Artillery Row

Glory Dave

The former prime minister takes us on a walk down memory lane

“I remember something Obama said to me…” We were an hour into Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton’s evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, and the ex-prime minister was slipping into anecdotage. The mind slipped back to a time when the US president was the coolest man on the planet, and everyone wanted to be his friend. And what had Obama said to Cameron? He’d said “Look, David…” There had been some words after that, but those two words were very much the important bit. They were a reminder that we were in the presence of a big man, someone who’d sat at the top table, made the important calls, read the secret reports. 

Someone, too, who is a master performer. Stuck as we are in the dregs of the Conservative government, it was jarring to hear a minister so fluent, so completely at ease taking questions. That’s not to say he had all the answers — far from it — but he was confident enough to remain unruffled when he didn’t. He had the air of a bright student who hasn’t done much of the reading but is confident he can bluff his way through the bits he’s vague on. Alicia Kearns, the committee chair, did her best in the role of a tutor trying to discomfort him, but she didn’t have a great deal of luck. As things went on Cameron leaned back in his seat, his elbow resting on the chair next to him as he reminisced about “kicking the tyres” on government policy as a prime minister. 

Squeezed into a navy suit, he was all charm. Why had he taken the job? “The chance to serve.” He had of course had this opportunity in the wake of the Brexit referendum, but he chose to swan off to his shepherd’s hut instead. He had, he said faux-modestly, “a certain amount of knowledge and contacts.” One imagines this was how he marketed himself to businesses during the somewhat unsatisfying cash-in over the past eight years. He has certainly picked up a nice bit of “when I was prime minister” patter that must have been a huge hit in the boardroom at Greensill.

“It’s always heartbreaking to deal with when you’re a prime minister,” he began, talking about hostages, and then segued effortlessly into flattery. “I’d be very interested in your views,” he told the committee. “I’d love your input.”

All the old tricks were there: the sad face for talking about the Middle East, the hands pushing outwards to press points forward, chopping down in parallel to divide problems into silos, and waggling back and forth on difficult points. His forehead was remarkably wrinkle-free, but then he wasn’t in parliament for Brexit, which aged those of us who were by decades. Caught on a tricky point by Labour’s Graham Stringer, he tried smarm. “It’s a very difficult question to answer,” he chuckled. “I’ll answer a slightly different question, if I may.”

Listening to him speaking was as triggering of my own memories as any number of French sponge biscuits. If you’ll forgive a moment of indulgence, this is my twentieth year covering Westminster. The first twelve of those were dominated, in one way or another, by Cameron, as he rose to lead the Tories and then become prime minister. (The subsequent eight have been spent covering what you might call the consequences of Cameron.) When he talked about visiting China or Washington or Israel, the mind flashed back to the trips that I covered: the ball on the White House lawn, the helicopter into Kabul and, most of all, the ride through Tripoli with my knee jammed against the driver’s assault rifle, a day when my entire focus was on the vital importance of not getting left behind. 

It was when we turned to the events around that trip that we got a bit of spikiness. Labour’s Fabian Hamilton asked about a committee report that criticised Britain’s intervention in Libya. As he spoke, Cameron flicked through his binder and then tore out the relevant note. “I remember reading it,” he said of the report, “and thinking it was bunk.”

There was a similar defensiveness as they turned to the question of China, and whether he had lobbied on the country’s behalf in recent months. He denied this, and further questions were prevented as the MPs were summoned away for a vote. Saved by the division bell. 

The evasions hadn’t always worked. Kearns caught him out on the UK’s position on whether Gaza is an occupied territory. “We consider it to be quite fundamental,” she observed drily as the foreign secretary flannelled and flicked through his binder in search of the answer. The SNP’s Brendan O’Hara tried to pin Cameron down on the legal advice he’d had on Israeli actions in Gaza. “I can’t recall every single bit of paper that has been put in front of me,” he said, trying to keep things vague. “I’m trying to be helpful,” he added. “Did that help at all?” O’Hara looked at him: “No.” Cameron smiled ruefully. It probably reminded him of something that happened when he was prime minister.  

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