Monday, October 24, 2016

Narcissism and politics: David Cameron's resignation and the EU referendum

David Cameron's career is, in many ways, a parable of the ascent and (inevitable) demise of the narcissist as politician.
In a previous article, we've looked at Cameron's rise to party leader and Prime Minister, through the prism of the narcissist. The nature of his fall was as much the result his own personality and narcissism as any other part of his career; in some ways, even more so.

The article mentioned looks at how Cameron took control of his party by effectively making the success of the party reliant on the success of the leader; the party became popular because he was popular. In this sense, like many narcissist-politicians, the party became a form of "personality cult". He modernised the party, becoming known as the "heir to Blair" in the process. He took a look at how to make his party popular, recruiting Steve Hilton in the process; this was the "hug a hoodie" period before the financial crisis. These were the positives that Cameron brought to his role; but there were far more negatives in the long run.

Over his career he became known as masterful at tactics, but hopeless at strategy. His superficial charm was noticeable and what gave him an automatic sense of gravitas. The problem with this was that it perhaps too often it gave him an automatic sense of invincibility. We'll look at this in more detail in a moment.
The superficial charm, along with some other more unpleasant characteristics, have seemed to point to a darker aspect of Cameron's personality. While he has plenty of admirers and his circle of supporters are fiercely-defensive of his character and motives, a more distanced look at his career at the pinnacle of politics for six years (plus his four-and-a-half years as leader of the opposition) leads to a less sympathetic assessment. While he himself said that "all careers end in failure", his own failure was one he brought about on himself. It is this seismic failure that will always define him.

Politics as a poker game

Some see politics and power as a game of chess; others see it as a game of poker. A famous example of the former would be the cynical "grand master" of geo-politics in the early 21st century, Vladimir Putin. This is a man who will do whatever he needs to in order to preserve power, exploit weaknesses in his enemies, and grab opportunities to extend influence. Cameron's partner-in-power, George Osborne, is someone who also played politics as a chess game, using his position as chancellor to trap and destroy his enemies.
David Cameron, though, sees it as a game of poker, He would never admit this himself probably, but the evidence is there to see when you look at the judgments and decisions he has made as leader of his party and, more significantly, as Prime Minister.

Cameron is the ultimate "risk-taker" as politician. It is easier, and more instructive, to look at the progress of Cameron's career as a series of decisions and judgments (or "gambles"), and how this affected (or reinforced) the somewhat callous, risk-taking aspect to his character, ultimately resulting in an explosive "ultimate gamble".
This goes back all the way to his initial rise to the leadership of the Conservative Party. His main challenger for the leadership in 2005 was David Davis. As Davis was known as an arch Euro-sceptic, and Cameron's views on Europe were more nuanced, in order to win the support of the party's hard right, he declared that if he became Conservative leader he would take them out of the European People's Party (EPP), the EU's largest group of conservatism in the parliament. This declaration was key to getting the support he needed, and then he carried through with his promise to take his party out of the EPP. This was largely unremarked on in Britain at the time, but it was not in the Europe. It was never forgotten in Europe's major capitals how Cameron played to his party's anti-European instincts for his own personal gain; as would be repeated ten years later.

While this decision might not be a "gamble" as such, it was a judgement that would start a ball rolling and have long implications.

Cameron's relationship with the parliamentary party was almost always unstable, due to the distrust they felt over what they saw as his instinctive "Europeanism". Like during John Major's tenure, he was always having to play a balancing act between doing things to remain popular with the wider electorate (and thus in office), and doing things to stay on the right side of his MPs. His instincts were to the former, with the occasional piece of red meat thrown to the latter when the need arose. It was this strategy of effectively "winging it" with his own MPs (and thus the fate of the country) that would lead to the fateful "Bloomberg Speech" in early 2013.

His parliamentary party were taken aback when he failed to win the 2010 election outright; when Cameron then took the decision (and thus his first real "gamble") to join in a full coalition with the Liberal Democrats, many of them were incensed, and it took all his charm to keep them on his side. But even that was only temporary.
This "gamble" of coalition government led to a further "gamble" the following year, in the form of the AV referendum. This referendum on changing the voting system was one of the LibDems' terms in the Coalition Agreement; Cameron was taking a risk, for if he lost it, his party would have permanently fewer seats in parliament (and he would, one assumes, not be long in his job). Luckily for him, the risk was in fact over-stated, and due to the winning over the support of the Labour party, the "no" side won comfortably. Cameron had taken his first major domestic gamble, and won.

By 2012, though, the LibDems were causing trouble. After accepting austerity and losing the AV referendum, their leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was becoming increasingly unpopular, and so needed something to raise his party's profile than being seen as the Conservatives' "enabler". According to the Coalition Agreement, the AV referendum was tied to changes on constituency boundary reform, which would benefit the Conservatives (at the expense of Labour and the LibDems). However, the LibDems now said that boundary reform was tied to House Of Lords reform; they would not support boundary reform without Lords' reform.
This led to boundary reform can being kicked down the road till after the 2015 election after the LibDems' Lords' reform failed, which infuriated many of Cameron's MPs. They were further infuriated by another decision (read "gamble") that Cameron took, to support gay marriage.

