Five Paradoxical Lessons From David Cameron

By Titus Alexander

As the party conference season starts and David Cameron fades from political memory it is time to draw lessons from his ten years at the top of the Conservative Party and his swift departure after the Brexit vote. His period in power restored Conservative confidence as a natural party of government, but it only has a majority of 17 seats and 37 per cent of the vote. British politics is entering a new, uncertain era. Many more parties are competing for power, power is being devolved to nations and regions, and our position in the world is less certain. How we handle these changes depends on decisions by citizens as well as the political skill of the parties.

Whatever the criticisms behind the scenes, his party is likely to turn Cameron’s leadership into a story about recovery from the financial crash and inclusive conservatism. The reality is that the financial system is still vulnerable, the country is divided and we face countless challenges including low productivity, skill shortages, a trade deficit, budget deficits, rising personal debt, climate change, a looming pensions crises, and high costs of childcare, energy, housing, healthcare and social care, not to mention Brexit or the possible breakup of Britain. Cameron inherited many of them, but they are now part of his legacy. The big question is whether his successor has learned these big lessons before Labour, UKIP or the Liberal Democrats use them to oust her.

The great illusion of politics is that politicians are in charge and run the country. Government ministers have a great deal of power but most of the time they make waves which shake things up but, like ships, everything stays in much the same place. The waves may be stormy or gentle, but the great currents of change come from deep in society. The best politicians know that state craft is about sailing, not rowing, still less trying to control the climate. They work on improving their vessel and skills of the crew while tacking deftly with the wind to reach their goal, whatever the weather.

David Cameron had some skills of a sailor, leading a fleet of ships away from the financial crash to an uncharted destination. He leaves his successors in a swamp of unexploded mines (some planted by his predecessor, Gordon Brown) and endless negotiations with the EU. Having urged his party to stop banging on about Europe, much political energy will now be dedicated to Europe, squeezing other issues aside.

I don’t want to judge Cameron’s record nor his policies, but will focus on five big political lessons which any leader can learn from, whether in politics, business or civil society. Each of these lessons presents a paradox of success and failure. They highlight the difficulties of politics in practice and the need for our political leaders, as well as citizens, to learn practical politics.

  1. The power of public relations and communication

David Cameron showed how public relations and political communication can win or lose power. Labour’s Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell also used political spin to win power in 1997, but they let it dominate the party so strongly they squeezed the life out of it (sowing seeds of Corbynism). Cameron had been close to the centre of power since leaving university, so he was more relaxed about political noise within the party and learnt how to manage dissent. He benefited from the creativity of internal debate and used it to create a more inclusive, tolerant political style. Like Blair, he de-toxified his party’s brand and told a new story about its purpose (“hug a hoodie”, which he never actually said). But his ‘Big Society’ pitch in 2010 was poor PR and failed to win a majority. Then in 2015 he hired hard-hitting political strategist Lynton Crosby to run a tightly focused campaign which increased his share of the vote by less than one per cent but gained 24 seats (Labour’s vote rose by 1.5 per cent but they lost 26 seats). Then David Cameron again failed to run a proper PR strategy for the EU referendum and duly lost.

Public relations cannot conceal a flawed message nor over-ride public sentiment, but finding out who you need to mobilise, listening to them, responding to their hopes or fears, and motivating them to act is basic political PR. Like it or loath it, you can’t do without. Only a minority are actively involved in politics and they need good communications to engage the public and earn their support over years, not months.

Cameron’s communication strategies made the difference between success and failure in the general election and referendum. But the foundations were built on party management.


  1. Party management matters

Ideologically the Conservative Party is deeply divided, probably more so than Labour. David Cameron never had a majority for his brand of socially liberal conservatism. The conservative press was often sceptical and sometimes hostile. But he had seen the infighting under John Major and Iain Duncan Smith from close quarters and learnt how to keep fissiparous factions together most of the time. Under him the party organisation, communication and campaigning also became more professional, supporting the voluntary membership and local councillors who sustain the party at the grassroots. He also managed the coalition well, using his LibDem partners as political pawns or shields as the occasion demanded. In the end divisions over Europe and political opportunism did for him, as for many of his predecessors. But Conservatives understand the power of a united front and their political battles will continue behind closed doors. Factions will communicate with supporters through coded messages, but party and government will appear united. Mrs May has different priorities and style from Mr Cameron, but party management is likely to be even stronger. Labour is also rediscovering that it is one thing to win a leadership campaign and quite another to lead a party.

  1. But purpose and strategy matter more

In the end Cameron allowed party pressures to promise a referendum he didn’t need. He could have won if he had prepared the ground better from the start, but he allowed party management to rule relationships with Europe without offering a strategic vision. First he left the European People’s Party group of conservatives in the European Parliament, reducing his influence with the most powerful governments in the EU. Then he struck populist poses on the EU budget and appointment of Commission President Junker, reducing his influence further. Most damaging of all, he did not develop a compelling positive vision of Britain in Europe and colluded with negative narratives in the press and party.

