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David Cameron is Useless

Why the Syria vote is an emblematic failure for Britain's prime minister

Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images

In November 2009, David Cameron gave the Hugo Young Lecture, sponsored by The Guardian in memory of its highly respected columnist. Young had died of cancer in the autumn of 2003 after a splendid swan song, a final year of controlled rage. Sooner and more clearly than almost any other English journalist, including colleagues at his own paper, he saw through the imposture by which Tony Blair—whom Young had once much admired—took his country into the Iraq war.

Six months after the lecture, Cameron became the prime minister—and rather more than three years later he has just sustained the most humiliating parliamentary defeat known by any premier since Neville Chamberlain was forced to resign in May 1940 and be replaced by Winston Churchill. Chamberlain’s majority plummeted in the vote at the end of the “Norway debate”, but he didn’t actually lose the vote, as Cameron did on the last Thursday of August.

Cameron had recalled Parliament in the confident hope that he would be given authorization to take action against Assad’s regime in Syria, but authorization was withheld by MPs, and Cameron’s authority in the broader sense was hugely damaged. It was the latest in the long line of about-turns and foul-ups that has marked Cameron’s career, and at Westminster the talk is now that he may not be the resident of 10 Downing Street for much longer.

Questions of war and peace had not been Cameron’s subject when he gave that lecture, although a year before he had called himself a “liberal Conservative” and distinguished this from neoconservative interventionism: “We should accept that we cannot impose democracy at the barrel of a gun; that we cannot drop democracy from 10,000 feet—and we shouldn’t try.” Cameron’s Young lecture was devoted instead to his vision of what he called “the Big Society,” a doctrine of social cohesion vaguely tinged with progressive sentiment.

If this was an attempt to woo the metropolitan liberal elite exemplified by the newspaper that had invited him, it was not a success. Sundry Guardian journalists derided Cameron, with Polly Toynbee calling him a “butterfly.” Now, with the nine-hour interrogation of Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, Cameron’s flirtation with the “Guardianistas” has ended in lurid fashion. Still more astonishingly, security officials turned up at the offices of the Guardian, demanding to see, and then destroy, a laptop containing revelations about the National Security Agency. In vain did Alan Rusbridger, the paper’s editor, explain that everything on this particular hard drive was duplicated on others in Brazil and the United States. The security lads would not be gainsaid in their latest pastime of Whack-A-Mac, and the laptop was solemnly smashed to pieces.

Although the prime minister was vacationing in Cornwall with his family, as we learned from excruciating snapshots of him on the beach struggling to hold a towel round his plump red torso as he changed swimsuits, he surely knew beforehand about both the Guardian raid and the detention of Miranda. That adds more detail to the painful story of his attempts to ingratiate himself with the press, while also sometimes trying to silence it. And if that sounds contradictory, such contradictions have long been the problem with Cameron.

Despite the ingratiation, he has never had enough friends in the media. He is sneered at by the liberal commentariat, but then Paul Dacre, editor of the aggressively rightist-populist—and very influential—Daily Mail, has always detested him. And when Cameron does befriend journalists, he does so with appalling lack of judgment. He was a close chum of Rebekah Brooks, one disgraced former editor of the now defunct News of the World, and he hired another, Andy Coulson, as his media manager. Both of them go on trial this autumn on charges relating to the phone-hacking scandal that led to the closure of News of the World, and the prime minister is looking forward to the trials almost as little as the defendants are.

Above all, the picture that has formed over the years is of a man who not for nothing spent years in corporate PR (working for a shady, second-rate TV company at that) and who says what he thinks his audience wants to hear, rather than what, if anything, he actually believes. In a bizarre column for Newsweek last year, Niall Ferguson mentioned one of Cameron’s gestures of hostility toward the European Union, designed to placate his own right wing, and said that “many Conservatives saw it as an act of Churchillian defiance. The parallel is not one Cameron disavows.”

I’m sure it isn’t: Being compared to Churchill is the ultimate accolade for some of our politicians. But maybe Cameron is all too Churchillian. After he bolted from the Conservatives and then gained office with the Liberals in 1905, Churchill became the object of peculiar detestation to his former party. The High Tory National Review (no kin of the very different American journal of that name) called him a pushful mercenary available to the highest bidder, who “always plays up to the loudest gallery. He is the transatlantic type of demagogue (‘them’s my sentiments and if they don’t give satisfaction they can be changed’).” Much more than once, Cameron has brought those sharp words to my mind.

In opposition, he insisted that disadvantaged young lawbreakers should be understood rather than hated (paraphrased a little derisively as “hug a hoodie”), but then decided to be tough on crime. In his first speech to the Conservatives as party leader, he said: “Tony Blair once explained his priority in three words: education, education, education. I can do it in three letters: NHS.” This was an appeal to widespread sentiment, not to say sentimentality, about our National Health Service, which has been called the nearest thing the British now have to a national religion, but which is in truth gravely dysfunctional and, as many studies have shown, compares poorly with health services in other European countries. When Cameron’s government was formed, it promised no major top-down reform of the NHS, and it has since embarked on just that, although almost certainly the wrong kind of reform: Instead of breaking up the Health Service’s vast, Leninist, centralized bureaucracy, he is merely creating a new kind of bureaucracy of “health and wellbeing boards” and “clinical commissioning groups.”

As opposition leader, Cameron proclaimed his ardent environmental faith and went off on a comical stunt driving a sledge through the snows of Norway to show how concerned he was about global warming. It didn’t occur to him that flying him and his entourage northward left a whopping carbon footprint, as even we simpleminded voters could work out for ourselves. On a more modest scale, he arranged a photo op of himself cycling to work in good ecological way, the effect somewhat spoiled when the cameras caught a gas-guzzling sedan behind him carrying his clean shirts. His government is now frantically building houses across what’s left of England’s green and pleasant land, and Cameron has become a zealous promoter of fracking, all to the rage of rural Tories.

He made some early efforts to repudiate Blair’s foreign adventurism. But then, when the South Ossetia crisis erupted five summers ago, he flew to Tbilisi to say that Georgia should be admitted to NATO forthwith, which, if acted on, might have precipitated a full-scale international war. Now he has come a terrible cropper, by striking attitudes over Syria when he did not have the parliamentary or public support to move from words to deeds, the kind of intervention about which he had once expressed scepticism, as the Daily Mail, and many of his MPs, still do.

He and Barack Obama have little in common, but they both have the same electoral problem. The problem is systemic bias. Ironically enough, in the United States, it’s the party of the right that enjoys the bias, so that the Republicans can control Congress with substantially fewer votes than the Democrats, but here the tilt is to Labour. The Tories need a lead of six or seven points in the popular vote merely to win the same number of parliamentary seats.

All in all, the prospects look bleak for Cameron. He is now “in office but not in power.” His talk about the Big Society has long since been mocked and then forgotten, his domestic polices have enjoyed at best mixed results, and as supposed international leader, he has now been made to look both foolish and weak. Most painful of all, he has learned that if you try to please all the people all the time, you may end up by pleasing no one.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author of The Strange Death of Tory England and Yo, Blair!