Francis Elliott and James Hanning’s latest update on all things Cameron, Cameron: Practically a Conservative, is a masterclass of painstaking research, balance and a great store of anecdotage.
Is he the slick PR man with more U-turns than a military lavatory block? Is he a ruthless and arrogant privileged bully? Or is he unimaginative and rather pedestrian in thought and deed? Or is he a prisoner of a hunting, shooting and country house upbringing?
If you want to get the beginnings of how to understand what makes Cameron tick, you should read this book. Even if you would prefer that his political corpse was found mangled under a number 11 bus (or perhaps the Clapham omnishambles); read it. Or, if like me, you think he is a thoroughly decent guy trying to do the right thing under the most appalling conditions, sometimes succeeding and sometimes not; pick it up. There is something in it for everyone.
‘Doing the right thing’ is the key to the lock of the Cameron Psyche. Not so much drummed into him (the Camerons’ don’t believe in that sort of thing) but by a process of example and osmosis from his formidable mother (very sensible, practical and would have run most of India in another age), and, of course, the towering and inspirational figure of his father, Ian – a man blighted with terrible physical disability which he did his very best to ignore and if that failed, overcome. There is a touching scene in the book when the new PM is proudly showing his dad around Chequers. He desperately wants to see the magnificent Oliver Cromwell sword. But it is on another floor and dad is in a wheel chair. So Ian lifts himself out and clutching a rope with his son pushing from behind, painstakingly mounts those stairs.
And when they return, dad aglow with pride and a large gin and tonic, he gave his son these words of advice: ‘do the right thing’. David Cameron hadn’t realised at the time that this was a goodbye. These words are of profound importance to him. A legacy, if not an instruction, from the father he loved and worshipped.
My favourite Chequers story is when in October 2010 Cameron celebrated his forty fourth birthday party there. It was friends only. And the sole purpose was for them to let their hair down.
‘One of the very few politicians in attendance was Michael Gove, who made a droll speech which included less than flattering references to Chequers’s bleached panelling, ‘ We’d all like to thank the Prime Minister for inviting us the Aylesbury Ramada Jarvis’.
His one concession to political advancement was his decision to invite Rebekah Brooks….while some of Cameron’s friends were bemused to see the sociable redhead at the party, she was evidently no less bemused by some of them. One, the affable Giles Andreae, whose formerly red hair is shorter and more dirty brown in hue, sought to make conversation with her. Unfortunately the evening’s consumption had taken its toll on him and he delivered a conversational coup de grace even before they started, when seeking gamely to find common ground, late in the evening he asked her, ”Isn’t it awful being a red headed twat?’
This story is instructive to Cameron’s character. He is very loyal to friends. It also scotches the chatterati gossip that Gove is preparing for a leadership campaign. They are far too close.
Yet the chumocracy argument is a powerful one. Cameron is like the team captain. If a fellow is a good egg he will take to him. His appointments are bordering on the predictable, but fascinating. Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood was Norman Lamont’s Private Secretary when Cameron was a SpAd at the Treasury. He is the only civil servant to call him Dave. Andrew Cooper, Steve Hilton, Andrew Lansley and many others go back many years in the research department. And Cameron and Osborne have together prepared many Conservative leaders for battle over the years.
So what irritates him? Not a lot, apparently.
‘…….transport tests his patience, as does pen clicking and checking phones and Black Berries, they say that a full loss of temper is more often than not followed, five minutes later, by an apology.’
He is a natural conciliator. After all he was the only person remotely able to control the volcanic temper eruptions of his boss at Carlton, Michael Green.
But sometimes he can be seen to be too conciliatory. Allowing Lansley to go ahead with his health reforms is an example.
‘Another close friend of Cameron recalls being aghast at learning he had given in to Lansley’s pleading. ‘ I felt like one of those German Generals in 1941 on the Western Front. We were doing quite well and then the boss says we are going to invade Russia’.’
So what are David Cameron’s politics?
‘For the essence of Cameron politics is Cameron himself. His vision of Britain is one based on his constituency and the home in which he was raised. It is born out of affection and a sense of obligation.’
The authors have a view as to the root causes of his unpopularity with party tribalists.
‘Cameron has still so far failed to provide a convincing answer to the question of why he pursues power. As leader of the opposition he said he felt under a patriotic obligation to serve his country through the application of Conservative values…….to draw out a deeper explanation of motive were discouraged as is now.’
Personally, I would hate to be governed by an ideologue who had to jump through self-imposed Jesuitical hoops before making a decision. I much prefer someone who tries to do the right thing, even if they don’t always succeed.