August 1, 2010

MORE GAFFES, FASTER, PLEASE:

An impressive start by David Cameron, but a start is all it is: There's a big potential danger for this government in trying to run before it has fully learned how to walk (Andrew Rawnsley, 8/01/10, The Observer)

What have we learned about David Cameron in his first 11 weeks at Number 10? He has settled with ease into the public performance dimension of the job. Whether it is answering prime minister's questions or sharing a news conference with the president of the United States, he looks and sounds very assured for an ingenue prime minister who had never before held any form of ministerial position. He was pitch-perfect in his response to the serial killings in Cumbria shortly after his arrival at Number 10. He is an instinctive politician. When officials presented him with the Saville report into Bloody Sunday, the prime minister turned immediately to the executive summary, absorbed that and declared: "This is damning." He did not hedge or trim when he spoke later to the Commons. He rightly judged that his public response had to be an unequivocal apology for the terrible wrong that had been perpetrated.

A style of direct and plain speaking which impresses at home has not travelled so well. It is abroad that his youth and inexperience have been shown up. It seemed to be the policy of his most recent foreign tour to try to make friends with his hosts by attacking their neighbours. If it's Tuesday, it's Turkey, so have a go at Israel. If it's Thursday, it's India, so have a crack at Pakistan. The criticism of the Israelis for turning Gaza into "a prison camp" was premeditated. That was in a script. He blundered into saying that Pakistan was "exporting terror" and "looking both ways" in dealing with extremists, a remark which almost provoked Pakistan's president to cancel a visit to Britain this week and has alarmed the Foreign Office that the infuriated government in Islamabad will react by withdrawing co-operation on counterterrorism. That remark was not planned. It came in an answer to a businessman at the very end of a Q&A in Bangalore. It was a gaffe. I am using here the classic definition of a gaffe: it is to say something which is true, but liable to cause controversy, embarrassment or harm if spelled out in public. Scoring him on presentation, he stands tall at home, but is still finding his feet away.

How is he as a manager? Civil servants speak very positively about the new regime at Number 10. There is even something of a mutual fan club between the permanent officials in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office and the aides that Mr Cameron has brought with him. The latter have been impressed, and even a little surprised, that the civil servants have "responded so positively to us". To Number 10 officials, almost anything would be a blessed relief after life in the bunker during the dying months of Gordon Brown's regime. The chaotic and volatile temperament of the last prime minister meant that he demanded the attention of officials at any unpredictable time of day or night. David Cameron has a calmer, more methodical way of doing business which is also a lot more civilised for those who work for the prime minister. He generally comes down from the flat above Number 10 at about eight for the first meetings of the day and heads back upstairs to see Samantha and his children around six or seven in the evening. A senior official reports that the new prime minister "does a lot more on paper" than his predecessor.

The defining event of this government's life so far was the austerity budget in late June. There was some quiet amazement in Whitehall about how little blood was spilt on the carpet. Another change liked by the civil service is the restoration of the cabinet as a forum for collective discussion after the presidentialism of Blair and Brown, and Thatcher before them. In opposition, David Cameron was every bit as cliquish, running what one senior Tory calls "a sofa cabinet". Perhaps he always intended to switch to proper cabinet government once in office. It has anyway been forced upon him by coalition.


If the leader of the United States is going to suck up to our enemies then the British PM needs to defend our values.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 1, 2010 8:22 AM
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