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Varying views on Cameron’s five years as Tory leader

Posted on 6 December 2010 | 9:12am

Is it really five years since David Cameron became leader? So it would seem. The Independent asked me for a brief judgement on those five years, which is included below among a group of people asked the same question. Other views welcome

Camilla Batmanghelidj

He is in the waiting room. There are 1.5 million children being abused or neglected in Britain every year. This is an incredibly urgent agenda, but when you hear Conservatives talk about children, it is all about attainment and accomplishment and education. There is no conversation about disturbed children, at least in their public discourse. All around Cameron there is a suggestion of great potential to do something new and radical, but I don’t know what that will be. Hence I say he is in the waiting room.

Camilla Batmanghelidjh is the founder of the children’s charities Kids Company and The Place2Be

Tim Bell

You have to say that he has been a complete success. Five years ago, he was nobody. Now he is the Prime Minister. That, by any yardstick, is success – for him. He has not re-branded the Tory party; he has helped lead the Tory Party into being the dominant part of a Coalition. In terms of his ambition for himself, he has been 100 per cent successful. In terms of his ambition for the country, I don’t know what he wants to do for Britain, because he hasn’t made it clear. The failing of the Coalition is describing where they think we will be in 2016. They are perfectly good at describing problems, and at finding solutions, but not every good at describing outcomes.

The greatest criticism, not just of Cameron or the Coalition but generally, is this talk of “fairness”. We will hear it during the AV referendum. Fairness is like beauty – it’s in the eye of the beholder. It’s a meaningless concept, which annoys me intensely.

Lord Bell is Chairman of Chime Communications and a Tory peer

Alastair Campbell

On the credit side, he has led his Party back into power, albeit as the leader of a coalition government. On the debit side, he had a very favourable set of economic and political circumstances, and yet failed to secure a majority.

The electorate has now given him the sense of purpose he previously lacked – to make the Coalition work and to reduce the deficit and sort the economy. It was a bold move to go into coalition and he clearly likes big bold strokes. A lot depends on whether the public buy the line that the cuts and reforms are born of economic necessity. If the public sense they are ideological, and using the Lib Dems as political cover, they are both in trouble.

Alastair Campbell is a former Downing Street Director of Communications

Andrew Cooper

The measure of David Cameron’s first five years as Conservative leader lies in the bleakness – easy now to understate – of his inheritance. The Tories still languished a vast distance from power in December 2005, when he became the party’s fifth leader in less than eight years. Voters immediately recognised in him a different type of Conservative leader: more modern, compassionate, forward-looking and liberal. They were – and remained right up to this year’s general election – much less sure if his party had really changed. If there is a criticism of his leadership it is that he should have been an even bolder moderniser.

Andrew Cooper is a founder-director of the polling company Populus and former Director of Strategy for the Conservative party

Claire Fox

From the point of view of the transformation of the Conservative Party, one can only admire David Cameron’s success. He has proved himself to be a new type of politician. I am of the opinion that politicians should have principles, but he obviously is not. He is a more successful PR man than many of the others, so you can’t see the joins.

Cameron has done the whole thing very slickly, but I have no sense of any commitment to whatever his ideas are. This is giving him the flexibility to manoeuvre. He is not pained by having to form a coalition and dump policies that are inconvenient. The way Cameron dealt with Lord Young and Howard Flight – one has to admire the ruthlessness, but it’s very clear that this is a party that will not have any truck with anyone who has any eccentricity, character or belief.

Claire Fox is the Director of the Institute of Ideas

Peter Hennessey

What David Cameron has discovered is – and the initial signs were not pointing towards it because of his euro-scepticism – a flavour of the Macmillan-Butler years.

He has to be careful because he has the style of the Macmillan generation, and style is not substance, but he has restored proper, collective cabinet government. Coalition government is also a great alibi for when you don’t want to do something. It’s like Bunbury in The Importance of Being Earnest: it gives him the opportunity to say, “I’d love to do that, but I can’t”.

