Alastair Meeks on the high energy PM
Every politician is viewed in caricature.Â David Cameron is no exception.Â Journalists routinely write of him being like Flashman, of being lazy, of being an essay crisis Prime Minister who doesn’t do detail unless his back is against a wall, of being a man of no particular vision beyond keeping things steady as she goes.
It is very hard to square this caricature with the David Cameron who has been working towards the referendum on 23 June.Â He has been focussed all of the year so far on securing his deal with the EU, personally criss-crossing the continent to secure the agreement of heads of state.Â Whatever one thinks of the deal, the Prime Minister cannot be faulted for lack of effort or commitment.
Having secured the deal, the Prime Minister was equally adept in his handling of questions on the EU referendum in Parliament.Â He took questions for hours from all sides, answering with authority and detail.
He also took the opportunity (probably unwisely but certainly effectively) to take revenge on a conspicuously disloyal colleague.Â Boris Johnson had waited until after the Prime Minister had struck his deal to wrongfoot him by coming out in favour of leaving the EU despite having no track record of opposition to it.Â He timed his announcement to kill any momentum that Remain might get from the deal, to get his announcement all over Monday morning’s papers (which duly swooned in ecstasy at the news) and to plonk himself at the front of the Tory leadership race.
As the nineteenth century writer Josh Billings noted, thrice is he armed that hath his quarrel just, But four times he who gets his blow in fust.Â Yet despite having the advantages of surprise and timing, Boris Johnson was knocked flat on his back by David Cameron in the House of Commons the very next day with a couple of swipes that showed that his fancy footwork was insufficient to dodge a great clunking fist (at least the Flashman part of the caricature seems to be holding good).Â By the end of that day, Conservative MPs were entreating David Cameron to be kind to Boris Johnson â€“ not a good look for a would-be Prime Minister.Â
For all his strategic manoeuvring, Boris Johnson ended the day looking diminished relative to David Cameron.Â He has not recovered since.
Nor has David Cameron stopped there.Â He has spent the intervening time delivering blood-curdling warnings at every opportunity about the many and varied risks of voting to leave the EU.Â To date he has stopped short of predicting plagues of frogs, but that can only be a matter of time. We can assume that the Prime Minister has not improved his record score on Fruit Ninja so far this year.
The sheer energy shown by the Prime Minister has left the Leave camp thrown all over the place like skittles hit by a bowling ball.Â Iain Duncan Smith has complained about the desperate nature of the Remain campaign and about the acrimony that the claims are creating.Â That’s a pretty clear sign that without leadership or clear response lines, Leave is struggling to keep up.
This matters.Â Unlike the Scottish independence vote, the EU referendum campaign is going to have the Prime Minister as a clear and active campaigner leading the charge to defend the status quo.Â Regardless of what you think of the veracity of the Prime Minister’s claims or the appropriateness of the Prime Minister attacking one of his senior party members, this is a huge advantage for the Remain campaign relative to Better Together.Â
The authority of the Prime Minister repeatedly warning of the dangers of leaving the EU is going to weigh heavily on uncommitted voters’ judgements.
So David Cameron has worked diligently this year to secure a deal, has knocked the stuffing out of one of his internal party opponents and is campaigning tirelessly, spending his political capital, to secure a victory for the cause that he evidently believes in. David Cameron once said that he wanted to be Prime Minister because he thought he’d be rather good at it.Â It seems that he was right.
This reads like a paean of praise to the Prime Minister.Â There is a catch.Â The referendum is going to be over on 23 June.Â If Leave wins, then David Cameron’s career will come to an abrupt end.Â But the alternative is hardly straightforward either.Â If Remain wins, David Cameron will have led that campaign to victory against his own party members, who look set to back Leave decisively.Â His party is discovering what it is like to be on the receiving end of the all-out attacks he specialises in, having previously been oblivious to his controlled aggression, blinded by his seemingly-languid and placid persona.
His bruising style of campaigning is going to leave many party members furious with him, particularly as the subject of Britain’s EU membership is bafflingly so incredibly important to them.
In those circumstances, David Cameron’s authority in the nation as a whole will be at an all time high but he will lead an angry and alienated party.Â He will either need to decide to step down gracefully sooner rather than later or he will need to preside over a reconstruction that rehabilitated losers.Â Winning that battle might well prove harder in the long term than winning the referendum and may be a task that needs to be completed by someone less associated with the referendum campaign itself.Â By winning the referendum, he may be bringing his own career to an early end.