Thursday, 18 November 2010

Cameron's cult of personality: a response to Simon Heffer

Simon Heffer's recent Telegraph article on David Cameron's cult of personality suggests that the recent expansion in the Prime Minister's 'vanity team' masks a massive vacuum of policy. Asking his readers whether they'd prefer he stopped holding politicians to account and offer a defence of Wagner (assuming he means the German composer and not the X Factor's unlikely contestant), Heffer criticises the decision to put 26 people on the public payroll working in roles as diverse as personal film-maker, 'web guru' and a 'behavioural insight team'. All of the above, of course, would not be out of place in the PR department of any large-ish public organisation. 

But Heffer rails against a leader whose 'court photographer' has started to give him a monarchic air – and when the monarch herself is appropriately frugal these days - it's not hard to disagree with his argument. Whereas the case for employing communications professionals in many parts of government has never been stronger – given the need to communicate a great deal of change both internally and externally - when half a million public sector workers are projected to lose their jobs, the right of the Prime Minister to employ hand-picked individuals to make him look good should be questioned.

None of this is at all surprising coming from the pen of Heffer, a man known to be deeply sceptical about the entire Cameron project, and especially since it has been somewhat blurred in league with the Liberal Democrats. And, although I share his scepticism, the subtext of his article is that an alternative Tory government, probably led by a socially conservative leader well to the right of Cameron, is infinitely preferable.

Governments need people to present their policies, and it's right that political parties spend more time and money doing so today than at any time in history. I agree with Heffer's point, but he inevitably misunderstands that brand is crucial in politics. The Prime Minister Cameron brand is six months old, but has not yet developed enough gravitas or substance in order to make a clear break from Cameron the mischievous Leader of the Opposition, to Cameron The Great Statesman. Aside from that, this brand has to jostle for space alongside that of Nick Clegg and the increasing beleaguered Liberal Democrats, although it shouldn't be too difficult to assume dominance given the electorate's rapid falling out with the Deputy Prime Minister. In a year's time we will know a great deal more about what the Prime Minister is capable of. The problem is that there just isn't any substance, because of the lack of clear mandate from a hung parliament, policies are more often or not made up on the hoof. Cameron knows this, and so in Heffer's words 'the deeper motive of survival is more likely'.

If the Coalition is to survive in the Cameron mould, he should look to Margaret Thatcher, the grandmother of Tory strategists, who would tell us that presentation comes second, and policies should be foremost. Even if you disagreed with her politics, she had a formidable presence which didn't so much need to be created, but simply tweaked to suit the television age – for example, she had lessons to lower the pitch of her voice to project more authority. Her government became quite expert in its use of propaganda and talented artistic types to present their policies, paving the way for new Labour in the 1990s.

Footnote: Cameron decided yesterday that his employment of a personal photographer and film-maker had sent a "wrong message" so it seems that general pressure from the public and the media have forced a u-turn,which means two of the so-called 'vanity' team will be placed back on the Tory party payroll.

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