History deals each different prime minister a very different hand and comparisons between Cameron and others are facile and depend on many factors – economy domestic, economy world, opposition parties – but sometimes you’ve had prime ministers who have had years in cabinet beforehand and are not always ready for the job. Others take it to, not quite to the manner born, but are at ease. David Cameron looks very comfortable with it. I suspect he’ll be there for some time.

Peter Hennessey is the Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History at Queen Mary, University of London

Peter Kellner

Given that he didn’t get an outright majority, I think Cameron has had two big successes. First, the vision to create a full Coalition and make it work; and second, so far he has done reasonably well in persuading the public not to blame his party for the tough measures they’re taking. The Coalition won’t fall apart. The Lib Dems have suffered so badly that if they were to pull out and provoke a general election, the LibDems would be massacred. Nick Clegg played his hand extremely well in the week after the election, but now the Tories have the stronger hand. There will come a point, if the LibDems are so dumped upon by the Conservatives, that out of sheer self-respect they would have to pull out. But Cameron wouldn’t want them to leave the coalition and his tactics have been good.

Peter Kellner is president of the pollsters YouGov

Caroline Lucas

Cameron may have come a long way from his days as a PR guru at Carlton, but meticulous image-management is still his game. In broad terms, Brand Cameron has been a winner. As a young, moderate candidate with a carefully crafted, green-tinged version of ‘compassionate conservatism’, Cameron swept into the Tory leadership in 2005 – and steered the Conservatives to (albeit muted) victory in the general election. With his note-less speeches and quick wit, Cameron can be dangerously impressive.

The shiny exterior masks a shallow, disappointing core. On everything he purports to stand for, his rhetoric is unmatched by reality. Take the environment. In the early days, Cameron sought to use green issues to detoxify the Tory brand. He posed with huskies atop a glacier in Norway, announcing his intention to tackle climate change head-on. Yet when giving his 10 policy priorities to the Sun soon afterwards, climate change didn’t even make the list. His pledge to make this the “greenest government ever” already hangs by a thread. He managed to spend two days in Zurich for the World Cup bid, but Cameron is nowhere to be found as the COP16 negotiations get underway in Cancun.

Caroline Lucas is Leader of the Green Party and MP for Brighton Pavilion

John O’Farrell

Cameron won the Tory leadership on the basis of one good speech, made without notes, as if he was just making it up as he went along. But he doesn’t have to do that with government policy as well. But the headline on the Tory leader has to be that he failed in the key objective of any opposition – to win a workable majority in the House of Commons. The Tories were way ahead in the polls and certain they would get the keys to 10 Downing Street, but instead they’ve only got it on a timeshare. And Cameron must take the blame – he was handed the last election on a plate but he smashed it, Bullingdon style, leaving his fag “Cleggers” picking up the pieces.

I know we are not supposed to go on about class, but Cameron has also confirmed my opinion about the attributes that emerge from a ‘top’ public school education – a distorted sense of entitlement and overwhelming self confidence that is rarely matched by equivalent ability. Why don’t they ever have extra tuition in Humility at these schools? I wrote a history of Britain subtitled “2,000 Years of Upper-Class Idiots In Charge”, and now it seems we are back where we started.

John O’Farrell is author of several books including ‘An Utterly Exasperated History of Modern Britain’

  • Gilliebc

    Cameron is disliked by many Tory supporters, especially the Euro Sceptic ones who refer to him as “blue labour”. So he must be doing something right!

  • Harold Lane

    Tim Bell says he is fantastic and then gives reasons why he is not. AT the moment Cameron is successfully placing the heat towards Clegg but it will come back to him

  • Richard Brittain

    Yeah, it doesn’t feel like 5 years. Possibly a sign that he has spent quite a lot of that time doing very little.

    I agree with Alastair Campbell’s and Caroline Lucas’ views.

    I actually think the election came just in time for him. He did sweep in as a young, shiney, charismatic figure back in 2005 but each year since then, the exterior has gradually peeled away to expose what seems to be a “shallow, disappointing core” that Caroline described. His popularity has been descending quite alarmingly since he reached that high when the opinion polls suggested an outright Tory win was certain. Had the election been in 2011 or 2012, I think Labour and Lib Dems might have gotten enough between them to form a Progressive Rainbow Alliance (love that term).

