The Hollowness of David Cameron

April 22, 2014 Topic: PoliticsDomestic Politics Region: United Kingdom

The Hollowness of David Cameron

Who is the real David Cameron? We'll probably never know—and he may not, either.

The general election of May 6, 2010, resulted in a hung Parliament. The Conservatives had only a plurality. To form a proper government, they would have to enter into coalition with the Liberal Democrats. For a few days, however, uncertainty ruled. The loathed Gordon Brown did not leave Downing Street. It looked, for a day or two, as if the left-leaning Liberal Democrats might enter into coalition with Labour instead of the Conservatives. A charm offensive was needed: here Cameron came into his element. He quickly forged a close bond with the Liberal Democratic leader Nick Clegg—another privately educated man (Westminster) with whom Cameron has more in common than he does with many Tories. As Labour sulked, Cameron and his negotiators offered the most generous terms to their prospective government partners. Sure enough, on May 12, Cameron and Clegg appeared together in the Downing Street Rose Garden to announce their political marriage to the world. Cameron was prime minister, at last, and Clegg would be his deputy. It looked, at least for a few hours, like a triumph.

THAT WAS THEN. Ever since, Tory policy decisions usually have involved resistance—often in public—from the Lib Dems, Britain’s most leftward-leaning political party. Cameron insists that his administration has proved itself resilient—“it does what it says on the tin,” he said, quoting a well-known varnish commercial—and it’s true that the “Lib-Con” union has survived its first term in reasonable condition, in large part thanks to the working relationship between Cameron and Clegg. But often the two men have been tugged apart by their respective bases. Cynics may say that Cameron has been able to use the Lib Dems as an excuse to be less and less conservative. But sharing power has both narrowed and broadened the prime minister’s political scope. On some issues, Cameron and Clegg have been able to sing from the same liberal hymn sheet—for instance, in legalizing gay marriage last year. But, in exchange for supporting the Tories, the Lib Dems have been eager to present themselves as the coalition’s progressive force, holding back the rabid right-wingers. This has proved tricky for Cameron, precisely because it is exactly the image of himself that he liked to project. Governing in a coalition has forced him to be less left-liberal, especially because these days he faces an insurgent challenge from the right in the form of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Ferociously Euroskeptic and led by the charismatic Nigel Farage, the UKIP has been attracting ever-larger numbers of disaffected Tory traditionalists. As a result, Cameron has repeatedly felt compelled to reassure grassroots supporters that, au fond, he remains one of them. So Dave the once-proud environmentalist has found himself being quoted as saying that he wants to “cut the green crap”—though aides deny that phrase was ever uttered. And Dave the Tory leader who once told his party to stop “banging on about Europe” has found himself committed to an “in/out” referendum as to Britain’s future within the European Union. He particularly infuriated Clegg, an outright eurofederalist, by effectively vetoing an EU treaty change on the grounds of protecting Britain’s national interest.

The constraints of coalition have not, however, prevented Cameron’s government from attempting radical public-sector reform on a number of fronts. The coalition has attempted to revolutionize state education (inspired in part by the U.S. model of charter schools), revamp the administration of the National Health Service (NHS), overhaul the dysfunctional welfare system, and—most of all—tackle Britain’s economic crisis and its immense debt problem. For these reasons, at the end of 2013, the Daily Telegraph’s Peter Oborne called the prime minister “the great reformer.” “Mr. Cameron,” he wrote, “has had to cope with economic crisis, a mutinous Tory party, a coalition government and a fractious media. But in his first three years in office he has already a more solid record of domestic achievement than Tony Blair can boast over a full decade.”