It was partly due to these factors (and the rise of UKIP) that led Cameron to feel the need to give his rebellious MP some "red meat"; the result of this was the fateful "Bloomberg Speech". In other words, his "gambles" in one direction had led to the need to "hedge" in the other.

Meanwhile, Cameron took his first foreign policy "gamble" early in 2011, with the intervention in Libya. The "Arab Spring" affected him quite strongly and, with the support of Nicholas Sarkozy, took the war in Libya to be a kind of personal crusade. It was a largely Anglo-French operation, but what was meant to be an operation that had learned the mistakes of Iraq turned into one that simply repeated them, albeit in a slightly different form. Once Muammar Qaddafi was gone, Cameron's attention rapidly waned; even before that, Cameron's "strategy" in Libya was proving to be almost non-existent. To be blunt, while Cameron may have had good intentions, to outsiders it looked like an exercise in foreign policy "attention seeking". The fact that Libya quickly collapsed into civil war due to a lack of Anglo-French guidance or oversight told its own story. Cameron's "gamble" in Libya is something that Britain seemed to quickly forget; meanwhile, Libyans are living it every day.

That trend of Cameron "taking his eye off the ball" did not get any better with the vote on war in Syria two years later. Again, Cameron's character flaws shown themselves to lead to a blunder of his own making. This was another case of him rolling the dice with high stakes in foreign affairs, and losing.

Raising the stakes

So far, Cameron's "gambles" had either paid off, or (at a superficial level) his "losses" had not critically damaged his position; he would lick his wounds and move on. In this sense, you could see where Cameron might get the impression that he was "getting quite good" at making judgement calls, in spite of the reality. He seemed to be quite good at shrugging off the occasional knock-back as part of a learning curve. The problem with this was that it might lead him to think his judgement was getting better with each "gamble" he made. It wasn't; it was simply that the stakes were getting higher each time.

Cameron has been called an "Essay Crisis" Prime Minister: he would often lack the drive and attention to deal with a problem until the last minute, when he would suddenly bring it all together as if by magic. It also meant that he was liable to panic at the final moment.

This was true of the Scottish Referendum, when during the negotiations with Alex Salmond he gave way on some issues, as long as the vote was an "either-or" and London would decide the timing of the vote. As the polls suggested a comfortable majority for staying part of the UK when the campaign started, Cameron saw this as a way to "lance the boil" of Scottish independence, while also catching Alex Salmond on the back foot.
As we know, the polls narrowed dramatically in the final weeks of the campaign, resulting in Cameron's panicky "vow" with the other major party leaders for more powers for Scotland to stay part of the UK (as an aside here, with Scotland being the only other kingdom in the "United Kingdom", Scotland leaving the UK would effectively mean the name would no longer have any meaning; so Scotland was effectively voting to abolish "the UK").
Again, this was another moment when Cameron was truly "risking it all". But no sooner had the referendum been won that he was again "hedging" with his own troublesome backbenchers by calling for EVEL; currying favour with Scotland one day, and with the English shires the next. No wonder people saw him as untrustworthy.

As we have seen, Cameron had been a "lucky" Prime Minister. The after-shocks of the referendum had huge effects on the politics of Scotland, with horrifying effects for Labour. Come the general election, it meant that Labour had to win dozens of seats in England to stand a chance. Cameron's use of Lynton Crosby, combined with a ruthless assault on the seats of the coalition partners, meant that his party was able to create an almost "perfect victory".
The strategy Cameron used in the election campaign was risky, especially as - in relentlessly attacking the LibDems - they were undermining the very party they thought they would need to form a functioning government. And, indeed, the "perfect victory" was almost too perfect: for it meant that with the LibDems no longer there in government to block an EU referendum, he would have to go through with his promise. This would prove to be a hideous irony.

And so Cameron arrived at his biggest gamble of all. As he had won so many other battles, and often played his hand with mastery over the past six years, he thought he had done enough to win the referendum, so he could go on to the final, glorious years of his premiership. In many ways, he used the same strategy ("Project Fear") in the EU referendum as he had in the Scottish referendum. He made many assumptions - mostly false -  about the state of politics in the UK. Forgetting that UKIP were doing to Labour in the Northern England what the SNP had done to them in Scotland was a huge error of judgment on Cameron's part. This meant that Labour could not "rely" on "their" voters to vote the way they wanted, to fateful effect.

It was Cameron's "Essay Crisis" too many. He had looked at his hand of poker, and misjudged the table when he needed his judgment the most, when the stakes could not have been higher - for him or the country. The tendency for Cameron to be the expert of "winging it", of recklessly assuming "everything will be fine", of over-estimating his own judgment, finally came to destroy him.

In the end, also the manner of his resignation was told us something of his character. He was infamously quoted as saying after the result was clear "I'm not here for the hard shit", or words to that effect.

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