    Also, Peter Kellner makes a good point. “The Coalition won’t fall apart. The Lib Dems have suffered so badly that if they were to pull out and provoke a general election, the LibDems would be massacred.”

  • Christine Farrelly

    I think the public, many of whom I hear spitting blood because of the cuts etc, are feeling very differently towards Cameron than the media who, as you have said for ages, give him a very easy ride. It will only last so long as the public let it

  • John Marshall

    Cameron is made to look better than he is by an Opposition that does not appear to have the energy or the ideas needed, and which has let the goverment off virtually scot freee with its dishonest analysis of the economy

  • Richard Brittain

    Oh and John O’Farrell, I definitely agree with his views too.

  • toni

    I wish those who espouse Cameron’s ‘compassionate-ness’ would offer examples of it, as Camilla Batmanghelidj rightly queries, where’s the evidence of it in respect of the damaged children she cares for in particular, or children generally?

    We were regaled with endless exposure of his own family (state funded) tragedy, but policies being revealed now in respect of housing and the expectations laid onto unemployed parents have the potential to make the lives of poor children and the disabled more difficult.
    I award him a Naughtie spoonerism.

  • Dave Simons

    Thank goodness for John O’ Farrell’s contribution. He went to a public school himself so he’s well-qualified to be crtical of the public school ethos. I can’t fault his description of Cameron – ‘a distorted sense of entitlement and overwhelming self-confidence that is rarely matched by equivalent ability’. Reading most of the other contributions to ‘The Independent’ I’m amazed at how easily people let themselves get taken in by image and style. Alastair, there was nothing ‘bold’ about Cameron going into a coalition with the LibDems. It was either that or try to form a minority government or allow a Labour/LibDem coalition into power. He is a Prime Minister by default. Like a lot of people who are ‘to the manor born’, he’s obviously loafed his way through Eton and Oxford, been given a push from the Palace into a soft job as soon as he was in danger of encountering the real world after college, and his pronouncements are a continual reminder that he didn’t pay much attention in his student years – except to the kind of exclusive and elitist social networking for which Eton and Oxford have long been famed.
    The Conservative Party has been around in some guise or other for just over three hundred years. It has always been, and continues to be, the party of the rich, the powerful, the privileged and the advantaged. It has resisted the extension of franchise at every turn, but now we have votes for most people over eighteen the Conservative Party has to deal with that. It can’t promote itself as the party of the rich – otherwise it would never get into office – so it has to think up cunning ways of conning the electorate. Team Cameron, with its unsavoury back-up characters like Steve Hilton and Andy Coulson, has done little more than what New Labour did – pinch some of the Opposition’s policies. Behind the shallow gloss of Cameron the old nasty party keeps exposing itself – Nicholas Winterton, Lord Young, Howard Flight, and more to come no doubt. Peter Hennesey mentions Macmillan/ Butler – the outstanding common characteristic of that government and this one is the social composition of the Cabinet. That’s how far we’ve progressed in half a century! And when dear old Tim Bell talks about fairness being a meaningless concept which makes him angry I get angry with him. When the miners’ strike was on in 1984/5 I’m pretty sure he would have had some very meaningful ideas about fairness in relation to the absence of an NUM ballot.

  • Sj_broad

    John O’Farrell and his ilk seem to spend far more time thinking about the Bullingdon club than I bet Cameron ever does.

  • Chris lancashire

    Presumably Mr O’Farrell would have written exactly the same about Tony Blair.
    Mr Campbell’s assessment seems to me fair and reasonable; one could just add that he has dealt with the fiscal crisis boldly and decisively contrasting starkly with three years of Brown’s dithering.

  • Janete

    I think Claire Fox offers the most accurate analysis of Cameron. He is pure PR, seeming to spend most of his energy promoting himself rather than any distinctive set of coherant policies. There have been one or two u-turns on unpopular policy which have surprised me, suggesting his and his party’s image is his top priority, and of course the LibDems have been invaluable in taking the flak on some issues, leaving the Conservatives relatively untainted.

