Clean Hands" Huhne before the election. And it is also true that the cuts have not started yet. So far, the only public spending cuts to have direct effects have been the reduction in child trust funds and in the small mortgage interest support scheme designed to minimise repossessions. Last quarter the public sector saw a net loss of 33,000 jobs, but that is the result of decisions to pre-empt actual budget cuts next year.

It is the last quarter of Toynbee's "red carpet" thesis that is unconvincing: the idea that when the axe really does fall, the British electorate will turn on the Conservatives, and then turn to Miliband to save them.

Well, it could happen. But we have been here before, after a fashion: a time when a Conservative government had to take painful decisions to put the economy right, and when it was opposed by a Labour Party led by someone whose instincts seemed to be to spend more taxpayers' money. That did not work out well for Neil Kinnock.

Cameron's confidence may eventually be seen as arrogance; his good manners as entitlement. But the effortlessness with which he plays the part of the national leader, just above and to the right of party politics, should not be discounted. It is possible that Toynbee's red carpet is being rolled out for him.

twitter.com/JohnRentoul; independent.co.uk/jrentoul

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Operation Caseworker

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Operations Caseworker is req...

Recruitment Genius: Contact Centre Advisor

£19500 - £21500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading children's chariti...

Recruitment Genius: Client Services Assistant

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Client Services Assistant is ...

Recruitment Genius: Junior / Senior Sales Broker - OTE £100,000

£20000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportuni...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A relative of dead Bangladeshi blogger Washiqur Rahman reacts after seeing his body at Dhaka Medical College in Dhaka on March 30,  

Atheists are being hacked to death in Bangladesh, and soon there will be none left

Rory Fenton
9.4 million people watched the first of the three-way debates at the last election. The audience for the one on Thursday is likely to be far lower.  

David Cameron needs to learn some new tricks – and fast

Steve Richards
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor