By Paul Goodman
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The Prime Minister glances up from his train seat and gives me a glare of welcome. I have joined his entourage to follow him for the day on the campaign trail, and we are bound for Preston. His red box is shoved to one side of the train table. He clearly doesn't mind facing backwards as he travels. Paperwork is strewn in front of him. I am dismissed for a while to allow him to catch up with it – mug up his brief on the visit, I suspect – and then summoned for a chat. He begins by objecting to a story published about Downing Street recently. A reason for that opening glower has just become clear.
I mention the incident only because it offers the perfect introduction to my five snapshots of Cameron on tour:
- Getting out of London is a means of escape. Imagine being Prime Minister. Almost everyone wants something from you. You can trust almost no-one. The Leader of the Opposition wants your job, and so do most of your colleagues. Your party will despatch you if you lose without a second thought. You are blamed for everything that goes wrong – more often than not – and praised for nothing that goes right. You discover very swiftly to your frustration that your powers in office are more limited than you had ever imagined. These problems are par for the course in every generation, but this Twitter Age brings new ones. For the lobby and blogosphere, armed with the fearsome apparatus of modern technology, is on your case. Make a slip and you will be remorselessly punished. This feral beast (copyright, T.Blair) treats you with a presumption of guilt, and nothing that you say or do is off-limits. This bubble life can drive Prime Ministers mad, and has indeed done so in one or two recent cases. Cameron is as tough as old wellingtons, but his soul must occasionally cry: O for the wings of a dove. So how can he fly away, and find rest? Why, by escaping from the Village – and going on tour.
- Cameron is ageing well…but he is ageing. What is happening to that energetic young man who, mimicking Blair's youthful appeal, used to cycle to work each day? The Prime Minister is keeping his figure – all I see him eat is a banana – but the years are passing. He is losing some hair at the front. Rather than brush it down, he is sweeping it back in a wave, away from that high forehead. There are patches of grey in it, low down on the back of his head, when it is seen from behind. Cameron is rather fine-looking in a posh sort of way – clap a powdered wig on his head, and he could be an extra in Pride and Prejudice – but his face, seen from some angles, is peculiarly pudding-like. His expressions are an interesting study: when baffled by something, his face takes on a look of bovine dull-wittedness that, for whatever reason, I associate with people of exceptionally high intelligence. (He got a first.) He is far less adept at concealing his feelings than many senior politicians. When annoyed by something, he frowns down his nose at you. He flushes easily. When seeking to soothe or placate or calm – his default setting – both hands are pushed out, palms downwards, as if pushing you away.
- He enjoys the stump. Cameron, his entourage and I get off the train, and I am dashed about in a car that follows his to Barnoldswick, where we visit Hope – Hope Technology, which manufactures cycle parts. Complete in trademark blue suit and light blue tie, the Prime Minister crashes through the vast factory space, shaking hands, peering and frowning at jockey wheels and chain guides. The Prime Minister is very good at these visits. He has swotted up on the facts, asks lots of questions, and seems – no, is – pleased to see everyone, which isn't surprising, because everyone seems pleased to see him. Seriously. I don't catch so much as a resentful or contemptous half-glance. There is an obvious reason for this. Cameron is, after all, helping to promote what they do. And there is, I think, another one – namely, that these are skilled, productive, hard-toiling Englishmen and women who have the natural cheerfulness of people doing an honest day's work. Whether this is true of everyone who lives in the Westminster Village is a matter for debate. The Prime Minister travels with a small entourage – at least, by the standard of some of his equivalents abroad. At one point, Liz Sugg, his tour organiser and a long-standing aide, dashes maniacally from the room, mobile clamped to her hair. Clare Foges, Cameron's speechwriter, is also on the trip.
- Cameron is excellent at presenting. Indeed, this is probably what he does best. The TV cameras have come to the factory and Arif Ansari, the BBC's north-west political correspondent, has questions for Cameron. The Prime Minister wants to stick to his carefully-scripted sound bite about the coming elections being a red/blue choice – and that only by voting Conservative can you keep your council tax down. Ansari plugs away about criticisms that Geoff Driver, the Tory county council leader, has made of Michael Gove over academies: he rejects the Education Secretary's claims that some primaries are sub-standard. Cameron doesn't so much as blink as he explains that Gove and Driver want the same thing, namely better schools for our children, so they are completely in agreement. This is obvious nonsense – well, it isn't nonsense, but you know what I mean – and though Ansari perseveres he doesn't get very far. It is all a bit 1997, in our exciting new age of authenticity, but the Prime Minister does it very well. And then we are out and away and off to a pub amidst impossibly bleak and beautiful moorland, where Cameron is due to speak to a mass of party members from the area.
- The Party members I see respect him, admire him, and like him. But there is no sense that they think he's One of Us. Cameron is pawed, tousled, back-slapped, snapped and videoed as he works his way through the room. The crowd is younger than one might have expected for a weekday. Lots of working age people as well as many elderly ones. There is a sprinkling of Asian faces. His pitch is fairly standard – deficit down by a third; benefits cap; net immigration down by a third, and so on. It goes down perfectly well, but there's an interesting sub-text: his points don't get the room breaking into applause. They respect the Prime Minister's office, clearly admire him, even like him – and seem to think that he's doing his best. But I get no sense, as I did when I used to watch Margaret Thatcher talking to party members, that they feel he's One of Us. And, always, he is held back by a problem she never had – that he's yet to win, if he ever does, an election on his own. One of the questions is about Europe, the policy issue. Another is about Nigel Farage, the party leader: must Cameron be so adversarial towards him? The Prime Minister smoothes over that one as quickly as he can.
Then he is outside in the sunlight as the members applaud, turn to each other, brandish mobile phones. For a moment, I am seized by a sudden sympathy for him. It is utterly disproportionate. After all, no-one asked him to do the job. He is never going to go hungry after he leaves it. Many of his problems are his own fault. But the bottom line is: what he does is public service. What I and much of the Village do is not. I have been a politician, am now a journalist – and know which is harder. He spots me. "Goodbye, Paul," he says. "Thank you for coming." I hold out my right hand. Out comes his left one. Its palm encloses my hand, shakes it, and pushes it slightly downwards.
And then he's gone.