OIR: Dave and Maggie at Cheltenham Literature Festival

Article published on November 2, 2015.Reviewed by Mike Stafford

How does a PM’s background shape their leadership style? That was the question loosely explored at Cheltenham Literature Festival by journalist and Cameron biographer Isabel Oakeshott, Tory MP for Spelthorne Kwasi Kwarteng, and Times columnist and former Labour speechwriter Philip Collins.

Collins – acting as chair – referenced a game attempt he once made to divorce the public man from the private man when writing for John Prescott. Did Prescott’s adultery have any bearing over his fitness to govern? Collins had argued not, but unsurprisingly it was a view not shared by the panel.

Oakeshott, pictured above, is currently riding a wave of publicity following publication of her book Call Me Dave with Lord Ashcroft. Though one allegation in the book won it great deal of notoriety, we should remember it’s a 600-page behemoth into which Oakeshott has put considerable research. That shone through as Oakeshott painted a verbal portrait of Cameron. For Oakeshott, he is a leader with a strong sense of duty, instilled in him by his parents. His background is not just emotionally but practically significant – with the exception of his job as a constituency MP, every job Cameron has had involved a connection making a call on his behalf. His circle of friends now is the same as it was at prep school, exposing him to accusations of insularity or cliquey-ness.

Nevertheless, he is a pragmatist with a view that Britain should be improved incrementally by chipping away at the bad bits. Cameron is not ideologically driven; “he won’t die in a ditch for anything,” as Oakeshott put it. Even his move to legalise gay marriage had to be put in context; coming after a glut of embarrassing policy climb-downs, including on selling off forests, Cameron’s coalition just wanted to hammer a policy through and shed a growing reputation for u-turns.

The contrast with Margaret Thatcher, of course, could hardly be clearer: “u-turn if you want to; the Lady’s not for turning.” Kwasi Kwarteng, perhaps through circumstance given less time than was really fair, gave the audience the classic Thatcher portrait. She was a leader different from Cameron in almost conceivable very way; an ideologue raised in a strong Methodist household, she loved markets not necessarily for the freedom they create but for the discipline they enforce. She had a messianic zeal which informed everything she did. It saw her cast her political adversaries as demons and herself as on the side of the angels. Her iron will was the opposite of Cameron’s polished pragmatism, as was the fact that the grocer’s daughter had to fight for everything she got in life.

As Collins observed, Cameron’s career is an ongoing event, whereas the dust has now arguably settled on Thatcher’s. Nevertheless, despite one’s unrepentant veneration of the other, it seems Dave and Maggie will enjoy vastly different lives – and legacies.

Mike Stafford


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