Kevin Theakston is Professor of British Government at the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds and Head of School.
He is one of the leading experts on British Prime Ministers and on Churchill. He teaches the Prime Ministers and other modules on the Political Studies and Politics and Parliamentary Studies degrees.
Read the Article
David Cameron has described the job of prime minister as like ‘being in an asteroid shower’. ‘You have got things flying at you every day’ he recently explained. ‘Should you be going to Sri Lanka? What are you going to do about famine in the Philippines? Why has this minister done that, why has that politician…? All these things are coming at you.’ The keys to doing the job, he said, were ‘having a trusted team and a clear plan.’
Political scientists have endlessly debated the power of the prime minister and have never really been able to settle that hoary old question. Much less attention has been paid to analysing what prime ministers have to do, how they do it, and how well they do it – how effective they are as political and government leaders.
Borrowing from American presidential studies, the focus here is on Cameron’s political skills and leadership style, using a six-point model derived from Fred Greenstein’s study of US presidents (The Presidential Difference, 2001), adapted to the institutional and political context of the British system.
The argument, briefly, is that prime ministers have to: communicate – organize – show political skill – set out policy aims and visions – process advice and take decisions – cope with the stress of the top job and show emotional intelligence.
This approach helps us understand the tasks and demands leaders face, the skills they have, their strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, and the difference they make.
There is wide agreement that Cameron excels at the public communication aspects of political leadership. He is highly accomplished at the frontman aspect of being prime minister and is the government’s most effective communicator.
Cameron is more like Blair than like Brown or Major in terms of media savvy, presentation skills, and knowing how to handle the media to sell and promote himself and his policies, and to reach out, connect with and persuade the wider public.
He is good on television, and accomplished and statesmanlike at big set-piece occasions.
Cameron is very good at appearing ‘prime-ministerial’.
He is also quick on his feet, sharp, confident and effective in the gladiatorial jousts at PMQs. Sometimes, however, Ed Miliband and other Labour frontbenchers have been able to get under his skin and unsettle him, leading to suggestions that he can seem to lose his temper in the House and come across as an aggressive ‘Flashman’ figure.
In terms of organising Number 10 and the government, Cameron very deliberately turned his back on the methods of Blair and Brown.
Indeed, Brown’s failures on this front – including his reluctance or inability to delegate, his controlling and micro-managing methods, and his poorly-organized and sometimes dysfunctional Downing Street set-up – constituted something of a lesson in how not to organize and run a premiership.
Style of Policy Making and Decision Taking
Cameron had declared before the general election that he wanted a more collective Cabinet government style of policy-making and decision taking, building a strong team and trusting his colleagues to get on with the job.
The imperatives and dynamics of coalition have made that a necessity and affect the sort of role he can and needs to play as prime minister.
The coalition has ‘brought back Cabinet government’ it has often been argued. But the Cabinet is not a body that originates policy or takes more than a small proportion of government decisions.
It is Cabinet committees that are crucial decision-making bodies in the coalition, particularly the National Security Council (chaired by Cameron himself, and bringing together key ministers and defence, foreign policy and intelligence advisers), the Home Affairs Committee (chaired by Nick Clegg) and the Europe Committee (chaired by Foreign Secretary William Hague).
During the Libyan intervention in 2011 the National Security Council (NSC) morphed into a ‘War Cabinet’, meeting over sixty times. Cameron’s use of the NSC contrasts with the more informal ‘sofa government’ methods that arguably served some of his predecessors in No. 10 so ill (as seen with Blair and Iraq).
The key group handling issues relating to the operation of the coalition, holding things together, and working out agreements on the big policy disputes has not been the official Coalition Committee, which has apparently met just a handful of times, but the more informal ‘Quad’.
This consists of Cameron and George Osborne for the Conservatives and Clegg and Danny Alexander (chief secretary to the Treasury) for the Liberal Democrats. This functions as a sort of inner Cabinet and deals particularly with tax and public spending issues.
Cameron entered office determined not to copy Brown’s (ineffective) control-freakery, micro-management and meddling.
He initially let his ministerial ‘barons’ run their fiefdoms with a very large degree of independence. But a modern prime minister needs to look ‘strong’ and cannot detach himself too much without provoking media and political criticisms when things go wrong. Cameron’s relaxed, broad-brush and hands-off approach has been identified as a factor in the government’s difficulties and problems with issues like the controversial big NHS reorganization, votes for prisoners and other policy U-turns and wobbles.
The prime minister’s No. 10 back up was scaled down after the 2010 election. It soon became clear, however, that No. 10 needed to strengthen its policy expertise and its oversight and control over the rest of Whitehall, and sharpen up its political operation.
In 2011, therefore, a new Policy and Implementation Unit was created (its dozen-strong staff a mix of civil servants and outsiders from the private sector). The Conservatives in opposition had talked of cutting back on the number of politically-appointed special advisers working for the prime minister and other ministers but in the event they have ended up appointing more than there had been in the outgoing Brown government.
Like all prime ministers in the last 30-40 years, Cameron has realised that he needs a strong No. 10 to drive and coordinate policy.
Insiders were impressed with Cameron’s political skills even when he was a young special adviser, testifying to his astute political antennae and tactical nous. Observers of Cameron as a political leader admit that he can be cunning.
