Cameron: a Tsar is born? Or saloon bar prime minister?

by Dan Cooke

Downing Street spinners apparently briefed this weekend that in future David Cameron plans to use his office to “act as a critic of the government” and speak “as a tribune of the people against the government when it gets things wrong”.

The prime minister recently “joked” to the Westminster press gallery that he is more a chairman than chief executive of the government. The response was negative commentary suggesting lack of grip, surely giving pause for thought about the wisdom of such remarks if not meant in earnest. Nevertheless, the suggestion must be taken as a significant indication of Cameron’s strategy for the rest of the parliament.

The prospects for success of any strategy of prime ministerial detachment from day-to-day responsibility for government depend significantly on which of two principal alternatives No. 10 has in mind.

First, the briefers hint at a desire to present the prime minister as elevated above the decision-making of his ministers, while intervening selectively to correct errors or chastise lack of progress. Such an approach might appear cunning in the mind’s eye of a strategist, but would be disastrous in practice (like a restaurant manager wandering into the dining room to taste the food after it has already been served, as one commentator has observed).

The Cameron circle has invoked the presidential style of Margaret Thatcher as precedent for the prime minister standing apart from cabinet colleagues. As an analysis of most of Thatcher’s tenure this is pretty questionable, but the history of rulers seeking to separate their own popularity from perception of government performance is indeed long and impressive. However, it is rarely associated with democratic cultures.

The archetype of the beloved ruler immune to anger at the failings of his administration is the “good Tsar” of Russian folklore. In other autocratic societies, the projection of the benign leader ceaselessly contending with guilty advisers is also commonplace (although recent events in North Africa are a reminder that the projection is often far from the reality of public opinion).

In modern Europe only the latter-day Tsar, Vladimir Putin, as both president and then prime minister of Russia, has succeeded in maintaining his support base with regular attacks on his own government for failing to live up to his, and “the people’s”, expectations (complete with televised dressing downs in his office for “guilty” ministers).

The durability of such a model of legitimacy-building depends on two crucial ingredients. A sense that the venerated leader is above political faction and can speak for the “people” as a whole – an absurd conceit for a party leader in a parliamentary democracy. And on a lack of the opportunity for detailed scrutiny through which the leader is forced to comment on policies at a stage of development or implementation not of his own choosing – as is inevitable at PMQs or any encounter with the UK media.

But Cameron’s own words in his speech on Sunday might be read as suggesting a different and more limited strategy of detachment – to set the political leadership he provides apart from the inherited cohorts of government bureaucracy.

In this, Cameron would indeed be following rhetorically in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher as well as  a series of other prime ministers who – usually after several years of toil – publicly expressed frustration with the machinery of government and the capacity of the broader public sector to respond to political direction. Tony Blair’s “scars on my back” and “forces of conservatism” speeches (the latter, perhaps significantly, mimicked by George Osborne this week) can also be set in this tradition.

With somewhat surprising, if not indecent, haste and vigour after less than a year in office, David Cameron ploughed the same furrow on Sunday. The “enemies” at whom the prime minister aimed his sights were the salarymen in officialdom allegedly standing in the way of the government’s enterprise initiatives. Similar if not identical targets to the Tory briefers who complained of the failings of FCO mandarins in planning Libyan evacuations and regularly blame town hall officers for making the “wrong” cuts.

Yet the personalised nature of Cameron’s rhetoric, set in the context of the weekend briefing, continue to hint at a self-image as popular tribune above politics. If recalcitrant officials failed to do the right thing, Cameron promised, he would himself haul them into his office to tell them off (one hopes without cameras in attendance á la Putin). Cameron’s ministers, he implies, cannot be relied upon to oversee their own officials without the threat of direct intervention.

And what unique prime ministerial tools would Cameron bring to such confrontations? Not the forensic challenging of detail and logic of a Thatcher or a Blair, but an everyman’s “common sense”  that, in its generality, acknowledges no room for dissent. Cameron declared on Sunday that even his daughter Florence knew what “ridiculous” regulations needed to be cut (so he didn’t need to spell it out to his audience and one suspects that guilty officials should not expect much guidance either).

This is the populist certainty of the saloon bar prime minister. It is rhetoric that could be comfortably adapted by a Putin or Chavez. But the sheer vanity and disingenuousness involved cannot hold in a society with an independent media and a nimble opposition. This is true a fortiori if the leader is naïve enough to telegraph the vanity and disingenuousness in advance through press briefings.

It is unclear whether Cameron really believes he can play the role he sketched out, in which case he is dramatically overplaying his hand. Or whether the line is simply being pushed to explain away the recent episodes of chaos, incompetence and division. In either case, the path to “Tsardom” would lead only to ridicule and failure for Cameron. Let’s settle down and watch the show.

Dan Cooke is a Labour activist and lawyer.

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2 Responses to “Cameron: a Tsar is born? Or saloon bar prime minister?”

  1. Mike Killingworth says:

    What interests me is that it has taken Cameron only a year in power to reach these conclusions. ISTR that it took both Thatcher and Blair rather longer to get there, although all leaders do eventually.

    If he is setting himself against his own ministers (or is it code for the Lib Dem ones?) whose side does he expect the civil service to be on?

    Older readers may begin to see parallels with Heath’s term of office – Heath’s major achievement, entry to the EU, was of course achieved across party lines – and if Labour does scrape home in four years’ time, a repeat of the 1974-79 farrago may not be too far from the script, either.

  2. Tim Sewell says:

    I’ve said since the beginning that this is a government of golf club bar bores. You can see that in the targets they chose for damnation and the language they use to villify them. A smug and selfish bunch of Home Counties ‘self-made’men’ (except that for the most part, they’re not even self-made, they just like to act as though they were).

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