David Cameron’s ‘a little and often’ leadership doesn’t suit him and isn’t Prime Ministerial

by Stephen Tall on October 24, 2012

The Telegraph’s James Kirkup, one of that paper’s few fair-minded political commentators, has written a thought-provoking article, A devil’s advocate defence of David Cameron and No 10. His case for the defence is first, that we (public, media) shouldn’t assume the role of Prime Minister has always to follow the command/control style of Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair:

Implicit – and sometimes explicit – in the various critiques of the Cameron style and No 10 outfit is the idea that a Prime Minister should be gripping the machine, managing the day-to-day business of government and all the rest. But should he? … Politically, indulging this idea that the PM “runs the country” could be a losing bet. In office, things inevitably go wrong, and over time, voters become disaffected with any Government. Insisting on personally associating yourself with every cough and spit of governance is surely daft; better to float above the quotidian grind, confining yourself to the big, strategic stuff, the work whose success is measured not hourly but yearly.

And secondly, that (if anything) David Cameron is still too much of a slave to the daily hamster wheel of the daily news cycle — a wheel that journalists’ Twitter trivia-obsession has sent spinning even faster:

Really, losing a few daily news cycles isn’t the end of the world, especially if the fundamentals are moving in the right direction. If by the summer of 2014, current early trends have continued, modest growth will have resumed, employment will be even higher, household disposable income will be rising and the deficit will be a bit smaller than it used to be. In that context, today’s quibbles about the hands-off Cameron approach may come to seem misplaced at best.

James Kirkup is right, I think, to highlight these two essentials. A leader has to play to their own strengths:

  • Margaret Thatcher’s were an unyielding fixedness of purpose and an inhuman capacity for work and detail;
  • Tony Blair had the laywer’s rare gift of being able to mesmerise himself and then others into agreeing with the brief he was persuaded by;
  • David Cameron’s are an arms-length trust of colleagues, a refusal to panic, and an exam-crammer’s ability to get himself out of a tight squeeze.
  • (For the record, I think Nick Clegg’s are his intellectual curiosity and openness to criticism.)

    He is also right, I think to advise Mr Cameron against over-exposure.

    Who heard that the Prime Minister was going to give a speech on crime and thought, “This will be a really weighty and important contribution to the debate”? And who thought, “Here’s the PM trying to distract attention from his troubles and get folk focused on an issue Tories are comfortable with”? That may be unfair. I imagine the speech has been in the grid for some time — and indeed his call for ‘proportionate, meaningful punishment’ was by no means traditional Tory knee-jerkism (as indicated by Jonathan Portes’s cautiously positive response here).

    But James Kirkup’s point holds true:

    An intervention from the PM should be a big event, not a routine and largely ignorable commonplace. (Whoever thought it wise to make Mr Cameron a panellist on ITV’s The Agenda last night night might consider that.)

    Here’s a facetiously accurate factoid… The last time all three major parties’ leaders’ personal poll ratings improved was in August — a month when little was heard from them as the Olympics dominated our lives. David Cameron and his advisers appear to be following the advice my mum used to give me when I was ill to encourage me to eat: ‘A little and often’. Though that got me back to full strength, it’s not playing to the Prime Minister’s.

    * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.