“We obviously made mistakes,” David Cameron began. “I’m sure we can talk about those.”
He was back! The hairline had receded somewhat but the mane itself was still sleek and dark, the forehead so smooth you could bounce satellite signals off it. Surely Cameron is the only person outside Hollywood to look younger today than they did in 2016. It’s almost as though he hasn’t found the intervening years quite as stressful as the rest of us have.
The former prime minister was giving evidence to Parliament’s National Security Strategy Committee. That sounds pretty important, but its membership is made up of the kind of people whose numbers, if they were ever in Boris Johnson’s phone, were blocked some years ago: Blair-era Cabinet ministers, and Tories along the lines of Tom Tugendhat. There’s a theory that Johnson might have merged the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development simply in the hope that it would lead to Tugendhat losing the chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Still, Cameron has time on his hands. “Could you give us another five or ten minutes?” Margaret Beckett asked at the end of his hour. “Sure,” came the reply. What else was he going to do? The next episode of WandaVision isn’t out until Friday.
It was jarring watching him. Someone who, if not an actual prime minister, still has the words quite close to their name, speaking coherently in formed sentences that engaged with the questions. He was always so terribly good at that.
He was sharing the benefit of his experience. “As prime minister, you need a sort of long screwdriver,” he said. “You’ve got to keep pushing the machine in the way you want it to go.” It seems fair to suggest that Cameron has only a hazy idea of how screwdrivers are used, at least after you’ve called the concierge service and told them that a lightbulb needs to be changed.
There were occasional backhanded criticisms of his successors. The current prime minister was referred to as “Boris Johnson,” an odd way to talk about someone you’ve known since school. The abolition of the DFID had been a mistake, he said. So had combining the roles of Cabinet Secretary and National Security Adviser. But he didn’t look terribly troubled by it all. Responsibility was a long time ago. “I’m happy doing what I’m doing,” he explained.
The Tory MPs on the committee sighed with pleasure. Richard Graham couldn’t have looked more delighted if Cameron had been asking for his daughter’s hand.
Even his Zoom setup was a reminder of the Cameron-era approach to politics. The current prime minister, with all the resources at his disposal, still manages to do remote sessions that look like they’re being covertly broadcast on his mobile phone from a spot under the Downing Street stairs.
Cameron always understood how important it was to look the part
Cameron though, coming presumably from Oxfordshire, was perfectly framed and lit, with a rock-solid internet connection. He always understood how important it was to look the part. Those who had hoped that he would be joining us from his shepherd’s hut were disappointed. Sunlight played on the wooden beams behind him. A dark corner was brightened by a table lamp, and at the edge of shot were a small number of unidentifiable books. His tie was off but there was a dark suit and a pale blue shirt, always flattering to pale skin. Somehow, he seemed to have had a haircut. What a pro. He was the future, once.
The only man the Tory Party currently has who comes close to Cameron in presentational terms, a man very clear that he’d like to be the future now, is Rishi Sunak. As it happens, this week is Rishi Week in the government grid, what with the Budget on Wednesday, and he has a new video out.
A long, long time ago, before social media was a thing, Cameron pioneered this sort of thing, with little movies filmed by Steve Hilton as he made porridge or toured the country. They had a website, WebCameron. These days, Hilton is preaching Trumpism on Fox, and the domain is for sale – “private seller”. Sic transit gloria mundi-wide web.
Sunak’s video benefitted from very slick production – bouncy graphics, urgent string music, lots of cuts – but it would have benefitted even more from an editor. At nearly six minutes, it’s Laurence of Arabia in social media video terms. Sunak, meanwhile, was interviewed wearing a black jumper against a black background, leaving the disconcerting impression that his head was floating in mid-air.
“Can you tell us a bit about the day you were asked to become Chancellor?” the interviewer began. “Oh, gosh,” Sunak replied. It was all like that, though, full disclosure, your sketchwriter gave up after three minutes. Honestly, who has time? Apart from David Cameron, obviously.
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