More emphasis, though, tends to be put on the way in which he is ‘very good in small groups’, like Blair using his courtesy, charm and social skills to great effect.
Where Thatcher was abrasive, provocative, strident and confrontational, Cameron is a more emollient and consensual personality, something that helped in the ‘detoxifying’ of the Conservative brand in Opposition and now suits the coalition context.
Cameron certainly looks comfortable and at ease at the head of a coalition, and seems equipped to deal with the politics of a coalition, in a way that is difficult to imagine with Thatcher or Brown.
Positive personal chemistry at the top is essential for coalition governments to work. From the start, Cameron and Nick Clegg were reported to get on well together and to have a close rapport. They have regular bilateral meetings, generally weekly on Monday mornings, and talk frequently on the phone.
The two top figures seem to get on better than Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did under Labour, and Clegg has certainly been given more information and consultation about the budget than Blair usually got when Brown was at the Treasury.
But after the coalition’s first year, and with the weakening of the Liberal Democrat’s political position after their big election losses and defeat on the AV referendum in 2011, there were reports that inter-party and ministerial relations were becoming more rather ‘transactional’, formal and business-like, with more tensions, airing of party differences and conflicts of view.
The other key personal and political relationship at the heart of the government is between Cameron and George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. They work collaboratively and are very close friends and political allies to a degree not seen in the modern history of prime minister-chancellor relations.
Osborne is Cameron’s closest lieutenant and he ranges across all areas, not just the economy, being a key figure on political strategy and party management. It strengthens Cameron that there is no alternative leader in the Commons or the Cabinet with the stature and popularity to threaten him. A rival next door in No. 11 does not menace him, as Blair was by Brown.
Cameron can hardly be said to have provided the sort of radical policy vision and driving sense of mission that Margaret Thatcher did in the 1980s. But many British prime ministers have themselves actually had few clear long-term policy goals and little in the way of a sense of direction.
Pragmatists – even opportunists – have been much more common in Number 10 than vision-driven politicians.
Cameron has often been described – and has described himself – as a non-ideological, practical, ‘whatever works’, ‘One Nation’ type of Conservative, sceptical and pragmatic. ‘I don’t like grand plans and grand visions’, he once said, accepting that having ‘clear principles’ was important but criticising leaders who had ‘too much of a mission’ or who were driven by ‘some sort of messianic cause’. ‘I don’t believe in isms’, he once announced.
Some shrewd observers insist that ‘he never goes the whole way on anything’ – ‘he believes things, but nothing too much’. From the start of his leadership Cameron insisted that he wanted to be as radical a social reformer as Thatcher had been an economic reformer. But his impatient and iconoclastic adviser Steve Hilton left Downing Street in 2012 frustrated that Cameron was more of a reactive than a transformative prime minister and leader.
In terms of cognitive style – how leaders process information and advice, their intellectual strengths and weaknesses, and how they approach decision-making – the nimble Cameron is certainly very different from his immediate predecessor, who was obsessed by details, ponderous, inflexible and vacillating.
Having got those around him to outline the arguments on all sides of a question, he generally makes up his mind fairly quickly. Cameron has more of a broad-brush style even than Blair who could master details like a barrister when he needed to.
‘Themes not details’ are said to be his forte and Cameron himself emphasizes that ‘being a good prime minister is about making the right judgements’. He is said to pick up ideas quickly and to be intelligent but also to be pragmatic and more interested in resolving problems and making things happen than in philosophy or theories.
There have been reports that an inattention to detail sometimes worries his aides. One insider says that he ‘can sometimes act as if he believes his natural intellect is a substitute for hard graft.’
Other PMs (such as Attlee) and observers of the premiership have often agreed that judgement rather than cleverness, and a clear mind rather than an original one, is what is needed in the occupant of Number 10. So-called ‘intellectual” PMs have often been failures in office.
Cameron certainly scores highly in terms of the emotional intelligence now widely recognized to be an important component of successful political leadership.
The contrast to Gordon Brown seems strong. Cameron comes across as untroubled by inner demons and well adjusted. He seems emotionally secure, self-confident and comfortable with himself. He has an easy manner, is optimistic, cool and usually calm under pressure, and he can keep things in proportion.
Underneath the personal charm and ease, however, he is determined, tough and can be ruthless. Deficiencies in emotional intelligence may not necessarily prevent a leader from governing successfully, but in Brown’s case a more even temperament would have been an asset and helped him weather the demands of office and lead his government more effectively. Cameron and before him Blair fit the model of the more emotionally literate leader that modern politics seems to require.
In terms of the key leadership abilities, skills and characteristics Greenstein’s model identifies, Gordon Brown can certainly be seen as someone who was not well equipped for the highest office, even allowing for the fact that he was very unlucky in the circumstances and problems he faced during his time in Number 10.
David Cameron, in contrast, can be seen to perform well and to have strengths under several of these key headings.
He is a strong communicator; he has made some intelligent decisions about the organization of advice and decision-making in government; he is a formidable political operator; he has shown flexibility and pragmatism; he seems to be able to handle the intellectual and personal challenges of the premiership, and he shows emotional intelligence.
He faces, to be sure, huge political and economic challenges. But it cannot be said of him – as it was said of Brown – that he is not up to the job of being prime minister.