David Cameron and the art of blaming other people
David Cameron really loved organising votes for things, didn’t he? That was his answer to everything. I was reminded of this when I read that the elected police and crime commissioners, which his government introduced to oversee the constabularies of England and Wales, aren’t doing a very good job. According to the head of the National Crime Agency, they’re all about stopping speeding and burglary, and not so hot on organised crime, online child abuse and modern slavery.
It’s not surprising. Making some local elected officials the overseers of the police is effectively putting the Neighbourhood Watch in charge of law enforcement strategy. They’re going to address the issues most noticeable to the very small percentage of people who might turn out to vote for them. If they were in charge of healthcare, all the money would go to treating RSI caused by over-energetic net-curtain twitching. Their best chance of arresting a mafia boss is if he plays the music too loudly at his Christmas party.
But it’s odd that David Cameron was so keen on holding votes when his career as prime minister began with him failing to win an election. I’m surprised people don’t talk about that more, because it’s quite remarkable.
It was 2010 and the world was reeling from the worst financial crisis in nearly a century and, by some reckonings, of all time. Britain is depressingly reliant on the financial services sector, so it was particularly scary here. The mood was not good. On top of that, the governing party had been in power for well over a decade, had started a disastrous war, and its charismatic twice-re-elected leader had been replaced, just before the banking meltdown, by a better man but a markedly worse politician.
Therefore Cameron faced a sitting prime minister who, since he’d been chancellor of the exchequer for most of the Labour years, could hardly disassociate himself from the country’s economic woes but had never actually won an election as party leader – so the perfect combination of high perceived responsibility for what had gone wrong with low perceived democratic legitimacy – and who was also terrible at PR at the best of times and, 2010 being for him the worst of times, was breaking new records in his awfulness at PR, with the energetic help of the rightwing press. And, just to recap, the economy was screwed, the Middle East was screwed and the same bunch had been in power for a James Bond and a half.
One could be forgiven for thinking that, under those circumstances, the opposition would win the general election even if it were led by a turd. I mean a literal turd, not the metaphorical turd that David Cameron turned out to be. Just an actual stick of excrement in a suit, maybe with a smile drawn on in Tippex and a slogan underneath saying “Vote Conservative” in Comic Sans, should have been enough to beat the Labour party in 2010.
Actually, it was a bit like 1997 in that there was a huge groundswell in favour of a change of government. Except, to be fair, in 1997 the economy wasn’t in too bad a shape. And the other difference is that in 1997 the opposition swept to power with a parliamentary majority of 179 while in 2010 there was a hung parliament.
There was a hung parliament! When led by David Cameron, the Tories, who are overwhelmingly the best at elections, couldn’t do better than a hung parliament as the country descended into penury and the exhausted grouchy old guy, who’d been grimly clutching the purse strings since the previous century, miserably trudged around calling people bigots. That’s quite a spectacular underperformance by the Conservatives. But that fact sort of got lost because, thanks to the Labour movement’s deep-rooted selfloathing, this notably mild setback was taken as justification to end the party’s whole experiment in electability. The great swaths of the centre ground Cameron failed to conquer, Labour has since abandoned to save the Tories the job. Well done, everyone.
Still, you’d expect the experience of 2010 to make David Cameron a bit tentative about calling votes. But no, he really got a taste for them. It’s like they say about gambling addicts: he became hooked on the endorphin rush he felt when he lost. And, to be fair on him, he had to wait quite a while for his next fix. The AV referendum, the Scottish
independence referendum and, most surprisingly of all, the 2015 general election all somehow went his way. He must have been absolutely gibbering for a honk on the disappointment pipe by the time he called the Brexit referendum – but then he massively overdosed on loss and, like when Obelix fell in the magic potion, it had a permanent effect, and so now he’ll be a total loser until the day he dies.
A key advantage for politicians of holding lots of votes to decide what should be done is that it means that, arguably, nothing is their fault. It’s the “will of the people” and they just obey it. Or rather the civil service obeys it and the politicians pontificate about respecting democracy as if they’ve accomplished anything other than proving themselves obsolete.
At least it shows they’re not powercrazed, I suppose. Cameron’s worst enemy wouldn’t accuse him of that. Despite obviously wanting to be prime minister, he didn’t seem that keen to be in charge of anything. And nothing demonstrates that better than the elected police and crime commissioners.
It was pretty ominous, really. What clearer sign could there be that the prime minister expected things to go badly, that government was going to retreat from its traditional duties and leave us to fate? He didn’t want control over how policing was done – he wanted whatever happened to be the fault of some amateurish local worthies. That way he could starve the police of resources without being blamed.
You can’t have power without responsibility. But Cameron’s dream was to have neither and still be prime minister. That was the real message of the Big Society: “You do it!” Anything that goes right, he takes the credit. Anything that goes wrong… well, it’s the will of the people.
It’s like they say about gambling addicts: he became hooked on the endorphin rush he felt when he lost