Sullivan: Cameron Loves a Crisis

david-cameron-co01-sullivan-wide.jpg

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.

The hard left, as usual, has helped rather than hurt the government by rioting violently in the streets over—gasp!—higher student loans; its antics with a paper plate and some shaving foam have even managed to make Rupert Murdoch look vulnerable. The new Labour leader, Ed Miliband, is widely viewed as a noncredible prime minister, even with the Rupert-gate scandal. For now at least, Cameron is secure. His backbenchers gave him a thunderous ovation after the long Murdoch debate on July 20, and the coalition's combined polling now gives the government a 47–40 percent margin over the opposition.

But there remains a lingering doubt about what really propels Cameron and his coalition government. The populace is generally dissatisfied with public services, and Cameron's response has been to tell them to do more for themselves. This is the right answer to a different question. The political right remains frustrated because Cameron simply doesn't have the fire in his flab for demonizing asylum seekers or welfare cheats. His education proposals have stumbled, and his health-care reforms remain highly unpopular, even as the National Health Service's long-term outlook is almost as bleak as Medicare's.

At one point, he seems a posh Murdoch crony, hobnobbing with the country set in Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire. The next moment he seems a thoroughly modernizing figure. The proportion of Conservative M.P.s who are women went from 1 percent in 2005 to 16 percent (49 in total) in 2010; there are 13 openly gay Tory M.P.s, more than Labour's tally; the chairwoman of the Conservative Party is a Muslim. Tell that to Herman Cain. All this was caused by a relentless push from the top. It's little wonder that President Obama was rumored to have told Cameron on a recent visit to Britain that he'd be a comfortable conservative Democrat in America. He'd certainly be regarded as a communist by Fox News.

And in some ways, the comparison with Obama is a highly instructive one. Like Obama, Cameron is a pragmatist and not an ideologue. If Obama was the first black president, defusing the core issue of race in America, Cameron is the first openly upper-class Tory to win the premiership after Margaret Thatcher's middle-class revolution. If Obama promised to bridge America's racial divide, Cameron promised to bridge Britain's class polarization. For the first time, the public said they didn't care if he was an Etonian, only if he could do the job. And Cameron, like Obama, seems to glide recklessly for long periods of time, often into dangerously choppy waters. But then, like Obama, he snaps back to life when confronted with crisis. Cameron's performance in the House of Commons on July 20 was a tour de force—as remarkable a speech as the one he gave in September 2007, when he seemed on the verge of collapse. But then, as the summer beckons, you can almost feel the energy decline again, as the muddle-through pragmatism returns.

There's a reason he has been called "air-brushed" by his critics. But there's also a reason he remains, like Obama, personally well liked by most nonpartisans. They sense beneath the spin and the polish a baseline of decency they intuitively respect. Because decency, after only a sense of humor, is the prime English virtue. As long as he seems to retain it, Cameron will remain more durable a public figure than his opponents dare to realize.