On Friday, May 7, for the first time since 1974, we woke up the morning after the British election and didn’t know who our prime minister would be. No party had won an absolute majority, and so, for a period that a BBC-TV documentary has dubbed the "Five Days that Changed Britain," Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, held the balance of power and negotiated with Gordon Brown, who was still entrenched as prime minister, and the Conservative leader, David Cameron. Finally, the Tories cut a deal with Clegg. As Brown lugubriously announced his resignation, Dave told his wife Sam to “get her frock on,” and they sped to Buckingham Palace, where Cameron became prime minister of the first coalition government of my lifetime.
Since then, this new Tory-Lib Dem government has leapt ferociously into action, slashing public spending and introducing a frenzied series of reforms, while Cameron has impressed audiences at home and abroad. Cameron and Clegg also appear to be very much at ease with one another. Here are two pleasant-looking men of exactly the same age and much the same education. There’s some dispute as to who first coined the phrase “the Brokeback coalition,” but those who have seen that “ludicrous tear-jerker” (as one of our more sarcastic critics called it), and who also saw Dave and Nick arrive at the Spectator summer party a few weeks ago damn near holding hands, must admit that it’s quite a good joke.
And yet: A faint aura of suspicion still lingers about Cameron, who became prime minister without sealing the deal with the electorate, in that annoying but apt phrase. He has, of course, his share of fervent detractors: Labour is naturally bitter, as are malcontents on both the Lib Dem left and the Tory right—and the latter have loud voices in the press. Peter Hitchens of the Mail on Sunday (yes, younger brother of Christopher) and Simon Heffer in The Daily Telegraph are witheringly hostile: “Because Mr Cameron believes in nothing except remaining Prime Minister,” began one characteristic Heffer sentence the other day. Spiteful or partisan critics can be shrugged off, and the animosity of the crankier left and right might actually help Cameron. But even those who are more kindly disposed toward him sometimes wonder what, if anything, lurks behind his surface charm.
Cameron became Tory leader not quite by accident, but certainly by a fortunate turn of events. After the Conservative Party suffered its third straight electoral defeat, in May 2005, the leader, Michael Howard, announced that he would resign in December—a skillful maneuver intended to give Cameron the best shot at winning the leadership race. So he did, sealing victory with an eloquent speech at the party conference, à la Obama.
Some Labour MPs foolishly tried to deride Cameron as a gilded Old Etonian son of privilege, pointing to his aristocratic family background and his undergraduate days in the notorious Bullingdon Club, a kind of Oxonian Skull and Bones in fancy dress. Damning a man for his parents is a cheap shot, and some might even forgive Cameron for behaving like a pretentious dissipated asshole at Oxford (so did many of us, come to think of it).
The more serious charge is his adult career. Cameron had a brief interlude as a political aide to Norman Lamont, the chancellor of the exchequer under the government of John Major. But Cameron’s first taste of politics ended most unhappily with “Black Wednesday” in September 1992. Lamont had to announce that the sterling had been forced out of the European exchange system by market pressure (i.e., George Soros). In the photographs from that day, young Dave can be seen lurking behind Lamont.
Cameron moved on to spend several lucrative years as head of p.r. at Carlton, a second-rate media company. This was hardly training for a statesman, and he acquired a reputation for less-thanabsolute veracity. Jeff Randall, the former business correspondent for the BBC, once said that he wouldn’t trust Cameron with his daughter’s pocket money.
As leader of the opposition, Cameron was the first Tory in years who could lay a glove on Tony Blair, and he went on to outplay Brown comprehensively. But those years also saw a bewildering series of policy reversals. One moment Cameron talked about “hugging a hoodie”—newspaper shorthand for his comment that the public should have empathy for juvenile criminals—the next, he wanted to get tough on crime by building more prisons. There was also his mystifying volte-face over whether or not tax policy should be used to encourage the traditional family. In the most risible episode of all, Cameron attempted to parade his environmental authenticity by cycling from his home to Parliament. The effect was quite spoiled when the TV cameras picked up a car trailing behind him with his clean shirts. (To Cameron’s credit, he has at least turned this into a joke against himself.) To accuse Cameron of shiftiness might seem perverse when, as prime minister, he has appeared to talk tough on so many fronts. He has criticized Israel over Gaza and Pakistan over its intelligence service’s ties with the Taliban. He has informed his compatriots that the age of automatic retirement may be raised and that no one should expect subsidized council homes for life.
And yet, his attempts at straight talk don’t always ring true. They have, at times, been marred by an ingratiating desire to please whichever audience Cameron happens to be addressing. Before the Conservative Friends of Israel, of which Cameron is a member, he has professed his undying love for the Jewish state. Then, in Ankara, he described Gaza as a “prison camp.” On a visit to Bangalore, Cameron noted sternly that Pakistan cannot “look both ways” on terrorism. Shortly afterward, while entertaining Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari at Chequers, the prime minister’s country residence, Cameron spoke warmly about the “unbreakable relationship between Britain and Pakistan based on our mutual interests.” Zardari is surely a man with nothing to learn about facing two ways, but, given Cameron’s record, he might have asked the Urdu equivalent of “tu quoque?”
In August, Cameron had to apologize to an elderly lady for “denigrating his own country” by saying that “we were the junior partner in 1940.” He had uttered those absurd words in an interview with ABC News while visiting the United States, again seeking to flatter his audience but forgetting (unlike his older compatriots) that, in 1940, the United States was neither a junior nor senior partner in the war against Hitler; rather, it was conspicuously neutral.
I write this with mixed feelings. Our country is in a mess, Cameron is smart and energetic, and any successful democratic politician has to reach out to different constituencies. All the same, if there’s one thing the British people have been yearning for, it is political honesty. The country longs to be cleansed of the stain left by the last government, which could never tell the truth about anything, from the economy to the Iraq war. Nor will anyone ever feel quite the same about our Parliament after the huge scandal of members’ fraudulent and extravagant expense claims erupted last year and led this May to the largest turnover of MPs since 1945.
Years ago, just after he had been caught out in some sordid skullduggery, Blair told us that he was “a pretty straight sort of guy.” He spent the rest of his premiership confuting those words. What Cameron needs to do is not to strike seemingly brave postures, but to act honestly. Otherwise—well, as the openly gay Labour MP Ben Bradshaw teasingly reminded the prime minister just before the parliamentary recess, Brokeback Mountain does not end happily.
Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s books include The Strange Death of Tory England and Yo, Blair!