David Cameron: the rise and fall of the public relations prime minister

The Cameron years exemplify the outsized role of finance and corporate communications in British politics.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
17 September 2019, 2.44pm
David Cameron on the campaign trail in 2010.
PA Images

The memoirs of the former British prime minister David Cameron are published this week. He called the referendum and advance extracts have highlighted his denunciation of the dishonesties of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, who led the campaign to leave the European Union. But Cameron, himself inspired by Tony Blair, spun his own web of deceit as this forensic chapter from Anthony Barnett’s 'The Lure of Greatness' sets out. He argues that the man who set the referendum in motion and directed the Remain campaign was as responsible than anyone for the culture of deceit and spin that swamped Britain in 2016.

What kind of person carries the responsibility for the referendum and its outcome under whose influence all in Britain now live; what were David Cameron’s political qualities and flaws and how could someone like him come to run the government in the first place? No exercise in asking why Brexit happened can avoid the unpleasant task of delving into these questions, as he came to personify the country’s 40-year relationship with the EU and thereby contributed to its rejection. Before he announced the referendum, Cameron informed his then coalition deputy, the Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg of his intention. Clegg challenged him on the risks and recounts how, “I was breezily told that all would be well, of course it would be won.” To call a referendum is one thing, the long-standing heavy weather system of British politics pushed persistently in its direction. The breezy casualness of Cameron is something else. That he could even pretend to take on the storm he would unleash with his light-hearted windiness points to the question that matters. It does not concern the ‘real’ David Cameron, which is a distraction of celebrity individualism; it asks about the source and nature of his political judgment. Where did his calamitously superficial self-assurance come from?

“Cameron took the self-interested adaptation for which the English ruling class is famous to a new pitch.”

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For it is not the case that because Cameron is superficial he is insignificant. His single-minded personal ambition and well-manicured slipperiness may make him a lightweight in the story of the CBCs compared to the big narrative figures like the UK’s Blair and Brown, or Bush and the Clintons (Bill and Hillary) in the USA. But the man without baggage was the perfect traveller. He took the capacity for self-interested adaptation for which the English ruling class is famous to a new pitch of rootlessness and distilled the era’s deceitful spirit of government to perfection.

Westmins­­­ter’s culture is short-term: it judges by outcomes and forgives wrongdoing if it succeeds. It is all very well to show that Cameron was wretchedly instrumental in his approach to the defining issue of national identity as I have just done, saying the EU was merely a means to an end. But the referendum was close. He nearly pulled it off. To accuse Cameron of being opportunist, even on an issue as important as EU policy, invites the reply that it might have worked. In which case, he would be admired for his mastery of the moment. But I believe the failure of Cameron’s referendum stems from his entire approach to power and that this was bound up with the intrinsic duplicity of his politics. Furthermore, his manipulative approach linked the referendum to a chain of political and financial scandals, the sleaze, corruptions, duplicities and unearned privileges, that defined the way all three main parties, Labour and Lib Dem and Tory had governed Britain since the downfall of Thatcher. Indeed, even as she swept away ‘old-boy’ privileges, she prepared the way for the new corruption with her sale of arms to Iraq, the Pergau Dam scandal that the senior civil servant Tim Lancaster refused to sign off, and the Al-Yamamah arms deal that benefited her son, Mark, just to name three instances. As a consequence, the passion of those who supported Brexit drew strength from widespread anger with the rotten, selfish way the country is governed and Cameron’s leadership tempted everyone to use the referendum to reject the way politics is conducted.

Desolate professionalism

Cameron is one of those politicians who enjoys unlimited personal ambition untroubled by the burden of larger purpose. He was shameless in his desire to counterfeit himself as a courteous one-nation leader who loves his country. A telling incident reveals his desolate professionalism. In the run-up to the 2015 election, he was sent a private poll that showed only one voter in three thought he was in touch with ordinary people. He circulated it to his team with a note at the top, “Please, operational grid, give me the right language and speaking and physically attack me with the right words before an interview. I will do whatever I am told”. Can you imagine a May, a Trump, a Farage, a Johnson, a Corbyn or a Sturgeon demanding their aides “attack” them with “the right words”? In certain narrow circumstances, perhaps, if asking for a better way to present a given argument that they believe in, or to improve the way to strengthen a case. But they would never promise to do “whatever” they are told to say in general. Whereas, after five years as prime minster, Cameron tells his team he’ll say anything to make it appear that he is touch, and instructs them to devise the language. The note reveals both his unrestrained ambition and lack of larger purpose.

