David Cameron recently joked: “I spend half my time learning what my government has been up to, and the other half trying to stop them doing it.” The throwaway remark tells us one thing about Cameron after serving as Britain’s 53rd prime minister for a year – he’s managed to keep his famous sense of humour. But he needs it.
What actually takes up 50 per cent of the Premier’s time is dealing with defence of the realm. Cameron has been astonished that at least half of his time has been spent taking decisions about national security. The National Security Council has become a preoccupation for him as he deals with the immediate and long-term threats to the UK from terrorism, cyber attacks, Afghanistan, Iran and the current Arab Spring. Add to that the stirrings of Republican extremism in Northern Ireland and it’s easy to see how the gravity of events have taken over. Sir Peter Ricketts, the national security adviser and Foreign Office grandee, has remarked privately to the PM that he has never experienced so many international threats and geopolitical changes at one time. People who work closely with the PM say he has visibly grown in stature due to the weight of public office – the gravity of holding the top job. One said: “Nothing prepares you for the loneliness of being the one that has to decide.
“He’s worked hard to keep the coalition together, to focus on security with so much coming from all angles and to make sure he is pushing forward on the government’s agenda.”
Cameron sticks to a gruelling but disciplined regime – starting each day at 5.30am with a system everyone around him has grown used to. He won’t do emails – insisting, instead, on working with a fountain pen as he goes through his red box each morning issuing marching orders to civil servants by writing on their papers.
Cameron has brought in a raft of new figures to beef up the No 10 operation like Andrew Cooper, Craig Oliver, Paul Kirby and Tim Luke to drive his agenda. He has now ensured there are enough special advisers and wise civil servants to guide him and to make sure the levers of office make things happen when he pulls them. The PM is said to be remarkably calm in his most private meetings, demonstrating a magisterial confidence that he will have his place in history.
One figure close to the Premier on a daily basis says: “He is exactly the same, only better. He has a steel to him now. He remains calm, steady, unflappable. He puts everyone at ease in meetings, quick to crack a joke often against himself. There’s an atmosphere of good-natured, constructive intent. But he leaves no one in any doubt about what is to happen and he makes decisions. He is very definite.” Another figure even remarked how Cameron has yet to lose his temper in private meetings – a serious contrast with Gordon Brown. There were clear signs of the grandeur of his approach in May 2010 with his promise to form a coalition with the Lib Dems “in the national interest”. But one thing that hasn’t changed is his devotion to his family. Aides are well-used to seeing Cameron disappear into the internal No 10 lift at 1pm most days to pay a visit to his children in the flat upstairs. He can also be seen with his personal fitness trainer in the rose garden behind his office – although he can no longer enjoy a cycle ride.
The PM has also developed something else in common with his predecessors – he cares far less about the media than ever before. One adviser said: “He knows what they’re saying, but he’s running his agenda, not anyone else’s.”
George Pascoe-Watson is a partner at Portland Communications