How odd to think that there was a time when I looked up to David Cameron. From the moment we were introduced at the beginning of my second year at Oxford, I remember being mesmerised by his confidence, his charisma, his looks, that amused plummy accent and — yes — perhaps, also, that slight vibe so many Etonians projected in those days that if you hadn’t been to ‘School’ you really weren’t quite the thing. It all made you want to get to know him better. Which I did. And I very much liked what I found.
If you’d told me then that David Cameron would one day be prime minister, I’m sure I would have been tickled pink. I didn’t know what his politics were but I had my vague suspicions: a belief in traditional English values spiced with a love of liberty and a healthy disrespect for arbitrary authority; almost certainly a distrust of big government and a hatred of political correctness and joyless, snarling, bitter socialism. Just the kind of brave captain you’d want at the helm if ever there was another national crisis.
But now look at him. Here is a guy who had the chance of a lifetime: he could have gone down in history as the man who saved Britain from its greatest crisis since the second world war. He could have rescued our economy, restored our national sense of self-worth, given us back our stolen liberty, rolled back the state, regained our sovereignty, slashed taxes and red tape, stemmed the tide of immigration, clamped down on Islamist aggression and undone all the damage that has been inflicted on us by Blair and Brown.
And what’s he offering instead? Some nice photographs taken ten years ago showing just how fit his wife is. The exciting news that Sam is pregnant. A big poster of a young black woman saying she wouldn’t have voted Conservative before but now she will because Britain’s Broken. Another one showing how baby-soft and pink Dave’s cheeks are. Have I missed anything? Not a lot. Cameron’s future claim to fame will surely be as a prime minister so floppy and useless he makes Ted Heath look like Winston Churchill.
Which isn’t to say that our Dave can’t play the hard bastard when he wants to. It’s just that, unfortunately, the areas where he has chosen to exercise his Stalinist talents are those least likely to be of benefit to our ruined nation. His fag-roasting ruthlessness has been deployed on things like enforcing party discipline and jettisoning any policy, however quintessentially conservative, which doesn’t play well in the key marginals. What it won’t be wasted on, apparently, is irrelevant stuff like ideological principle or putting Britain’s interests first.
Consider his shabby behaviour over the Common Fisheries Policy. You don’t need to be especially conservative or Eurosceptical to recognise this as one of the EU’s most shameful on-going scandals. Its effect on the ecosystem has been devastating, with 880,000 tonnes of dead fish being chucked back into the North Sea every year; and not just in EU territory but also off the coast of west Africa which, after due payments to relevant dictators, is now legally plundered by vast Euro factory fleets. The CFP, it emerged last year in a report published by the TaxPayers’ Alliance and Global Vision, has cost Britain 97,000 jobs (in fishing and dependent industries) and adds an annual £200 to a family’s food bill.
This is why a few years ago a Conservative MP called Owen Paterson — one of the good ones — prepared a Green Paper calling for the repatriation of our territorial waters. Under three successive Tory leaders — Hague, Duncan Smith and Howard — this became official Tory policy. Britain would reclaim the fishing territories which Cameron’s spirit-ual forebear Ted Heath had been gulled into surrendering on our entry into Europe, and would administer them sensibly and sustainably, much as Iceland does. But the moment Cameron became party leader Paterson was swiftly reshuffled and his carefully researched policy was shelved. When I crossly pointed this out to a Cameroon Conservative the other day, his defence was that Dave was of a mind that his party had to pick carefully where to fight its battles. If he was going to confront the EU, he wanted it to be over economics and working directives rather than over fish.
Well fine. Maybe, as some of my more sophisticated friends tell me, there’s really no place for high-minded principles in politics. You’ve got to do what works, not what’s right. But if that’s really so true, how do you explain Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan? And isn’t there a point where this notion that ‘politics is the art of the possible’ crosses the line from sensible pragmatism into the kind of moral cowardice which entirely defeats the object of being in politics at all?
Dave Cameron is about to get his hands on the biggest, starriest prize yet won by my immensely ambitious Oxford generation — and I don’t think any of us envy or admire him one bit. If there’s one thing we ghastly Oxonians fear more than anything, it’s failure. And if there’s one thing we detest more than a loser, it’s a loser who drags us down with him.
Why, Dave? Why? Well, this is only a theory, but personally I blame ‘Eton’. Not Eton the superb and surprisingly meritocratic establishment which gave Cameron the best education in the world and whose values every school should emulate, but ‘Eton’ as it exists in the peevish, bitter imaginations of libtard Guardian-istas: as symbol of all the traditional British values which must be destroyed utterly if we are to live in a land of equality and social justice. And Dave — showing a lack of moral fibre I would never have expected of him — has allowed his policy-making to be dictated by this warped, Fabian version of reality.
If Dave had been to some scrubby comp, we wouldn’t be having to put up with this drivel about punishing bankers with new supertaxes or keeping the 50 per cent upper-band tax base. Instead he’d have found a user-friendly way of explaining the Laffer Curve to the electorate — he did read PPE, didn’t he? — and said: ‘Right: less spending money and a bigger national debt; or more spending money and a small national debt? Your choice!’ The politics of conviction, not self-loathing, fear and desperation.
But it never had to be this way. Look at how Boris Johnson deals with it whenever some Jonathan-Freedland-type-chipmeister tries to use his Eton and Bullingdon background against him: he laughs, shrugs his shoulders and cracks on. What need is there for shame? It is, after all, one of the most basic principles of conservatism that no one should be stigmatised by his background. Dividing the world into endless subcategories of victim groups and oppressor groups is what the other side does, not ours.
Look, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I should have assassinated Dave while I had the chance, while we were still mates. It’s not like he’s Hitler. But I do think that if I could go back in time, knowing what I know now, I’d definitely have a quiet word with the 20-year-old me as he looked up in awe at young Dave. ‘Don’t, Jim, my lad. Seriously. He’s not worth it,’ I would tell myself. ‘And start planning your political career now. You don’t know this yet, but I promise it’s true: you’d make a much better Conservative prime minister than that ruddy useless Tory wet.’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 3, 2010