David Cameron Loves a Crisis

Article excerpt

The Murdoch scandal proves it: the prime minister is brilliant under fire--and otherwise a bit of a muddler.

By Andrew Sullivan

George Orwell Once said that England, "like all living things, [has] the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same." And when I look upon the slightly chubby, shapeless, ruddy face of British Prime Minister David Cameron, I can see Orwell's prescience once again. Cameron is almost a timeless Platonic ideal of a British Tory leader. Distantly related to the monarchy, reared in the ultimate elitist private school, Eton, but with a disabled son who died in the arms of the socialist National Health Service, with a bleeding heart for the persecuted in Libya and the starving in Sudan, he manages to reach both elitist highs and populist lows.

The old Tory coalition--a mixture of the aristocratic "toffs" and the patriotic masses, wrapped lovingly around the monarchy--is still visible, as you could see in the recent royal-wedding extravaganza. The legacy of his predecessors, aspiring bourgeois Margaret Thatcher and awkward working-class John Major, seems to have evaporated into a more conventional Tory state of entropy: a decent leader of the right background with a first-rate temperament muddling through history.

In mid-July, history came rather rudely to Cameron's door. Or rather the back door of No. 10 Downing Street, where Rupert Murdoch had often come for tea. Cameron made the fateful decision back in 2007 to hire a former News of the World editor, Andy Coulson, as his political adviser, with the highest salary in the government. Coulson is and was neck deep in allegations of phone hacking (he resigned earlier this year on charges of authorizing phone hacks and was recently arrested) and had been glowing with low-level radioactivity before Cameron decided to bring him onto his staff.

Why did Cameron give Coulson a second chance after Coulson assured him of his innocence? My own sense is that it was partly well-bred loyalty--Cameron's class does not casually dismiss the help--and partly social insecurity. Cameron needed a link to the id of tabloid-reading voters in the lower middle classes, and Coulson was his best bet. Coulson has been Cameron's Dick Morris or Karl Rove. And when Cameron seemed to go wobbly in the run-up to the last election, it was Coulson who critically kept the Murdoch tabloids in line. Although Cameron failed to win an outright majority (close to mathematically impossible given the collapse of the Tory vote in the last decade), he formed an alliance with the Liberal Democrats that actually strengthened his hand in controlling the always-restless Tory right.

Since then, Cameron's young premiership has been largely dictated by what that other Tory grandee, the 1950s P.M. Harold MacMillan, once called "events, dear boy, events." The debt crisis in a country like Britain--isolated and heavily dependent on trade--gave little room for fiscal maneuvering. Cameron, along with his more ruthless chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, had to cut spending more drastically than Thatcher and raise some taxes to boot if Britain were not to become the next Greece. His formula--3:1 spending cuts to tax hikes--is almost identical to Barack Obama's latest preferred model. The risk, of course, is that austerity could worsen the debt by cutting growth, but right now the British economy, though lethargic, does not look as if it is headed for a double dip. …