After a decade as Tory leader, Cameron remains a political enigma
The most insidious broken promises are not those we remember, but those we forget. There is nothing more useful to dishonest, opportunistic or chameleon-like politicians than collective amnesia. Only when journalists and citizens remember or know that a broken promise has, in fact, been broken can the perpetrator be held to account.
And so it is with the current occupant of 10 Downing Street. Today we know him as a rather orthodox tax-cutting, benefits-slashing, NHS-privatising, immigrant-bashing, semi-Eurosceptic Tory Prime Minister; a chip off the old Thatcherite block. Once upon a time, however, David Cameron was rather different – or at least presented himself rather differently.
Back in 2005, Cameron was elected leader of the Conservative Party as a self-proclaimed ‘moderniser’. He vowed to change the face and substance of his party, propelling it into the 21st century and to success at the ballot box after a decade of political disasters. He eagerly cloaked himself in the ‘heir to Blair’ mantle and sought to mimic the remarkably similar ‘modernisation’ plan which Tony Blair executed as Labour leader and Leader of the Opposition in the mid-1990s.
Of course, much of this feverish talk of ‘modernisation’ was perhaps unsurprising for a former PR-man; little more than vacuous, superficial re-branding. The Tories’ Thatcher-era logo of a thrusting arm clutching a lit-torch was ditched in favour of a rather bizarre and much mocked ‘scribbled’ tree. Cameron was photographed looking appropriately concerned in impoverished council estates; appropriately energetic and youthful riding a bicycle to the House of Commons; and appropriately green on a husky-ride in Greenland. More substantively, his mission was to adjust some of his party’s strategies to the dynamics of modern politics and tackle the widespread perception that the Conservatives were the ‘nasty party’. Overnight, he transformed the party on several key issues. Cameron aligned the Tories with the causes of equal marriage, green government, and international development aid. He even vowed that a Tory government would match Blair and Brown’s public spending plans pound for pound. Finally, and crucially for a party with a long history of fratricidal-infighting over the European Union, he also promised to stop the Tories ‘banging-on about Europe’. For a country then instinctively in favour of the UK’s membership of the EU, but also wholly uninterested in the minutiae of Brussels’ inner-workings, this was music to the public’s ears.
How times have changed. Fast forward a decade, and Cameron is slashing public spending, including benefits for the disabled and most vulnerable, demonstrably failing to reduce carbon emissions and, yes, banging on and on about Europe. The Cameron of old – the moderniser, the big spender, the European, the man who just after the 2010 election called himself a ‘liberal conservative’ – is long gone and long forgotten. The ambitious, tolerant and somewhat progressive rhetoric of his early years as Conservative leader, from ‘hug a hoodie’ to the ‘Big Society’, has been consigned to the dustbin of history. But, more than that, Cameron has drifted even further rightwards by embracing the regressive pet projects of the Tory hard-right, like the repeal of the Human Rights Act.
So, was it all just a mirage; a dream from that peculiar, hopeful summer when Dave and Nick signed their political vows in the rose garden? Was it anything more than a skin-deep deception; a meaningless PR-exercise? Whatever happened to Cameron the liberal moderniser, the ‘compassionate conservative’? Well, in some ways, Cameron’s modernisation programme has made a lasting impact. True to his word, he did legislate for equal marriage and did substantially increase the UK’s international development aid to the world’s poorest countries. For that he deserves some credit. And yet, the conundrum remains. How can a politician have changed his views so completely on so many issues and with such little scrutiny?
Well, of course, the financial crisis intervened, providing spurious justification for a drastic shrinkage of the state. But many Cameron-watchers, despite years of observing and knowing the Prime Minister up-close, still don’t quite know what makes him tick. His metamorphosis from self-professed liberal conservative to something approaching a hard-line Thatcherite was remarkably smooth, suggesting that malleability, flexibility and opportunism rather than consistent principles are his chief political assets. Commentators and colleagues struggle to agree where his heart really lies on the left-right spectrum and whether his current policies reflect any deeply-held convictions. Amazingly, even after a decade as Tory leader and five years as Prime Minister, Cameron remains something of a political enigma.
Cameron’s ideological shape-shifting is, in one sense, unsurprising. When asked why he wanted to be Prime Minister just before the 2010 general election, the best response Cameron could muster was: ‘I think I’d be good at it’. As an alumnus of Eton, the UK’s most exclusive private school, he has been trained and polished for power, not for any particular righteous purpose. His rise to the top was much more about personal ambition and vanity than it was about any particular policy vision. And so, without any ideological moorings, he has been endlessly buffeted about by the tumultuous waves of right-wing discontent flowing variously from disgruntled Tory backbenchers, competing acolytes and the tabloid press. The forthcoming EU referendum is the most obvious example of this bizarre course of events, where a Prime Minister promises a plebiscite he never wanted on an issue which hardly interests him personally and on a prospectus with which he vehemently disagrees – all to satisfy his rebellious backbenchers and Daily Express-reading base.
Just a few days before the 2015 election, which returned him to power with a narrow parliamentary majority, a seemingly trivial encounter turned into a highly revealing moment. Cameron made an uncharacteristic, baffling slip-up. During a speech in North London, he appeared to suggest that he was a West Ham United fan, forgetting that he had always claimed publicly to be an Aston Villa supporter. Most football fans reacted with bemused incredulity that a genuine supporter could suddenly mistake their beloved club without blinking. Although most dismissed the moment with a disinterested shrug, it seemed to serve as the perfect metaphor for a hollow, insincere politician who appears to believe in little other than his personal accomplishment. And, as David Cameron has proven, a politician who believes in nothing will do just about anything.