    This presents a difficulty for the opposition as his slipperiness makes him very difficult to pin down. When hit by a clear blow, which he thinks might resonate with the public, he is quick to offer a rethink (e.g. school sport) – we will have to see whether this was designed merely to diffuse criticism or effect a real change of direction. But there are also real opportunities for the Labour Party if Cameron is more concerned with image than policy. We have to attack the Government vigourously now if we are to limit some of their more damaging policies.

    I would like to see a far more effective campaign against the proposed changes to NHS funding, led by prominent members of the Shadow Cabinet. The public really care about the NHS, hence Cameron’s refusal to mention any of this before the election, a fierce attack on these policies could reap some rewards.

  • Sarah Dodds

    Totally agree with John O’Farrell. And that despite everything pointing in their favour, the Tories only limped home (even with double the campaign budget of the Labour party).
    I think most of the public seem totally indifferent to him. They know Clegg is the baddie, but at least Clegg manages to incite anger.
    Bit of a damp squid really, isn’t he? Very clever I’m sure, but very damp. Limp. Vacuous. A bit “Big Society” really.

  • Jacquie R

    I think ideology plays a very small part in Cameron’s make-up. As he said before elected, he wants to be Prime Minister because he thinks he’ll be “good at it”.

    In some ways, he’s right. He’s comfortable in his own skin, has excellent PR skills, is quick thinking, shrewd, a pragmatist and brimming with public school confidence. (In just about every way he differs from Brown.) If anything, the confidence will grow, making it easier still for the right wing press to portray him as a winner, while they do their hatchet job on Ed Miliband.

    One begins to realise what a “winner” Cameron is, when one considers any other leading Tory minister successfully replacing him (except possibly Ken Clark.). How many of them could get away with leading the country into this abyss of cuts?

  • Janete

    ‘…three years of Brown’s dithering’ ???? To suggest Gordon Brown dithered during the international fiscal crisis is completely ridiculous.

    • Chris lancashire

      You’re dead right given he was instrumental in creating it.

  • Judged against the rest of us you can only say he’s been amazingly successful. Judged against the requirements of the job, then I’d say the jury’s still out. Can he fulfull promises he’s made and what is the outcome for Britain that he wants to create?

  • Anonymous

    Since Cameron didn’t win outright and is constantly having to do a damage limitation exercise within his own bit of the government, I don’t consider him to be a raging success. Don’t you remember how sheepish he looked on the step of No 10? He knew he shouldn’t really be there.

    Peter Kellner is right that the Tories can’t allow the Coalition to fail – for a while. But if it becomes as toxic for the Lib Dems as it threatens to be, I wonder what exit strategy the Lib Dems have got. Wasn’t one of Danny Alexander’s main concerns that a coalition with the Tories would split the party? Everyone seems to think that the main Coalition players from the Lib Dems will become Tories of necessity. Not something that keeps DC awake at night, I’d guess.

  • Nicky

    Interesting comments – particularly yours (AC) on how Cameron is taking a major gamble on public gullibility, and John O’Farrell’s, who is absolutely spot-on – especially about needing some lessons in humility.

    There appears to be such a huge gap between Cameron’s glowing vision of himself and the indolent and vacuous reality. This week’s Observer’s Diary of a Civil Servant asks: ‘What exactly does prime minister David Cameron do?’ It’s not a facetious question – Whitehall insiders are genuinely perplexed about the ‘hands-off’ nature of Cameron’s premiership.

    My personal view, for what it’s worth, is that Cameron actually wants to be a king, rather than a prime minister. He just wants to be adored and admired, leaves the difficult stuff to his minions, and gets very antsy when he’s challenged. He may not even consciously realise his king fixation, although no doubt he’s quite proud that he’s a direct descendent of William IV – albiet from one of William’s illegitimate children. (He had no legitimate heirs with his wife, Queen Adelaide.) Actually, if you could choose which king to be related to, William would probably be fairly low down on the list. He didn’t have a particularly good reputation – in fact he was notorious for being a complete twerp (even by aristocratic standards) and earned the sobriquet ‘Silly Billy’ His niece, Victoria (whom he once reduced to tears in public) felt she had a very duff legacy and the need to work very hard to regain royal credibility.

