David Cameron’s vulgar obsession with image

by Tom Watson

It was Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov who wrote “complacency is a state of mind that exists only in retrospective: it has to be shattered before being ascertained”.

When the history of the Cameron-Clegg administration is written, Andy Parsons will be a footnote to the coalition chronicles, a fleeting fact in a wider story of ultra-pragmatism and opportunity. He will feature more prominently on photographic bookplates than amid the text.

And yet, in the last week of the sixth month of this unique political construct, Mr Parsons has come to symbolise something more than the unbounded personal ambition of Messrs Cameron and Clegg.

He is an expression of the super-ego of the Prime Minister. And as any Zen Buddhist will tell you, the ego, unlike an Andy Coulson bad news day, is hard to extinguish.

Labour now has a chance to expose the vacuity of the Cameron-Clegg project, but we’ll have to have an honest conversation with ourselves about where the limits of image management should be drawn before we make a full on assault on the vainglorious PM.

As long as he remains a civil servant, the Parsons lens will forever magnify the subtle PR and image management deployed by the team of brand-building civil servants that now works for Mr Cameron.

An experienced reportage photographer will tell you that a political picture is supposed to tell a hidden story, with the very best revealing secrets of which the subject is not even conscious. The sweaty, furrowed brow of Nixon or Tony Blair’s gaunt and piercing stare. Good political photographers can capture the moments of absurdity that every elected person in the public eye dreads. I’m thinking of William Hague in his peaked cap or David Miliband wielding a banana. Or David Cameron standing outside “Peacocks” retail store with his head obscuring the “Pea”.

Parsons’ images will not tell these stories.

They will subliminally unfold in a Nabakovian unreliable narrative – a complex fiction of what David Cameron wants you to think life in government is really like. There is the moment of tenderness on the campaign bus. Here’s the statesman surrounded by his advisers on the day of a crisis. Look at the great leader working into the night, always alert though the country sleeps.

You see, with this government, even their made-up story lacks passion or originality. At least Vladimir Putin wrestles bears and climbs mountains to build his image. It may not be deliberate but Putin’s image makers are at least adventurous, romantic and jovial. In contrast, Parsons’ work is contrived, sentimental and lacking authenticity.

In this sense alone, Parsons reveals the hidden truth of the Cameron government: they have a vulgar obsession with image. It’s an obsession greater than any other. Cameron wants to be JFK with a hint of Thatcher and a touch of Tony Blair.

Yet when they forced those poor Whitehall mandarins to take Mr Parsons into their ranks, the Conservatives displayed a staggering political complacency of which Mrs Thatcher would never have been guilty. It’s one of those unforced errors I mentioned in my last Uncut column. It’s a big one. It’s not going to go away.

All Prime Ministers and their teams want to project an image. I was once a bit-part player in near-fisticuffs when Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell fell out over whether Tony Blair should deliver a clause four statement wearing a suit or a shirt and jeans.

But notwithstanding all the unsavoury obsession with self occasionally displayed by Tony Blair, he never once made Carole Caplin a civil servant and the taxpayer never paid her fees.

Like I said, Cameron will pay for his hubris. And that’s before the information commissioner has ruled whether we are to know how many brushed steel cupboards and white goods the taxpayer has purchased for the new Downing Street kitchen – the publicly funded one where Rupert Murdoch will be “privately” entertained without making it onto the new and transparent quarterly publication of ministerial diaries.

There’s a timely new fly-on-the-wall documentary about to be aired on the BBC. It shows Peter Mandelson despairing of Gordon Brown’s inability to keep a tie around his neck for more than 10 minutes without looking like he’d laced his cups of coffee with Drambuie. This footage is, of course, supreme political image-making, from Labour’s finest iconographer since Dennis Healey refused to trim his eyebrows. But even Peter, with his precision and obsession with detail, looks like an amateur compared to David Cameron’s battalion of stylists.

I understand why Peter expressed frustration by the way. Never have I met a man as powerful as Gordon Brown who had so little interest, nor ability, to fuss about his personal appearance as he broadcast important messages to the nation. I remember a very early start in a Birmingham BBC studio, when Gordon’s press people discovered he’d bounded out of the hotel and into his bulletproof car wearing mismatching trousers to his suit jacket. They quietly panicked. He just chuckled.

Gordon is the most authentic and least stylish of the seven Prime Ministers I have met. And I admire him all the more for it when contrasted to the first six months of David Cameron. Yet he lost the image war and that cost us votes.

I don’t know whether David Cameron actually has a valet or a secret butler but I know his suit trousers will always match the jacket. His elegance is boringly reliable.

And that is the saddest truth of all – that nitpicking and attention to image detail will probably bear fruit. The television age requires it. Cameron was complacent when he took the political risk to appoint the photographer, the filmmaker and the stylist. But if he can get through the righteous sense of outrage, it might prove to be a gamble that was worth taking.

As Pushkin said: “The illusion which exalts us is dearer to us than ten-thousand truths”.

Tom Watson is Labour MP for West Bromwich East.

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8 Responses to “David Cameron’s vulgar obsession with image”

  1. Praguetory says:

    You still wearing that pinstripe, Tom?

  2. Danvers says:

    Come on Tom. New Labour broke with tradition when it hired Alastair Campbell as the PM’s spokesman. Damian McBride was poached FROM the Treasury so he could have a political role for Brown. And New Labour could have written the playbook on “vulgar obsession with image”.

    Those in glass houses…etc

    Your Tory Friend.

