David Cameron is not very good at politics. I realise this is counter-intuitive but it’s true. He’s good in the moment. He can fly by the seat of his pants like few other politicians. I’d call him agile, but he’s not good enough at hiding his emotions for true agility. He’s also extremely lucky. That’s not a quality to be underestimated in politics. He’s also quite charming. On the one occasion I met him, he was extremely personable if a little patronising. This too has got him a long way.
Cameron has been well served by his luck and charm.
He was lucky that he was elected leader at the point where the media were desperate for a change in narrative and charming enough to convince even some in the left wing press that he really meant his hoody and husky hugging rhetoric. He was lucky to oppose only the ragged, beaten and past his best Blair and charming enough to make a pleasant contrast to the dour Brown. He was lucky to fluke becoming Prime Minister despite not winning an election and charming enough to continue to convince enough Lib Dems to commit electoral hara-kiri to keep him there.
All this hides Cameron’s biggest problem: He’s mind-bendingly, buttock-clenchingly, arrogant.
His arrogance exhibits itself in a number of very interesting ways, some mundane, some less so. From a man known to go to great lengths to cover his bald spot to refer to another man as “Baldemort” exhibits not just the playground bully type of arrogance that we’ve seen Flashman resort to so often, but equally the arrogance of “one rule for me…” that more serious flaws like his weekly lying to the House of Commons also expose.
But while his arrogance is directed at Labour members, it can be passed off at the cut and thrust of Punch and Judy politics (and let us not forget who swore to end that…). But this time, his swagger has been directed at his own member and cheerleaders in the press. And they don’t like it. Not one bit.
The arrogance here is the irony of a PR man who has started to believe his own puffery. He Has never had much time for his own backbenchers, and as a result, never really got to know them or understand them. He has never understood the depth of the Tory obsession with Europe, and gambled first that they would relish power enough to stop them pulling down his house of cards, and secondly that they’d be satisfied with a taste of red meat, and wouldn’t demand to see the whole cow.
He underestimated them, because they didn’t count enough in his world. Boy did he underestimate them.
See that’s the thing about obsessions, a taste is never, ever enough. Obsessions can’t be appeased. People don’t stop obsessing just because they’ve been given a little. They want more. More and more.
Briefly, the Tories managed to convince themselves and the country that Dave’s temper tantrum really was a veto. They also convinced everyone that a veto was a great and important thing. The danger for Dave is that the long term effects of his hubris could be extremely damaging for his relationship with his Party.
Back in 2007, Gordon Brown, who started off as a popular Prime Minister, let an idea get carried away until it was too late to stop it being part of the public imagination. When it then transpired he had no intention of holding an election, it was that lack of action that eventually defined him.
Cameron embraced the concept that he’d vetoed the European Fiscal Union. He delighted in the warm embrace of his backbenchers and revelled in his poll bounce. It was Christmas come early. But like Christmas, it couldn’t last.
The January blues are hitting the blues. The dream is over, and the waking up is not pleasant. What was always obvious to some is becoming obvious to those who didn’t want to see it before. That includes not just the usual suspects in Cameron’s own party, but also the media who are feeling bruised after their premature celebrations of what turned out to be ephemeral at best.
Gordon Brown didn’t lose in 2010 because he didn’t call an election in 2007. But that did start to change the narrative around him and around his opponents. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Ed’s “best ever week” is gaining narrative traction just as Cameron’s star is starting to dim.
We can’t count Cameron out. Luck and charm are still two qualities that will take you far in politics. But as Cameron hits a losing streak, and as his charm fails more and more to mask his arrogance we may come to see what Dave has really got when times get tough. Myself, I wouldn’t bet on it being any more substantial than his veto.