How many holidays does David Cameron need?
How many holidays does David Cameron need?
Sun Aug 24, 2014 12:12AM GMT
Some people just can’t get a break. But that’s hardly the case with David Cameron. At the time of the London riots in the summer of 2011, the BBC’s political commentator, Andrew Neil, tweeted: “Now we will find out if Mr Cameron is composed of the stuff of leadership.” Well, if Neil didn’t get a clear answer then, observing this Nero-like prime minister dither and procrastinate – initially refusing to come back from his Italian sojourn while London burned – he certainly has it by now.
It may be rotten luck that the prime minister seems to be on holiday during so many major crises. Or it may be that he is on holiday quite a bit. In just over three years, since April 2011, Cameron has had 14 significant breaks: Granada, Ibiza, Tuscany, Mallorca, Ibiza, Algarve, Jura, Lanzarote, Cascais and five times in Cornwall, including the current one. The Christmas and New Year breaks bring the number up to 17. When one is trying to combine running a country with a holiday every two and a half months, chances are he will be away for a lot of major developments.
This prime minister’s penchant for “chillaxing” has been clear for some time. His deputy had to defend him in 2011 for resuming yet another break, while the situation in Libya was far from resolved. In 2013, while the Syria crisis was at its peak, Cameron was away again. The result was the embarrassing half-baked (and defeated) motion in an emergency House of Commons session. Many criticized him at the time. News desks have the sentence, “The prime minister has had to cut his holiday short to chair a Cobra meeting”, available to cut and paste at ease.
The magnanimous thing to say is that I don’t begrudge anyone a break but I am not feeling magnanimous. I do begrudge Cameron his 17th break in three years – and his second one this month. It was odd enough to go off to Portugal with the Ukrainian situation far from resolved and Gaza under bombardment. But to go on a second holiday to Cornwall days later while “the most serious threat to Britain’s security” – and those are his words – flares up and our forces get involved in a quasi-military support role, is profoundly worrying. Especially in conjunction with a newly promoted foreign secretary who has been in that post little more than a month.
Of all Cameron’s misconceived policies, U-turns and fiascos, I find this the most revealing, because it speaks volumes about his attitude to the job and suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of the brief. The inane excuse that he is never far away from his BlackBerry, peddled reluctantly out of No 10, is further evidence of this. It is to misinterpret the office of prime minister as mostly one of middle management, of receiving information and only getting involved where he is needed, than one of active and proactive leadership. Nor can it be compared, as some have done, to the US president having a break at Camp David or Martha’s Vineyard. Those are official residences, fully kitted out. The entire White House policy machine and press corps follows Barack Obama when he is at these locations.
Being the prime minister of Britain is not a telesales position. He is not a regional shoe salesman who can set up an email auto reply which reads, “I am out of the office until the end of August. In case of emergency, you can contact me on my mobile”. His active presence sends a message both at home and, crucially, abroad. As one of his own MPs put it: “At the moment it seems like the only way to ask him a question is to hire a Cornish ice-cream van and set up on the beach.”
However great their flaws, I cannot conceive of Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, John Major, Margaret Thatcher, or any prime minister before them, splashing away by the Cornish coast while a comparable nexus of global geopolitical events was in train. All of it sadly confirms what many have long suspected: that Cameron is attracted to the power and perks of his position, but does not understand the extraordinary responsibilities it entails.
During the tragic sinking of the Costa Concordia, Captain Francesco Schettino protested from the safety of a lifeboat: “I am here with the rescue boats … I am not going anywhere … I am here to co-ordinate the rescue.” The coast guard officer, Captain Gregorio de Falco, barked back: “What are you coordinating there? Go on board! Coordinate the rescue from aboard the ship.”
Looking good in the captain’s hat, knowing you were always destined to wear the hat, feeling entitled to the hat, actually wearing the hat – none of that makes one a captain. Understanding and accepting the burden of leadership makes one a captain.