  3. Tom says:

    Danvers – I thought I alluded to that in the piece. My point is that Mr Cameron has taken it to another level. And it might work for him. Shocking that it is.

  4. Jane says:

    Governments and the staff they need are changing. I can recall Cherie Blair not having any paid staff and being personally concerned about this. I know that situation changed as Sarah Browne had apparently three staff and I understand Samantha Cameron has two paid by the State. I also know many people who have attended Downing Street receptions associated with their employment or charitable work. They cherish the photographs taken to commemorate their visit. I do not have problems therefore with an official photographer as their role will surely be to record the many events that members of the public attend as well as official photographs of the PM. Neither do I have problems with employees to assist with styling. I can recall the most awful press reports about John Major’s casual clothing, Norma Major’s styling, Cherie Blair’s hair etc etc. All very negative and demoralising. I don’t know about you but feeling good about how you look means that you have more confidence in the role you are undertaking? Further we expect our PM and his wife to look good, to dress appropriately for every occasion etc etc. I personally feel that they should also have a clothing allowance – particularly the women as all this costs a lot of money.

    I do not think that being conscious of image is vulgar. Image matters – it tells me about someones ability as to me it is about communication. Communication is essential for leadership and government. Image is not just about dress it encompasses language. humour, posture etc. It is what we see and also tells me that the person has made the effort and is therefore showing me respect. Clothing and grooming send a powerful message – we should all know that. When interviewing prospective employees, the first perception is of dress – not necessarily the cost of the dress but the effort made. I myself have rejected able people for jobs because of their image.

    In mentioning Gordon Brown, it reminds me of the adage do not judge a book by its cover. I am not sure of this anymore. It was very distressing to see my PM looking haggard, scruffy, tight shirts and with hunched shoulders. This image stays with you and can cloud any message. I was very fond of Michael Foot and greatly admired his abilities if not his policies. However, the lasting image I have of him is standing at the Cenotaph in a donkey jacket. He forgot that he was representing me and not himself. Therefore I agree with your assessment that the image of GB as being tired and often scruffy cost votes. It portrayed a person who was not up to coping with the job.

    Image wins elections – too true. The PM and Deputy PM are very popular in my neck of the woods. I do some charitable work with Age Concern and they all comment on the two wonderful, handsome young men who are doing such a wonderful job in getting the country back on its feet. They said the same about my hero Tony Blair too.

  5. James Williams says:

    At least PM’s don’t have to wear themed leisure wear like we see US Presidents do.

    Even Obama struggles to look cool in his chinos and a suede jacket emblazoned with the Presidential seal.

  6. Old Slaughter says:

    Oh Tom.

    “But even Peter, with his precision and obsession with detail, looks like an amateur compared to David Cameron’s battalion of stylists.”

    I like this bit, this is where you try to sidestep the ‘glass houses’ accusations and go with the line that you guys strayed but the Tories are just taking the p!$$. One photographer! Yup, that is the extent of evidence in your piece. He employs an official photographer. It is as well you are preaching to the choir here because there is no danger of any rational swing voter ever ever buying one of your folks whining about spin.
    Is there a stronger word than hypocrisy? If so, I would like to employ it.

    Cameron is the ‘heir to Blair’. He couldn’t beat them so he joined them (not realising that he could have remained opposed and just waited for the economy to crash). You guys invented the paradigm, to see you now cry about it would be funny if it wasn’t my country’s political system that you raped.

  7. “Damian McBride was poached FROM the Treasury so he could have a political role for Brown”

    Indeed he was – he moved from being a civil servant to being an identified special adviser.The problem with the photographer, the film-maker and the stylist (along with the other dozen or so Tory placemen and women that have been indentified so far) is that they have made the journey in the opposite direction, being made civil servants instead of special advisers.

    This is fundamentally wrong. It clouds the true number of political appointees in Whitehall. It flies in the face of the public sector recruitment freeze. It’s a clear violation of Cameron’s promise to cut the number of political appointees. It takes jobs away from hard-working civil servants and others who could do the job but are instead facing the axe. It futher politicises the Civil Service.

    Something the pundits haven’t really picked up on yet, is that, as relatively senior civil servants, these political appointees are allowed to issue orders and instructions to other civil servants, something Special Advisers are not allowed to do. As these people have only been appointed in order to further the Tory party’s aims, you can see how this is extremely dangerous to the concept of political neutrality in the civil service.

    Yes, Labour had too many special advisers and yes they made some very poor decisions, but the Tories complained about them over and over and over again. Now they’re in power they’re doing the same.

    And finally, can you imagine how David Cameron and the Tories would have reacted if Gordon Brown appointed a personal photographer?

    Cameron will never cease to amaze those that are still looking for any semblance of moral fibre within the man , observers can see he has an innate ability to seem genuinely engaged in an issue but actually is far from it .
    Supposedly a Christian but hypocritically attending a mans funeral that he totally opposed when Mandela was incarcerated typifies his chameleon qualities .Cameron backed apartheid as a young Conservative and even was outspoken against sanctions on South Africa because of it .He even went on a freebies ‘fact finding’ mission in support of President Botha the ex Prime Minister who advocated Apartheid .
    The draconian Welfare Reforms and the immoral consequences they have caused will no doubt have little sympathy or compassion form Cameron so unless we get rid of him our lives will be further darkened .
    An open admission that he has used cocaine in the past is an admission that he has thwarted the law himself but is introducing more of them in order to restrict our freedoms even further .The Tory mentality needs to be examined to have had ID Smith as its leader and now a control freak in Cameron .

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