Who is the real David Cameron? Is he the heir to Blair or to Thatcher? After two years in Downing Street, the true intentions of the prime minister remain a mystery. Is he a principled true believer or a power-hungry pragmatist? And is coalition the source of his strength or the cause of his weakness?
This dilemma is the topic of an extended essay in the new IPPR quarterly journal - ‘Juncture’ – written by The Times political reporter Anushka Asthana. To understand ‘the real Cameron’ she interviews his biographer, Francis Elliott, who argues that Cameron could have been a captain of industry, or a leading physicist but was always going to be motivated to go as far as he can in his chosen field.
Elliott says Cameron was “thoroughly institutionalised” climbing to his summit “floor by floor”. “So much an insider, in fact, I suspect he never really questioned why he was in the Conservative building at all.”
As a new leader of the opposition, Labour made an early attempt to paint Cameron as ‘all things to all people’ with their Dave the Chameleon video. It took Labour a long time to decide whether they would attack him for being ‘mad’ or ‘bad’; a joke or a threat. As a new prime minister, he used ‘the u-turn’ to neutralise bad news with such frequency and confidence, it became a stock in trade. Now, the mud is starting to stick and he faces his first period of prolonged negative polls and criticism from his own backbenchers. At one and the same time, he is criticised for being both out of touch and asleep at the wheel. Insincere but also incompetent.
Daniel Finkelstein tells Asthana that Cameron made a deal with the Tory faithful: if they could drop the elements of policy that had earned them the label of the nasty party, he could win them an election. She calls it “a transactional relationship” with Tory members giving way on their passions of immigration, Europe and tax, and stomaching the additions of a green agenda and the A-list.
The Spectator’s political editor, James Forsyth, tells Asthana that Cameron is driven not by a desire for ideological purity but instead “principled pragmatism”.
Asthana quotes Tim Montgomerie, editor of ConservativeHome, who says he is sure that Cameron is a “genuine Conservative”, but a moderate one. Montgomerie says Cameron is “a little bit Conservative in every respect: a little bit eurosceptic, a little big socially conservative, a little bit fiscally conservative, a little bit unionist, a little bit hawkish.”
Asthana says Cameron told a roomful of social entrepreneurs that while deficit reduction was his “duty”, building the big society was his “passion”. Finkelstein tells her it is all about encouraging others to demonstrate the courtesy and community spirit he adheres to. And it explains the policies he is most passionate about: from city mayors to community schools to locally elected police commissioners.
Cameron’s claim that “brick by brick, edifice by edifice, we are slowly dismantling the big-state structures we inherited from the last government” is, according to Elliott, Cameron at his most authentic. But Elliot says that “although there is an idea there, I suspect even he doesn't really believe it's a ‘my God I have got to get out of bed and change the world’ one. I think he clings to it as a self-reassurance that he's not just 'minding the shop' for himself and his party.”
So who is the read David Cameron? Maybe even he doesn’t know.