“Cameron is one of those politicians who enjoys unlimited personal ambition untroubled by the burden of larger purpose.”

Another incident, telling because apparently trivial, reveals the extent of his inner abyss: he forgot the name of his football team. As a man’s identification with his football team is made early and for life. It is a form of destiny harder to forget than the name of your wife, should you have one. Yet Cameron giving a speech praising Britain’s ethnic diversity told his audience he supported West Ham. He had to correct the record by comparing himself to the leader of the Green Party, “I had what Natalie Bennett described as a brain fade. I’m a Villa fan ... I must have been overcome by something”. Quizzed about it on Sky News, Cameron said: "By the time you have made as many speeches as I have on this campaign all sorts of funny things start popping out of your mouth." If his opponent, the Labour leader Ed Miliband, had told a TV interviewer that funny things popped out of his mouth, the Mail, Telegraph and Sun would, rightly, have rubbed it into public consciousness. As this was an election in which Cameron was their candidate, his embarrassment was conveniently forgotten. We too can ignore the gaffe. What is revealing is his justification. Anyone can make a slip of the tongue. But nobody who cares about what they say would ever generalise this by explaining that all sorts of things pop out of their mouth. The reason why an election campaign puts you under such pressure is because everything you say can count.

Sometimes his words were remembered. If rarely by the London media, in one case at least by Barack Obama. In 2011 Britain joined France in attacking the Libyan dictator Gaddafi after he threatened to wipe out, street-by-street, those who opposed him in his country’s second city, Benghazi. The US eliminated Gaddafi’s air defences, then the British and French air forces successfully supported the dictator’s overthrow. The UK spent £320 million on the bombing. With less than 10 million people, plentiful oil and no threatening neighbours, Libya offered a chance to show how Western military intervention could lead to constructive outcome for local people. David Cameron flew into Benghazi in triumph and pledged passionately to the crowd, with his words broadcast by the BBC, that Britain “will stand with you as you build your country and build your democracy for the future". A mere £25 million in aid followed, less than ten percent of what UK spent on bombing. The country fell apart. The betrayal enraged the American President who broke diplomatic rules to publicly rebuke the UK’s premier, telling Jeffrey Goldberg of Atlantic magazine, “When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong,… there’s room for criticism.” He accepted some of the fault was his and then singled out Cameron who, in Obama’s words, stopped paying attention as he became “distracted by a range of other things”.

It was criminal negligence. But it concerned a foreign country. The British prime minister’s indifference turned to dishonesty at home when it concerned the central platform of his economic policy. In a 2014 party conference speech, Cameron described Britain as “a country that is paying down its debts”. This was false. More important, Andrew Dilnot, Chairman of UK Statistics Authority officially confirmed it was false. The annual additional amount the government was borrowing, known as the deficit, was in decline, but total debt was rising. It was an extraordinary falsehood because Cameron had already been officially rebuked for making the same claim the year before. This time in a party-political broadcast. Cameron claimed, “We’re paying down Britain’s debts.” It prompted fury from Andreas Whittam Smith, founder of the Independent. He pointed out that as prime minister he cannot but have known that while he had been in office “public sector net debt has expanded from £811.3bn (55.3 per cent of GDP) to £1,111.4bn (70.7 per cent of GDP)”.

“A party-political broadcast is a deliberate act, not something said on the spur of the moment. Every word and every image is carefully considered. The deceit about paying down the debt will have been in the script for days or even weeks. The Prime Minister is better placed than almost anyone to know what the truth actually is… Has it really come to this? Has the Prime Minister of the day solemnly addressed the British people and deliberately, coldly, with aforethought, told them a downright lie? If so, what scorn for the electorate that implies. What insufferable arrogance.”

Andreas Whittam Smith, founder of the Independent.