Cameron’s biggest mistake was to promise a referendum without first ensuring he would get a viable outcome. Attempting to get 27 countries to negotiate away a fundamental principle of the EU, freedom of movement, was always a non-starter. But migration is a political problem across Europe and every country has its frustrations over the EU, so a more strategic approach to working with governments on reforms to benefit everyone could have made more progress than special pleading.

UKIP and the Leave.EU campaign showed the deep dissatisfaction and sense of powerlessness in Britain. Ironically, Cameron’s Conservatives and Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice recognised this in their ‘Broken Britain’ rhetoric, but they did not unite the country round a coherent programme for change. Cameron had a vision about making Britain more tolerant and inclusive, manifest in legalisation for gay marriage and Big Society initiatives, as well as commitment to international development, but it was undermined in by strategic incoherence over Europe and domestic policies.

  1. Set the pace of change, but unite people behind the purpose first

Cameron’s ambitious domestic reforms also offer a double edged lesson about leading change. On the positive side, his ministers had a vision of what they wanted and acted decisively to drive change, in schools, the NHS, Police and Crime Commissioners, tuition fees, universal credit, spending cuts, localism and devolution. Cameron gave his ministers remarkable autonomy to deliver their objectives without being micro-managed from 10 or 11 Downing Street.

On the other hand, he had not built the broad support needed for his reforms and they faced resistance (often because they were not fully developed or flawed); they were not connected by a coherent strategic vision; and they have unintended consequences which will create problems in future. The strategic tension in many of Cameron’s reforms was between giving some people more power – to set up schools, take over public services or elect mayors – and creating a complex of local decision-making bodies with little public accountability. Clinical Commissioning Groups in health, Local Economic Development Partnerships, academy school chains, Regional School Commissioners and other bodies spend vast amounts of public money without any democratic oversight. Poor coordination, local power struggles and scandals over corruption, malpractice or service failures are inevitable.

  1. Conceded quickly and gracefully

Cameron was sometimes criticised for his many U-turns, over the sale of state-owned forests, funding for school sports and many other issues (Leftfoot Forward list 42 U-turns on Cameron’s Corkers). Cameron also apologised for past mistakes by the state, such as the Bloody Sunday killings in Northern Ireland and conduct of West Yorkshire police over the Hillsborough tragedy.

The paradox is that willingness to reconsider a decision is a strength. It shows people that if they use their voice they can make a difference. A quick concession lets you move on without getting bogged down in a political skirmish. You can re-think and if necessary re-group to take up the issue later. But concessions must be made within a strategic framework and sometimes you need to stick to a principle or fight for a decision because it is central to your mission.

The EU referendum itself was a concession to people power, but Cameron seemed to realise too late that membership of the EU is a strategic issue for the UK and had not prepared for the fight of his political life. He did not apply his skills in public relations and party management to get enough people behind his strategy well before the contest. He set the pace of change, but under-estimated his opponents.

Cameron’s final departure from Downing Street and Parliament showed dignity in defeat and enhanced his reputation. “All political lives end in failure” according to Enoch Powell, in his book on Joseph Chamberlain (1977). But the second life of politicians is in myth, which can be as potent as in person.

For many Cameron may be defined by the Brexit vote, just as Tony Blair was by the Iraq war or Churchill by the Second World War. But this depends on how his successor and his party chose to use his legacy, as a scapegoat for Brexit if it fails or, more likely, as a compassionate Conservative who took tough decisions on the economy and began to rebuild broken Britain. Every parties will project his legacy through a different lens, to support their narrative about the future, but all will be distorted. This brings us back to the first lesson, about the power of political communications to control the story in the public mind.

Applying the lessons

Political power in Britain is handed seamlessly from one government or minister to the next. Theresa May replaced David Cameron and his team almost overnight, showing continuity and change in the same moment. She will have absorb these and many other lessons from working alongside him for over a decade. Her approach to communications, party management and pace of change is becoming clear. She has also shown some flexibility in response to challenge. Whether she has a coherent strategy to solve Britain’s problems and negotiate our way out of the EU is less clear. Choosing to make selective schools her first big domestic policy initiative suggests she has not done so yet. Her speech to the Conservative Party conference will show whether she really has learnt the big lessons from David Cameron’s time in office or not.

As citizens, we should look beyond the stories politicians tell, to see what they actually want to do: are they your priorities? Do they have a strategy to achieve them? What is the evidence it will work? Do they have the ability and experience to get on with it? Will they listen if you think they’re wrong?

Titus Alexander is author of Practical Politics: Lessons in Power and Democracy, to published by Trentham/Institute of Education Press on 1 November. It can be pre-ordered on Amazon. Academics can get an inspection copy from here.


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