British Prime Minister David Cameron has had the kind of summer he’d prefer to forget. First there was the phone-hacking scandal. His decision to hire Rupert Murdoch minion Andy Coulson as his press secretary raised serious questions about his judgment. The scandal has flared up again, with revelations that Mr. Coulson, while working for the Tory leader in opposition, continued to receive payment from News International.
When the scandal was in temporary abatement, Mr. Cameron took off for a holiday in Tuscany. There, the worst thing that happened to him was some unwelcome publicity for stiffing a waitress of her tip at a local café. But with practised aplomb, he turned the incident into a photo op, returning the next day to hand over a generous gratuity in front of clicking cameras.
Within days, though, he faced a much larger problem. Feral mobs were rampaging through English cities, engaging in what the British press waggishly refers to as illegal shopping. Mr. Cameron was reluctant to leave his Tuscan hideaway, but, as the tut-tutting grew louder, he braced himself for duty.
His performance since then has highlighted his strengths and weaknesses. In the emergency parliamentary debate, he displayed some of his finer qualities. To call his performance Churchillian would be an overstatement, but he helped to calm the nerves of an anxious nation with his articulacy and decisiveness. The situation demanded leadership, and he provided it.
But that was the easy part. While the national concern was law and order, he could control the agenda, even throwing some red meat to the Tory back benches by suggesting that a preoccupation with human rights – a dangerous infiltration from the continent, in the minds of Tory Euroskeptics – was contributing to Britain’s “destructive culture.”
Now that the debate is shifting to the social malaise that brought forth the riots, Mr. Cameron seems less sure-footed. By intensifying the law-and-order rhetoric, he has triggered charges of hypocrisy. While a student at Oxford, Mr. Cameron was a member of the exclusive, all-male Bullingdon Club, notorious for conduct scarcely distinguishable from that of the plebeian rioters. The persistent British grumble that there’s one law for the rich and privileged, another for the poor and downtrodden, is growing dangerously loud.
Before he became prime minister, Mr. Cameron defined his political credo as “compassionate conservatism.” He seemed to be signalling a desire to restore the Conservatives as the party of noblesse oblige, thus reconnecting with a philosophy that goes back to Benjamin Disraeli, while implicitly repudiating the neo-liberalism of the Thatcher years.
But (as Disraeli understood) noblesse oblige needs to be supported with concrete ideas and policies if it’s to be anything more than an empty platitude. Mr. Cameron seems peculiarly bereft of both. Perhaps that has something to do with his career in public relations, where having ideas of one’s own might impede the promotion of other people’s.
His hands-off approach might work if there were cabinet unanimity. But there isn’t. There remain, for example, bitter divisions in his coalition government over the future of the National Health Service, even as Parliament considers proposals to reform it. Mr. Cameron floats above the fray, unwilling to impose his will. Some ministers are reportedly frustrated at this lack of direction, especially now that opposition leader Ed Miliband is finding his voice. Mr. Cameron must quickly get a grip if his miserable summer is not to become a winter of discontent.
John Sainsbury is a professor of history at Brock University.