Let Cameron be Cameron

Peter KellnerPresident
September 10, 2012, 9:49 AM GMT+0

An open letter to the Prime Minister from YouGov President Peter Kellner

Dear David

So far, so bad. Last week you reshuffled half your cabinet in order to inject vitality into your government and demonstrate a fresh sense of purpose. Sadly, voters are unpersuaded. YouGov polls since the reshuffle show Labour retaining its lead of ten points or so, and our survey for the Sunday Times helps to explain why.

Your latest personal rating is one of your worst. Just 33% think you are doing well as Prime Minister, while 61% think you are doing badly. This net rating of minus 28 compares with minus 22 for Ed Miliband. I’m sure you will find little consolation in the fact that Nick Clegg, on minus 58, is doing even worse.

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Now, if you can stomach yet more bad news, look at your personal scores when we tested a series of specific leadership attributes:

% who think Cameron...

Is in touch


Is out of touch


Has plenty of ideas


Has run out of ideas


Is decisive


Is indecisive


Is strong


Is weak


Is likeable


Is unlikeable


To be sure, some negativity is inevitable. You’d expect most Labour voters to give you the thumbs down and, sure enough, they do. And maybe you are not too worried that around half of all Lib Dem voters dislike you. But you also get low marks from a sizeable minority of Conservative voters: 27% of them think you are indecisive and 25% accuse you of being out of touch. They don’t seem to have got the right message from last week’s reshuffle, and that SHOULD worry you – somewhat more, in fact, than the somewhat excitable stories over the weekend about a challenge from Boris Johnson.

What can you do about it? For some years, one central piece of advice to all leading politicians has been: be yourself. Authenticity is what counts. Did you watch that wonderful American TV series The West Wing? If so, you may recall the staff memo to the fictional President, Josiah Bartlet, who was struggling to change the perception that he was a timid leader too readily buffeted by events. The memo’s advice was: “Let Bartlet be Bartlet”.

Now, authenticity is vital. Voters don’t like leaders whom they think aren’t being straight with them, or who say things for effect and not because they mean them. But authenticity may not be enough. Joe Klein, who eventually owned up to being the author of Primary Colors, the best recent novel about presidential campaigning, amended his views when Bill Clinton was President. Clinton, Klein argued, had managed, quite brilliantly, to fake authenticity. Klein felt that what was really needed was a quality that could not be faked, or at least not so easily. This quality, he had concluded, was courage. A leader who deserved respect was one who was seen to take genuine risks to achieve what s/he truly believed. Think of it as authenticity-plus.

Perhaps the clearest example of authenticity-plus in our lifetime was Margaret Thatcher. She believed wholeheartedly in privatising state-run industries, letting people own their own homes and curbing the power of the trade unions. She stuck with these policies and faced down opposition from much of the public and even some of her own backbenchers. And she won three big election victories.

My point here is not to argue whether Thatcherism was right or wrong, but rather to illustrate the dividends to be won from having the courage to stick to what you believe.

How could you apply that dictum to your current plight? If your way back to public respect is to take risks to pursue your beliefs, then you need to define your beliefs and identify the necessary risks. You need to “let Cameron be Cameron”. What, though, does this actually mean? A big part of your problem is that many, perhaps most, of us, have little idea who “Cameron” in this context actually is; and I don’t think that’s simply because you are constrained by your coalition with the Lib Dems. If anything, the need to negotiate policies with another party makes it more, not less, vital to tell us what you stand for. And it is more vital now than ever before, with your old slogans about “the Big Society” and “go green, vote blue” attracting so much derision.

If anything, you made things harder with your reshuffle. Take health. You had two courageous options: to insist that Andrew Lansley had done a great job in pushing through vital reforms and keep him as Health Secretary; or admit that the reform bill was botched and appoint a new health secretary whose job was to put things right. Instead, you sent a profoundly uncourageous mixed message: that the policy was right but the man wrong.

Likewise with the row over whether Heathrow should have a third runway. Courageous option number one: stick to your manifesto promise to oppose a third runway and keep Justine Greening as Transport Secretary. Courageous option number two: acknowledge that your pledge was a mistake and install a new minister who was prepared to say so. Again you did neither. You demoted Ms Greening but decided... well, what DID you decide? Interviews given by different ministers in recent days have failed to clarify whether the prospect of a third runway in due course is on, off, or doing the hokey-cokey. The only certainty is an absence of courage.

Now, a word of warning. Courage can bring more pain than gain. Tony Blair displayed courage of a sort when he sent British troops into Iraq nine years ago. He took two big risks: that weapons of mass destruction would be found, and that once Saddam Hussein had been removed from power, Iraq would move smoothly towards a contented democracy. When neither risk paid off, Blair’s reputation nosedived. In contrast, Mrs Thatcher’s equally risky decision to send a task force to liberate the Falkland Islands back in 1982 massively enhanced her reputation when the Argentine forces surrendered.

In a way, that’s the point. Courage can lead to disaster as well as triumph. It’s that very danger that defines a true leader, one who sets out to master events, knowing that things may go horribly wrong.

So I can’t offer you a strategy that is bound to succeed. Would that an option of risk-free courage were available. Sadly, it never is. Rather your choice is between taking risks, which may pay off, and your current reputation for weakness and indecision which, if you allow it to persist, will definitely cause you to fail. “Let Cameron be Cameron” is undoubtedly your best way forward; but just now, it looks far easier said than done.

Yours ever


See the survey details and full results of our latest Sunday Times poll

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