Scorn for voters helped win Cameron the premiership. In January 2010, in the run up to that year’s election, he said, “We’ve looked at educational maintenance allowances and we haven’t announced any plan to get rid of them. We don’t have any plans to get rid of them” – only for them to be scrapped five months after he won. In March 2010, Cameron made a promise: “I wouldn’t change child benefit, I wouldn’t means-test it, I don’t think that is a good idea” – within three years means testing was introduced. In April 2010, on the eve of the election, Cameron said: “We have absolutely no plans to raise VAT”. Two months later, it was raised from 17.5% to 20%. (The previous year, Cameron had argued that VAT is "very regressive, it hits the poorest hardest").

In 2006 Cameron repositioned the entire Tory party to make it environmentalist, even re-branding the party’s logo to a tree. He made, ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’ one of his election slogans. In 2013, he told aides working on energy legislation "get rid of all the green crap".

The great NHS betrayal

His most pitiless dishonesty concerned the NHS, the institution British voters care about more than any other. In a 2009 speech to the Royal College of Pathologists, Cameron pledged, "There will be no more of the tiresome, meddlesome, top-down restructures that have dominated the last decade of the NHS”. It was a promise he repeated, the NHS would be safe in his hands. If any single commitment swung him the election in 2010 this was the one. As he was repeating his pledges his team were preparing the Lansley reforms to marketise the NHS, a top-down reorganisation that was to be described by the chief executive of the NHS as a restructuring, “so big you can see it from space”. To convince voters of his sincerity, Cameron deployed the experience of his badly disabled son: "for me, it is not just a question of saying the NHS is safe in my hands - of course it will be. My family is so often in the hands of the NHS, so I want them to be safe there". In the same fraudulent speech he promised "no more pointless and disruptive reorganisations". As for being safe in his hands, in 2010 when he won office figures for NHS England show a total of 144,000 beds. As the population rose this number fell to 130,000. He inherited from Blair spending on the NHS of 8.8% of the country’s gross domestic product and a New Labour commitment that it would rise to equal EU averages, then 10.5%. Instead, it has fallen back to 6.6% and “the gap between us and our European neighbours” is “growing”.

“The pitiless nature of Cameron’s politics are most starkly revealed by the way he manipulated voters hopes and desire with respect to the NHS.”

If the pitiless nature of Cameron’s politics are most starkly revealed by the way he manipulated voters hopes and desire with respect to the NHS, this cannot be excused because of the sheer scale of his betrayal. People often cannot believe that powerful politicians are wicked in person. A vignette of a face-to- face encounter brings home the awfulness of Cameron’s moral vacuum more powerfully than even the Libyan betrayal.

Jamie Reed was the Labour MP for Copeland in Cumbria from 2005 to 2017 and recently resigned. He published a brief reflection of his highs and lows in parliament, and Cameron hit the low point:

"For most people, politicians exist on the edge of their peripheral vision. But there are times of crisis when this vision is shattered and politicians are brought into sharp focus. This focus rests upon the character, wisdom and judgement of the politician in question… the lowest point of my political career took place on 2nd June 2010 when a gunman killed 12 people and shot and injured a further 11 in my constituency.

In 2005, I ran on a promise of building a new hospital. The following five years saw the last Labour government provide the money and begin the foundations of the new hospital and the demolition of the old hospital was underway before the coalition came into power in 2010. On entering office, Cameron and Osborne scrapped the new hospital building in my constituency, despite the hospital being half knocked down… In the midst of the shootings, I invited David Cameron to the hospital, to see how effectively it had operated in response to events, but also to convince him to reinstate the money for the new hospital project.

I sat by the bed of a constituent, a gunshot victim, as she spoke with the prime minister and pleaded with him to return the funding and to safeguard local hospital services. He promised to do that… How I wish Cameron had honoured his promise. How I regret giving him the benefit of the doubt. How sad I was, over the following months and years, to be constantly reminded of the way in which the prime minister had revealed his character during the time at which my community needed its prime minister the most.

Today, I remain furious at the way in which, when character, integrity, honesty and compassion were called for, the prime minister filled this void with a calculated deception told to a gunshot victim in a hospital bed. Not simply the low point of my parliamentary career, this episode remains one of the low points of my life."

Jamie Reed, former Labour MP for Copeland in Cumbria.