    Cameron has benefited from having a press which accords him the kind of indulgent loyalty that even the real royal family doesn’t get. And if a Labour PM did or said the things that Cameron said, the press would hang them out to dry.

  • Paul Thompson100

    I find Cameron very much in the same mould as Hague – very entertaining but lacking substance. The only difference being that Cameron ‘won’ an election whereas Hague failed miserably. Cameron only won because people were tired of Gordon Brown and wanted rid.

    Ed Milliband will never compete with Cameron in the comedy stakes i.e. PMQ’s so he must choose his line of attack very carefully for utmost impact.
    Unfortunately, at last week’s PMQ’s he completely missed a golden opportunity following Mervyn King’s observations on Cameron and Osbourne and their grasp of economics or, more to the point, lack of it (Brown had the grasp but not the personality or style). Having been let off the hook,Cameron sighed a breath of relief and had a field day.

    Milliband really needs to get a grip or Cameron will be forever getting away with murder.

  • Natasha Durkin

    Yes and he also seem lazy, indolent even. There is no substance, no gravitas so far as I can see. For him it is all about the game. Oh, and the despicable policies are simply wired into his DNA. I suppose the only positive is that he doesn’t have the self-righteousness of Clegg.

  • Janete

    So he created the crisis in America, Iceland, Ireland, Greece, Belgium, Portugal, Spain …. etc. etc?

    This is even more ridiculous!!

  • Chris lancashire

    No, just a £50bn annual structural defecit – nothing to do with the banking crisis. Sold your and my gold reserves at a £7bn loss, created “tripartite” banking supervision – we know where that took us – record debt, record taxation, tripled tax legislation in 10 years, introduced a 20p tax rate but forgot to mention scrapping the 10p rate.
    That’s just for starters. Blame it on Iceland, blame it on onternational bankers, blame it on “globalisation” – but, no, it’s Brown….

  • Anonymous

    Some of us remember who introduced the 10p tax rate—when there was no protection from the minimum wage—oh! and who also introduced the minimum wage. He only reversied the 10p rate .when it was sensible to do so and raised the tax allowance at the same time thus protecting most low earners.

    We can be deceived by what the press don’t tell us as much as what they do.

    Bring back Gordon Brown and Alastair Darling.

  • Dave Simons

    What utter rubbish Chris, even by the standards of your one-liners! Brown was instrumental in creating the international fiscal crisis? How much power do you think the leader of one nation state has in the face of global finance? Haven’t you heard of Bernard Madoff, the one who made off with the millions? And all the other casino capitalists round the globe, gambling with other people’s labour? I attended a talk by Vince Cable last July and he had the good sense to praise Gordon Brown and Alastair Darling for the way they handled the situation in the late summer of 2008 when the UK banking system was on the point of total collapse. You might have gone to a cash-till the next morning and been unable to draw out any money. Don’t you have an atom of gratitude? Do you think Cameron/Osborne would have behaved differently, those opportunists who at that time were promising to match Labour’s public spending plans?

  • Interesting. Thanks

  • David Poyser

    I agree with John O’Farrell too
    Funnily enough, today (9th December) would be a great time for the Tories to precipitate a General Election – they would mop up the LibDim votes as they are so discredited on the lying issue, Ed M has yet to make his mark as a popular guy – Labour still not ‘hungry for power’ – while the Tories are as desperate as a pack of hungry hounds who haven’t chewed a fox to death for a few years)

  • C M Hills

    ‘a distorted sense of entitlement and overwhelming self-confidence that is rarely matched by equivalent ability’.

    Well done John O’Farrell. Without a doubt, that is the problem with society today – the upper-class idiots are in charge again.