I went to see David Cameron in one of his Cameron Direct events in the highly marginal Lib Dem constituency of Mid Dorset and Poole North. Having put a note up on Facebook, I was warned by one, that I should be prepared to be impressed. That was unnecessary advice since I’ve been impressed by Cameron almost since he began his rise to the verge of Prime Ministership (albeit with considerable help from Labour’s warring factions). It was fascinating to see him in front of an English audience, whose political preoccupations are quite different from those in Northern Ireland.Of the three questions I’d prepared, I went for what was probably the most anodyne, just to see the quality of his answer. I asked how he was going to fund the war in Afghanistan or any other contingent foreign war, when Defence was not going to be immune to cuts. His answer basically was that they would manage things with greater focus than Labour, and then began to extemporise on Brown’s cock up over helicopters. Effectively, he dodged the fiscal bullet.
And so it was all evening. Apart from one little spat with the UKIP crowd, Mr Cameron was likeable, entertaining and connected well with the people in the audience (not all of whom were natural Tories by any means). In fact apart from one little joust with the substantial UKIP lobby, he agreed with almost everyone in the room. I’d a little mental calculator in the back of my head counting up the promises he was making to spend on people’s causes in the room. You cannot escape the feeling that he’s happy to make pretty vague promises to help everyone out. Canny tactic for an opposition, but not sure what kind of mandate it adds up to once he’s in government.
The guy beside me, a rather distinguished Tory ex naval officer, was suitably impressed with Cameron’s polished performance and his undoubted emotional intelligence. But he was also minded to quote Francis Pym when he said “you can never tell how a horse will run until he’s in the race”. And it’s true that after this, as after the Tory Conference of 2006, we have little idea of what this man will do when he gets in. NOr how he will deal with having to take unpopular decisions. His one great achievement so far has been the emasculation of the Labour party, now punch drunk and fatalistic as they stumble into the summer.
For me the most telling moment though was in the detail of his response to the abolition of Quangos (he follows Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown on promising this) he was asked if he would keep telling the electorate of his progress on getting rid of them. His answers were interesting. In fact the only one he put up front and central was Ofcom. He even quoted Kelvin McKenzie’s article in The Sun relating the astronomical salary of the chief executive Ed Richards (£400,000, if you can believe it?).
That’s an interesting conjunction of Mr Cameron’s political agenda with Mr Murdoch’s private interests that I doubt many others in the audience spotted. As previously noted here on Slugger (Peter Kirwan has the gory detail) just weeks after Mr Murdoch called on Mr Cameron to provide less government and freer markets, Mr Cameron responded by offering to remove the policy making powers of the communications regulator Ofcom when they recommended Sky TV (once a huge financial drain, now Murdochs only significant profit making venture in the UK) be forced to give up some of its premium sports channels as most appropriate way of ensuring fair and effective competition.
One slight footnote from my elderly Tory friend, who thought that his style was grand but his delivery could do with some breaks and pauses. It seems to me there could be two possible reasons for that. One, these Cameron Direct performances are largely impromtu and extemporising responses to questions from the public. It’s in their broader nature that they are conversational and mostly devoid of rhetorical flourish. And Cameron is an extremely adept exponent.
But having listened to Vince Cable just three weeks back at a similarly open event, in which Cable took questions, paused, deconstructed them and then gave useful answers back to his audience you wonder whether this ‘new guy’ has the intellectual bottom, or even just the simple conviction to take the UK through what look like they could be pretty rough times. Cable had none of the polish, but the audience was none the less impressed. That the former naval officer seemed keen not only to get the Lib Dem Treasury Spokesman into the cabinet, but put him in charge of the Exchequer suggests that it’s not just the Tories’ opponents who have their doubts.