by Kevin Meagher
Those prime ministers whom the gods wish to destroy they first ridicule.
The current incumbent, who once promised to “let sunshine win the day” has a face like thunder these days.
That’s because David Cameron’s once-luxuriant Teflon coating has now rubbed off leaving him mired in a series of presentational sticky patches. He’s getting to know what ridicule is all about.
From his cosy relationship with the Murdoch empire through to leaving his daughter at the pub, the gaffes mount; while his performances at prime minister’s questions are becoming an erratic series of desperate lunges and hacking motions. The rapier has become a bludgeon.
His latest scrape, berating Tory backbencher Jesse Norman who led Tuesday’s House of Lords rebellion against the government, is now Westminster folklore.
What gives the story added comedy value is the tale of four government whips banishing Norman from the parliamentary precinct. Was it for his own good? Did they think Dave would pop a cap in him during a corridor “walk by” if he hung around?
Red-faced, finger-jabbing, insult-waving petulance is not behaviour that adds to the prime ministerial lustre.
As he put it himself when goading his predecessor-but-one, “he was the future once”. It is a telling remark. Slowly, but assuredly, David Cameron is turning into yesterday’s man.
When he keeps his cool and avoids being too partisan, David Cameron plays the part well. He is great at acting like a prime minister when things are going well. A leader for sunny days.
The problem he has is that things aren’t going well. The economy is tanking. His coalition is fraying at the edges while his own backbenchers are restive – with many openly questioning his general direction. The critique is personal; undermining his authority by seeming to call into question his temperament.
This is because Cameron makes the fundamental mistake of confusing flashes of anger with strength. So berating a backbencher or body-swerving Sarkozy at an EU summit or making a silly dig about Dennis Skinner’s age becomes his modus operandi.
In fact David Cameron is fast becoming Westminster’s Tony Montana – Al Pacino’s protagonist in the film Scarface – reckless and aggressive and focused purely on the short-term.
Although a clever and able man who is clearly used to living on his wits, the prime minister is no strategist and he clearly has little patience. As Tory grandee Sir Peter Tapsell wisely observed, he is adept getting out of trouble – but unrivalled at getting in it in the first place.
But maintaining a coalition requires strategic thinking, not endless brinkmanship. Cameron’s problem is that upon his government’s fragile political foundations lies a truly radical policy agenda. However the two don’t mix. Not when he’s ten points behind in the polls. Not when every big policy needs endless fixing and managing to get his own side’s buy-in, let alone deliver his coalition partners.
I wrote back in February that Cameron has reached his Stalingrad – biting off more than he can chew – creating enemies with alacrity – and will be forced into retreat as a result.
Some apparatchik should do him a favour and pin Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous prayer about developing “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference” on Cameron’s bathroom mirror.
Because like Tony Montana, the prime minister is constantly up for a fight. But he needs to learn that his impetuousness in the root of his problems. His lack of forethought a hindrance. His inability to build coalitions behind big policy moves his potential undoing.
He needs to act like a prime minister when things are going against him, not just when they’re going his way. Perhaps, rather than worrying about the criticism that he enjoys chillaxing, he should do a bit more of it?
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut