Notes on Cameron’s Commons persona

Does Cameron have a problem with his manner at Prime Minister's Questions? Here's a look back over some of the evidence:

5 June 2008

In opposition, Cameron's facility for insulting his opponents won him some plaudits:

David Cameron is able to hit Brown with any number of insults: “Can he give us another of his trade-mark U-turns?…once again dodgy statistics from the Prime Minister…If a company director got up and read out a statement like that the authorities would be after him…I don’t know why they’re [Labour backbenchers] all shouting at me. It’s the Prime Minister who’s given them the lowest poll rating since Michael Foot…What on earth is green about taxing someone who bought a Ford Mondeo five years ago?…What’s this man still doing in the Government?”

This last remark actually referred to a lowly parliamentary private secretary, Rob Marris (Wolverhampton South-West), who had ventured to criticise the new car taxes which will come in next April. (Telegraph)

24 November 2010

In Government, son began to employ similar rhetoric from the dispatch box towards Ed Miliband:

Cameron scorned Miliband's previous role in the Treasury – where he was a special adviser to Gordon Brown – "when they didn't regulate banks properly, when they set up the tripartite system failed, when we had the biggest boom and the biggest bust."

The prime minister added: "The honourable gentleman has nothing to say about the deficit. He has nothing to say about the regulation. He is just a nowhere man of British politics." (Guardian)

On this occasion, however, Cameron's approach began to provoke some unease even among right-of-centre commentators:

Cameron is a refreshingly unstuffy individual but appears dangerously careless of the dignity of the office he holds. Getting down and dirty in this way may be good for a laugh, or a groan, but it diminishes him. I’m all for a ready wit but pre-cooked jokes at the expense of others are not a good idea. It simply fuels the suspicion that a Bullingdon bully lurks not far beneath the affable public image.(David Hughes, Telegraph)

8 December 2010

Cameron failed to take Hughes' advice at the height of the tuition fees debate, and came a cropper badly:

Mr Cameron accused the Labour leader of "rank hypocrisy", arguing that Mr Miliband had "absolutely no idea" how to fund England's universities.

He told him: "You are just demonstrating complete political opportunism, total opportunism.

"You are behaving like a student politician and frankly that's all you'll ever be."

Mr Miliband shot back with a reference to Mr Cameron's days in the Bullingdon Club at Oxford.

He said: "I was a student politician. But I was not hanging around with people who were throwing bread rolls and wrecking restaurants." (BBC Democracy Live)

15 December 2010

This episode did not deter Cameron from adopting a similar style next time around:

Miliband said that the PM is good with the airbrush and the broad brush but not so hot on the all important details. Cameron said his opposite number was more like Basil Brush. Boom, boom, shouted Tory MPs (see what they’ve done there?). Childish, but quite funny.

All too flippant from the PM on a day when serious topics were on the agenda? Perhaps, but Cameron has a naturally silly sense of humor. It is one of his strongest and most endearing traits. He can usually be relied upon to go too far with a joke, or to use a mild swear word in the wrong company when telling a funny story over dinner. Nothing wrong with that, it suggests spirit.(Ian Martin, Wall Street Journal)

12 January 2011

Cameron was back on his usual form at the start of the year:

He said Labour had done little to regulate bankers' bonuses – at a time when Ed Miliband was working at the Treasury.

"We've ended up with a shadow chancellor who can't count and a Labour leader who doesn't count," Mr Cameron said.

"He was the nothing man when he was at the Treasury and he is the nothing man now he's trying to run the Labour Party." (BBC)

Once again, Cameron's approach prompted some unease among the sketch-writers:

There’s a good argument to be made that David Cameron’s performance at PMQs is inversely proportional to the number of personal insults he lobs at Ed Miliband. By that measure, the PM had a pretty poor session today…

…Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of this. Mr Cameron is good at insulting people, and delivering a good kicking to your opponent can over spell victory at PMQs. But sometimes, like today, the Flashman act can seem a bit hollow. (James Kirkup, Telegraph)

Ben Brogan was also concerned:

The Prime Minister could scarcely conceal the contempt on his face throughout their exchanges. He laughed and shook his head in that “dearie me can you believe this?” way he has. Ed Miliband? Pah!

Well, Dave needs to lose the sneer and start hitting back more effectively. All the points about Mr Miliband’s failings I set out above remain true. But perception plays a big part in politics and in his outing against the Prime Minister the Leader of the Opposition was combative, punchy, and successfully labelled Dave as the bankers’ mate who has let them keep their bonuses and handed them a tax cut. (Ben Brogan, Telegraph)

30 March 2011

Ed Balls was the target for Cameron this time, in an exchange which promoted criticism from the Spectator's James Forsyth:

This PMQs will be remembered for the Cameron Balls spat. As Cameron was answering a question from a Labour MP, he snapped at Balls who was heckling him, shouting ‘you don’t know the answer, you’re not properly briefed, why don’t you just say you’ll write to her’. A visibly irritated Cameron shot back, ‘I wish the shadow Chancellor would shut up and listen for once’. At this the Labour benches erupted, their aim at PMQs is always to get Cameron to lose his temper and they had succeeded.

Cameron then produced a brilliant comeback, saying that Balls was ‘the most annoying person in British politics’ and ‘I suspect that the leader of the opposition will come to agree with me. ’ But the whole incident was not a good one for him. Prime Ministers shouldn’t lose their temper in the chamber. (James Forsyth, Spectator)

There was also this coda to the performance:

Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): On 24 March last year, six weeks before the general election, theDerby Telegraph reported that the Prime Minister had accused me of distributing inaccurate information about Conservative plans for the winter fuel payment. It turns out that I was right and he was wrong, so, unless he is going to overrule his Chancellor, will he take this opportunity to apologise to the millions of pensioners who rely on the winter fuel allowance and to me for his unfair censure?

The Prime Minister: I cannot believe that I accused the hon. Gentleman of anything because I had absolutely no idea who he was. (Hansard)

 27 April 2010

 Today, of course, there was this episode:

He claimed Stoate had been defeated at the last election by a Conservative candidate when – as Eagle was pointing out – Stoate had in fact stood down.

Cameron told the Wallasey MP: "Calm down, dear, calm down. Calm down and listen to the doctor."

As the Labour benches erupted, the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, angrily pointed to Eagle and to his wife, Yvette Cooper, apparently demanding to know to whom the PM had been referring. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, appeared to call for an apology.

But Cameron told them: "I said calm down, calm down, dear. I'll say it to you if you like … I'm not going to apologise. You do need to calm down."

It's clear that many Tories are uneasy about the Prime Minister's style, fearing that it will establish a Bullingdon bully persona ill-suited to legitimising an austerity programme. Arguably, more liberal commentators have been slower to pick up on this. This may be one aspect of their general over-estimation of the Prime Minister.

Of course, the Commons and Prime Ministers' Questions is a typical oratorical forum in the classical western rhetorical tradition. That tradition emphasises high-stress, emotive, personalised verbal combat. Yet Cameron's approach may have diminishing returns even in these terms, or Tory commentators would not be concerned about it.

The western rhetorical tradition was well-described by the scholar Walter Ong, who noted is that it has been heavily masculine in tone. Indeed, its transmission was a male rite of passage of which English public schools were an expression.

That tradition was not historically open to women in the same way, and there is still a tendency to judge women differently from men when they engage in it. Cameron's jibe today may inadvertently have highlighted that problem. 






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