Monday, May 7, 2012

The personal failings of David Cameron: less "the heir to Blair"; more like David Brent

David Cameron has been Prime Minister of the UK for two years. As a Prime Minister and as a human being, it's worth taking a closer look at how we can measure him as a man and a man-manager.

When he became the Conservative leader in 2005, he declared himself as the "heir to Blair", and the man to take the Tories by the scruff of the neck, modernise them, and put them back into government.
At a superficial level, it is clear that he has learned and imitated Blair's "style": self-confident, charming, communicative and pragmatic on ideology. When the financial crisis struck, and in the following years of the Brown premiership, all these qualities marked him in stark contrast to Brown, who appeared dour, charmless and unable to properly communicate his ideas to the public.

When it came to the 2010 election, Cameron felt confident enough that his character and abilities had been enough to convince the public to vote the Tories back into government. It was a profound shock the day after the election to discover that Cameron had failed to get an outright majority, especially considering the massive unpopularity of the Labour government of the time, and the personal unpopularity of PM Gordon Brown.

As an aside, it is telling enough of Cameron's personality that he didn't take time to consider why he had personally failed to convince the electorate - the first indication that Cameron as a person (as well as many of his future ministers) doesn't take much time to fully consider issues before pressing on regardless. We'll return to this point later.

Since successfully concluding the Coalition Agreement with the LibDems, Cameron has been keen to delegate responsibility to the respective ministers. His later support for elective mayors is another indication of this belief.  This is in some ways a positive attribute; except when the ministers in question wish to impose government policy on a nation that didn't vote for it, or a policy that goes directly against assurances made before the election. Then it just looks like Cameron is avoiding responsibility.

This is another example of one of Cameron's major personality flaws: a frequent lack of intellectual curiosity, or to take matters based simply on trust. Another recent head of state had this unfortunate habit: George W. Bush. Cameron seems to often not ask questions that a more rounded (or less naive) person would naturally want to ask: such as finding out the proper background of advisers before hiring them (Andy Coulson); such as checking if a minister's policy idea would in fact be practical, politically expedient or worthwhile (such as health and educational reforms); such as checking a ministers links to private companies before giving the minister his full support. I could go on.

This "flaw" seems to come from his background. Although he seems a thoroughly honest and straightforward person (as Tony Blair also liked to think of himself), the fact that he comes from such a narrow, comfortable background embarrasses him when confronted with real-life situations. He gives the impression of not being used to dealing with a cynical political reality, or even a desire to get a fully-rounded perspective on issues. This is all the more bizarre considering he's been involved in politics for almost all of his adult life. When scandals come out, as they have over the last two years, it makes Cameron look as though he doesn't know what he's supposed to be doing - it makes him look amateur. And this may well be closer to the reality than he would like to admit.

Being self-confident is usually a good attribute to have in a politician and a leader. All great statesmen are. When things are going your way, this self-confidence gives the impression you know what you are doing. For the first eighteen months or so, Cameron's self-confidence was an impressive confidence trick. But then the government's economic policy of public service cuts was shown to damaging the economy rather than improving it, and that coincided with "omnishambles": a series of collective governmental and ministerial foul-ups, scandals and presentational errors that made the government look misguided, devious, heartless and incompetent all at the same time. And that was when Cameron's "self-confidence" morphed into something darker: arrogance and stubbornness.

In these events of Spring 2012, those that have done the most damage to Cameron's reputation are his reaction to the double-dip recession, and his reaction to the scandal surrounding Jeremy Hunt and his alleged  corrupt and dishonest dealings.
With the government's economic policy apparently discredited, Cameron is still unwilling to change policy. Again seemingly (but erroneously) inspired by Blair's determination over the unpopular war in Iraq, he is determined to continue on the same economic policy, even though it is damaging rather than helping the economy. This shows that Cameron is either someone too stubborn to admit defeat (and would rather see his country suffer than his own self-esteem), or is in a state of denial, and no longer rationally dealing with the facts. Both may be true to an extent, but my feeling is it is more of the latter. Neither of these bodes well for the country in the years of Cameron's premiership till the next election.
Regarding the Jeremy Hunt affair, Cameron has even shown signs of petulance and anger, something that Blair almost never did, and certainly not with such little provocation. This shows that beneath Cameron's charming, self-confident exterior, lies a thin-skinned and quite insecure person, eager to defend his actions and decisions beyond feasibility. This instinctive defensiveness also seems to come from a sincere belief that he is incapable of doing something for nefarious reasons (either through omission or otherwise), and similarly feels offended when those he has personally supported are shown to have been either incompetent or devious. This then leads him to be seen as defending his colleagues' incompetent or devious behaviour beyond what would be considered a rational limit, and therefore makes himself look foolish.

What this last point demonstrates is either embarrassment at his naive trust of others being caught out, or has a sore point about being seen as being less than honest. In general, it seems fair to say that David Cameron has an over-inflated view of his own capabilities, considering that he has a habit of not thinking strategically, and of failing to fully consider the political consequences of his actions, and the actions of others as their senior in government.

David Cameron once called himself the "heir to Blair"; but the way he behaves is more like another David: David Brent.

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