By Tim Montgomerie
Follow Tim on Twitter
Yesterday's FT Magazine featured a long profile of David Cameron by the newspaper's Political Editor, George Parker. It contained no great revelations – six-and-a-half years in to Cameron's leadership of the Conservative Party that would be a tough ask. It did crystallise something about Project Cameron for me, however. Many of us wish the Conservative Party had a clearer message – a compelling narrative. But for Cameron and his court the man is the message: His strength, his sense of British fair play, the moderation of his Conservatism, and, yes, his ideological flexibility.
The money quote in George Parker's piece came near the end: "His supporters believe trying to define Cameron is an obsession of “columnists and political train-spotters” and strong leadership is what voters really want." Strength is one of the two key qualities that Tory strategists want to fix in the public's mind when they think of Cameron. The other is fairness. Parker writes that Cameron is never more at ease than when he's on the political turf that he occupied before the financial crash:
"He talks about wanting to reform social care for the elderly and Britain’s clunky adoption rules alongside trying to revive the economy. Although only a relatively recent convert to gay causes, he plans to legalise gay marriages. Recent “summits” were held on tackling Britain’s “booze culture” and racism in football. It is almost as if Cameron can’t wait to get back to his “compassionate Conservatism” agenda that was so rudely interrupted by the financial crash."
Mr Cameron is apparently being advised that he should follow this natural inclination:
"The Conservative party’s US polling consultants have told Cameron he should “bank” the fact that people have decided that he is “strong and determined” and work on softer aspects of his leadership. His advisers recognise the risk of being seen as a “Flashman” character – a public-school bully – and plead with him not to be too aggressive in his House of Commons encounters with Ed Miliband, the rookie Labour leader…"
But, notes Parker:
"…They admit the prime minister usually pays no attention."
I paste some other interesting quotes from the profile below but I'll end with what David Cameron joked that he said to Angela Merkel when he was showing the German leader the English countryside around Chequers:
“If things had been different all this could have been yours”.
Basil Fawlty would be proud!
A FEW OTHER CHOICE QUOTES FROM THE PROFILE
Cameron's work-rate: "A view has taken hold among some of Cameron’s parliamentary colleagues – and some officials – that on some matters of national importance, the prime minister simply does not put in the hours. The accusations were flying at the time of a sensitive defence review in 2010, more recently over Europe. Cameron’s view was that before the Brussels summit he spoke to the main leaders and did all he could, but Britain never had a strong negotiating hand. To one Tory MP, his approach was “slapdash”. Another says: “The most obvious issue is his workrate. There’s obviously a problem: the government makes a lot of mistakes. Frankly, he is putting the school run ahead of the national interest.”"
Cameron's party management skills: "Cameron’s attempts to woo his Tory critics with whisky at Number 10 or Chequers does not seem to have improved things: “We want him to listen to us, not give us tours of historic buildings,” says one long-serving MP. Some believe he is using the coalition with the Lib Dems as an excuse for not adopting a tougher Tory line. “He’s taking us into a risk-free zone, dumbing down the political discourse,” says another."
Enough of radicalism: "After two years of frenetic legislating, Cameron seems to be tiring of radicalism: he talks now of the coalition moving into the “implementation phase”. Hilton, his ideas factory, has headed off for a sabbatical in California. The prime minister has been heard to joke: “How about if we do nothing for a month? Give people a break.”"
The radicalism comes from others: "Cameron’s government is doing radical things, but some Tory MPs believe this has not been driven from the top. Individual ministers have been allowed to pursue their own projects: Gove is transforming education by setting many schools free from local authority control; Iain Duncan Smith is overhauling Britain’s welfare system; Andrew Lansley is overseeing unpopular health reforms; and Osborne’s programme of cuts is reshaping the state… Cameron says his approach is to appoint good people “and give them a good go” in their job. But his friends admit the measures taken collectively do not amount to a compelling political narrative."
Cameronism? It's complicated: "Cameron calls himself a “liberal Conservative” and says he is “practical and reasonable and radical when necessary”. One cabinet minister says: “Someone once said he was Alec Douglas-Home at Glastonbury: it’s not quite right but you can see what I mean.” The image of Cameron as a tweedy traditionalist prime minister raving at Britain’s biggest festival sums up the apparent contradictions."
Competitive Cameron: "Cameron’s determination to win the next election is not in doubt. Cameron’s advisers sometimes wince as he lays into his Labour opponents during prime minister’s questions. It is just as evident on the tennis court, where he has twice beaten Nick Clegg including a 7-6 victory at Chequers. “He took it unbelievably seriously,” a bewildered Clegg told colleagues later. Feldman adds: “He wins by perseverance and tactics. He’s very competitive. He likes to win.”"