Peter Snowdon: Chillaxing, breakfast meetings and a tight circle - David Cameron’s premiership so far

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The strengths and weaknesses that the Prime Minister brings to Number 10.

THE migrant crisis is a timely reminder of the pressure a Prime Minister comes under to act and act decisively. For a while, David Cameron basked in the sunlight of his surprise election victory, taking advantage of the disarray of his opponents.

His second term began with a bang. The post-election Budget set the political weather and prolonged his honeymoon. Yet events in Europe over recent weeks have shown how quickly the public mood can turn and the difficulties he continues to face as Prime Minister.

In writing Cameron at 10, Anthony Seldon and I have chronicled the last five years of Cameron’s premiership. It is not an exhaustive account. Instead we chose to focus on 40 key episodes and decisions that defined his first term in office.

What did we learn? The story of his premiership thus far can be seen through three lenses: character, circumstance and public opinion and personal relationships. As a character, Cameron presents an interesting subject. Unlike most of his predecessors as Prime Minister, David Cameron has a remarkably balanced personality; too balanced in the eyes of some, who craved more passion and flair.

But officials in Downing Street were struck by how poised he was in marked contrast to the high drama of the Brown regime. