David Mitchell col­umn

The Observer - The New Review - - Agenda - David Mitchell

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 overen­er­getic 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 self-loathing, 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 power-crazed, 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.

A stick of ex­cre­ment in a suit should have been enough to beat the Labour party in 2010

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