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.

Cameron, for his part, must have enjoyed playing the statesman on the global stage after a challenging few months, especially since it turned out that the military campaign was relatively quick, casualty free (for Britain at least) and successful in the short term. The drama of war excited the prime minister, too. According to the journalist Matthew D’Ancona, author of In It Together: The Inside Story of the Coalition Government, Cameron’s experience in Libya, in the words of one of his friends, was “the moment when Dave said to himself—‘wait a moment—I have the levers of power.’”

No matter whether Libya was a real foreign-policy success or not, the Cameroons were eager to claim the conflict as a big win for their man. He had saved the day. As another unnamed government source told D’Ancona, “Whenever things get bad, and the press is saying what a rubbish government we are, I remind myself that there are people alive in Benghazi tonight because we decided to take a risk.”

Cameron was so enthused by his Libya experience, in fact, that he soon adopted a gung-ho approach to the next major Arab conflict of Western interest. Spurred on by his wife Samantha, who in March 2013 had toured the country with the organization Save the Children, Cameron pushed hard for intervention against Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war. Last August, he came back from holiday determined to act militarily following another round of reports that the Syrian president’s forces had used chemical weapons. The world could not “stand idly by” (that phrase again) as a dictator massacred his people, though, like Secretary of State John Kerry, Cameron utterly failed to spell out what the objectives of a strike would be.

As it turned out, the war effort flopped. In a rare flex of legislative muscle, Parliament bridled at the prospect of yet another intervention in the Middle East and narrowly rejected a vote sanctioning the use of force. It helped set the stage for President Obama’s own retreat from his red line, as the U.S. Congress, too, looked as though it would not serve as a rubber stamp for war, as it had before the Iraq imbroglio. And so Cameron the never-say-die human-rights warrior almost instantly reverted to Cameron the sober realist: “It is clear to me that the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the government will act accordingly.” He performed the metamorphosis so smoothly that some of his sharpest critics were left applauding his humility in the face of defeat.

One day, we may look back on Cameron as a heroic figure who only went to war reluctantly for the noblest causes, while at the same time pulling off massive political, economic and cultural reforms at home. But Cameron’s obvious impulsivity in foreign affairs suggests a far different verdict—a meretricious figure who would rush to war for the sake of his own conscience, or just some good headlines.

POLITICS MUST BE PERSONAL for Cameron, and it is PR. He has filled his government with his chums and he is loyal to them. One of the refreshing features of Cameron’s government has been that he gives his ministers autonomy within their various departments. He has moved away from the highly centralized “sofa cabinet” system of Tony Blair. But it is also often said that Cameron has a lazy streak. As long as he is winning the headline war against Labour, he doesn’t want to be bothered with the nitty-gritty of government battles. At first this claim seems incredible—a successful politician can’t possibly be idle. But Cameron does pride himself on being laid-back, focused on the bigger picture. He reportedly calls Fridays “thinking days” (which presumably means “not working days”) and can frequently be seen with his feet on his desk, drinking a beer.

In that sense, he is a typical Old Etonian: Britain’s most famous public school has a reputation for turning out supremely self-confident leaders who don’t sweat the small stuff. They have social inferiors to do that for them. Cameron’s critics also accuse him of “government by essay crisis”—a reference to his Oxford education. When things seem to be going well, he can be complacent; it takes a crisis to sting him into action.

One of Cameron’s nicknames is Flashman, the bully character in Tom Brown’s School Dayswho was turned into a great literary antihero by George MacDonald Fraser. He has a reputation for being rude, or, as the journalist Damian Thompson puts it: “He exhibits the calculated rudeness of people with very nice manners.” Cameron certainly has a temper. His opponents on the Labour front benches enjoy referring to the “crimson tide”—what the shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt described as “that half hour journey, every Question Time, during which the Prime Minister’s face turns from beatific calm to unedifying fury.” At the same time, however, he is an inveterate charmer, more than capable of buttering up his enemies if it provides him with an advantage.

As the 2015 general election approaches, Cameron is shifting shape yet again. He has brought in the Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby, a no-nonsense right-winger, to toughen up his image. At the same time, he has hired Barack Obama’s campaign manager Jim Messina, a lifelong Democrat. Just as Obama did in 2012, Cameron is now urging the electorate to let him “finish the job” by awarding him a second term. But the public does not seem willing to comply. The latest polls suggest that the Labour Party remains favored to win in 2015. If Cameron is ousted, he might try once more to imitate Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, setting up foundations and being a sort of global spokesman for hire. Or he could go back to the gilded life of the British toff: a good country house and some decent claret shared among a tight circle of influential and discreet friends. Who is the real David Cameron? We’ll probably never know, and he may not either.

Freddy Gray is managing editor of the Spectator.

Image: Flickr/World Economic Forum. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.