Sometimes people get what they deserve. The most fateful of all Cameron’s dishonesties delivered the justice of expelling him from office. It was the pledge, set out in the Tory Party’s 2010 election manifesto, to “take steps to take net migration back to the levels of the 1990s – tens of thousands a year, not hundreds of thousands”. Five years later, admitting it had not worked, the 2015 Manifesto pledged, “We will keep our ambition of delivering annual net migration in the tens of thousands, not the hundreds of thousands”. Cameron knew it was not in his power to achieve such low figures. Again, he signed off on the words because they would help him win. Race relations in Britain have been poisoned ever since.

Melissa Kite published a mocking diary about Cameron’s Notting Hill set for the right-wing weekly Spectator. She knew him well. After he resigned she wrote,

"In office, Cameron abandoned so many commitments it became impossible to chart the U-turns. My own personal favourite… was his supposedly heartfelt declaration on the BBC’s Countryfile that he would no more ruin the countryside by building on it than put at risk his own family. Months later, rural communities were complaining about government-backed attempts to build on the green belt… he would say one thing and the result would be the exact opposite."

In the summer of 2015, John Sewel was Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords and chairman of the Lords' Privileges and Conduct Committee – the body that upholds standards of behaviour among peers, for which he was paid £120,000 a year. Naturally, this allowed him to discuss the qualities of the country’s political leaders while snorting hard drugs in the company of two sex workers. He also invited them to join him later in the autumn for dinner in the House of Lords, where he would doubtless have continued with his sharp insights on the denizens of Westminster, had the pair not recorded the episode and sold it to Murdoch’s Sun. The video of the occasion is on line, viewed over 1.7 million times, and it was given front page treatment in the tabloid. Such is elite political life in Britain. Sewel’s insider view of Cameron was as succinct as his line of cocaine, “He’s the most facile, superficial Prime Minister there has ever been… he just shoots from the hip and makes one-off commitments he cannot deliver on”.

From PR man to prime minister

Yet for six years he was regarded as a successful premier. He made people think he was born to lead and usually appeared to know how to strike the ‘right note’. The clichéd explanation of this facility reinforced by Britain’s class-obsessed media is that it comes from Cameron’s privileged, upper-class origins in Eton and Oxford. He is a toff. His breezy complacency comes from his elite presumption of superiority. In the end, it was his sense of entitlement that distanced him from reality – and meant he could be laid low in the referendum by horny-handed ex-workers and frustrated petty-bourgeois. That such a view is fashionable signals the superficiality of a London milieu that Cameron himself is part of, one which has wiped history from its memory card. For the British ruling class was always extremely wary of the danger to its supremacy posed by the lowest and middling classes. Through war, religion, manufacturing, monarchy and trade, generations of Etonians and Oxford alumni, by hard work as well as instinct, were trained to protect themselves and the country they commanded from the populus. After enormous demonstrations, Disraeli gave the franchise to the male heads of skilled working class households in 1867. Almost immediately a permanent civil service was installed. It was designed to ensure the machinery of the state remains in the hands of trustworthy mandarins from good schools, should government ever fall into the hands of an unschooled, working class party. The device became one of the most lasting checks against popular dictatorship built into the UK’s informal constitution. I mention it only to illustrate the long-standing nature and seriousness of upper class Britain. When it comes to permitting the exercise of power by the subordinate classes not only do you take action to prevent it, you preempt even the possibility by thinking decades ahead, just as you landscape your estates for future generations.

Cameron’s blithe upturning of this long tradition was not a sign of his toffness but of his failure to uphold the practical wisdom of his class. When tradition mattered, he embraced trendiness instead. His modern style, superficiality, and ultimate catastrophic failure come from his having abandoned establishment politics and the traditions of Eton, in favour of a global corporate culture, with its ruthless dedication to marketing, public relations and immediate returns.

Cameron became an MP at the age of 36. After five post-Oxford years in the Conservative Party research department, aged 27 he joined Carlton Communications, which he left to enter parliament seven years later in 2001. Within four years he was his party’s leader and five years after that aged 43, Prime Minister. In this short time, his most formative experience was working as director of corporate communications at Carlton for its then ferocious boss Michael Green, variously described as “vile” and “a horror”. Green was building his media empire, where Cameron himself was remembered as “a PR man capable of dissembling and doling out disinformation”. Over the turn of the century, the Cameron who led Britain was forged by the pressures of London’s and possibly the world’s most brutal, and short-term, commercial environment, as it chased the fortunes of an exploding mass media.

“Cameron is the product of his shameful profession much more than his once arguably honourable background.”