Is it possible that behind the superficial front Cameron really is a great conservative pragmatist? Again, it’s hard to say. Effective domestic reform is, as Oborne says, hard and unglamorous work, only recognized in the long term. But there is a lingering suspicion that Cameron’s enthusiasm for announcing big policy ideas is not matched by a willingness to go through the heavier, less exciting slog of implementing them. The coalition’s reforms have in fact been something of a mixed bag so far. On schools, thanks to his energetic minister for education, Michael Gove, Cameron has made progress. But only 174 so-called free schools have opened in the last three years, and Britain’s slide down the international education rankings continues. The effort to reshape the welfare system has great public support, but has been ruined by bureaucratic mistakes. The ambitious shake-up of the NHS has been reduced to a step-by-step managerial effort. And while the economy is showing clear signs of improvement, the “green shoots” are growing off ever-vaster levels of government borrowing. For all the talk of austerity and cuts, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has actually increased state spending in real terms: In 2009–2010, public-sector current expenditure, adjusted to 2011–2012 prices, was £634.2 billion. By 2012–2013, it was reportedly around £647.1 billion.

At the same time, Cameron’s reputation as a good man has been undermined by the never-ending phone-hacking scandal. The story began as a series of revelations that Rupert Murdoch–owned newspapers had been illegally intercepting celebrity voicemails. By 2011, after incessant pushing by the Guardian, the BBC and the New York Times, whose own motives are not hard to fathom, it had transformed into a wide-ranging exposé of the entire political-media matrix through which Britain is run. Cameron was compromised first by the fact that his director of communications, the tabloid man Andy Coulson, had resigned in 2007 as editor of the News of the World following the first round of hacking reports. Cameron’s decision to appoint Coulson only seven months later—and stand by him as the allegations intensified—raised serious doubts about his judgment. Coulson finally stepped down in January 2011, but the problem would not go away. Cameron subsequently established an official inquiry into “the culture, practices and ethics of the press,” presumably in a bid to make himself look above reproach, but the decision caused him acute embarrassment when his turn came to answer questions. The lead counsel, Robert Jay, humiliated the prime minister by reading out a series of flirtatious text messages between him and Coulson’s successor at theNews of the World, the red-haired Rebekah Brooks, who lived near him and was a close friend. Nothing else could have so perfectly encapsulated the cozy complicity of the political and media elite. In one cringe-inducing message, Cameron thanked Brooks for letting him ride one of her family’s horses (“fast, unpredictable and hard to control but fun”). In another, the day before one of his major speeches, she told him: “I am so rooting for you tomorrow not just as a proud friend but because professionally we’re definitely in this together! Speech of your life! Yes he Cam!” In the last decade, Cameron’s successful wooing of News International had made him look like a worthy prime-minister-in-waiting. In the more anxious 2010s, it made him look grubby and not a little absurd.

LIKE SO MANY LEADERS struggling at home, Cameron has found solace in adventure overseas. He always promised that he was no neoconservative: in a speech delivered on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, he had warmed many a realist heart by distinguishing between his liberal conservatism and the more hawkish variety. “We will serve neither our own, nor America’s, nor the world’s interests if we are seen as America’s unconditional associate in every endeavor,” he said. Democracy, he added, “cannot be imposed from outside. . . . Liberty grows from the ground—it cannot be dropped from the air by an unmanned drone.”

Yet Cameron’s instinctive liberalism—his impulse to be the good guy—also makes him a natural interventionist on humanitarian grounds, and in the civil war in Libya, he saw a conflict worth fighting. Cameron’s friends today insist that he was a reluctant warrior. His priority, like President Barack Obama’s, was to heal the economy and fix a broken society at home. The last thing he wanted was an expensive and energy-sapping military engagement. But as Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces rounded on Benghazi, and a terrible slaughter looked imminent, Cameron performed a volte-face and became a passionate advocate for intervention. It was Cameron—probably even more than the bellicose French president Nicolas Sarkozy—who applied the most external pressure on President Obama to intervene. (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, along with Susan Rice and Samantha Power, did the twisting of Obama’s arm at home.)

We shouldn’t scoff at the thought that a prime minister wished above all to save lives. It would be naive, however, to suggest that political gain was not among Cameron’s motivations. The allied effort in Libya came at a time when coalition relations were at a low ebb. Far from being an unwanted distraction, Libya was a welcome one. Clegg, like Cameron, was no conventional hawk, but he too decided military action was the right course. Is it too cynical to say that the two men, exhausted after squabbling over issues such as university fees and social security, were pleased to have discovered an excellent adventure, a grand humanitarian mission, like gay marriage, upon which they could embark together?