Cameron certainly enjoyed the advantages of his privileged schooling and stock-broker background. But the seven biblical years he was trained as a corporate, media and public relations operator were more important than five years in Eton for turning his inheritance into a political career. He is the product of his shameful profession much more than his once arguably honourable background. Like so many of us Cameron is a modern migrant not a stay at home. Most politicians are. The snobbish hypostatisation of a person’s origin as being their identity, as if we lived in a Hindu caste system, blights public perception in England. The example of Margaret Thatcher is a good illustration. Once again thanks to Britain’s obsession with class, she is seen as being what she was born as: a provincial grocer’s daughter. That, however, was when she was Margaret Roberts. Dennis Thatcher, was a very successful, hard-working businessman who became a millionaire and then a director of Burma Oil. She took his name, lived with his cheerful racism, and part of her confidence and approach to the economy were rooted in becoming his wife. It was not without personal anxiety, but as a young woman she married into financial wealth, security and a business perspective that were far from those of a small-town grocer and much more important for her politics.

The heir to Blair

In the 2001 election, two wealthy, well-educated young MPs were elected to the Conservative benches, both already experienced as advisors. While most of the Tory party was thrashing around with impotent anti-European spasms and homophobic nostalgia for the era of Thatcherite sado-masochism, they grasped that the Labour premier was showing the way out of their impasse. His example offered a path for the right: socially tolerant, at ease with the world of money, confidently dismissive of the restraints of convention and ruthlessly focused on the exercise of power. They were David Cameron and George Osborne.

“Cameron and Osborne wanted to inherit the mantle of Blair’s manipulative, corporate populism.”

On the eve of his bid for the leadership in 2005, after a mere four years on the opposition benches, Cameron said one true thing: “I am the heir to Blair”. It was the evening before the leadership contest at the Conservatives 2005 conference. The party had just lost its third election in a row and there were five candidates in contention. David Cameron and his collaborator, George Osborne, attended a Daily Telegraph hosted “dinner with newspaper executives”. Cameron told them he was “the heir to Blair”. Andrew Pierce of the Times, reported, “if his hosts were in any doubt about what they had heard, Mr Cameron repeated the mantra". In addition, “Mr Osborne, defending the heir to Blair boast, said: “we have nothing to be ashamed of in saying it’”. Cameron and Osborne wanted the people who mattered to know that their objective was to swivel Britain’s most ancient political party into the tail wind of Blair’s Labour government, so as to inherit the mantle of his manipulative, corporate populism.

Cameron then gave a speech of pitch-perfect Blairism in his bid for the leadership.

"I want people to feel good about being a Conservative again…. That's what I mean by change: we've got to change our culture so we look, feel, think and behave like a completely new organisation.

By changing our culture we can change politics, too. When I meet young people, they tell me how sick they are of the whole political system – the shouting, finger-pointing, backbiting and point-scoring in the House of Commons. That's all got to go.

So let's build together a new generation of Conservatives. Let's switch a new generation on to Conservative ideas. Let's dream a new generation of Conservative dreams… We can lead that new generation. We can be that new generation, changing our party to change our country. It will be an incredible journey. I want you to come with me."

David Cameron, speech to the 2005 Conservative conference.

Only someone as limitlessly ambitious but completely lacking in originality as Cameron, could have so perfectly adapted himself to the Blairite project. His public relations expertise allowed him to internalise the Blair approach so flawlessly that he prefigured the master’s own language. Six years later, Blair titled his account of his politics, A Journey. Movement without a principled objective, with all the excitement of novelty and, most important, a single leader who pointed ‘the way’, became the prospectus offered the country by Cameron, just as it had been by Blair. It would become the Tory’s turn to switch on a new generation with their ‘ideas’. As a political vision it not so much a journey as a trip: a hallucination of frictionless futurism, a free-market high. The unstated implication is that those who do not “get” the incredible transformation are lethargic spoilers – old or old before their time. None more so than those who resisted globalisation, including Britain’s membership of the European Union. In this feel-good political culture, tangible choices were dissolved by post-honest language. Many railed against the false-radicalism and injustice it perpetrated and permitted, especially on the left. When the response finally exploded it came not from that flank, where Blairism and Cameron had invested most of their protective armour, but from the right, after the financial crash exposed their illusions.

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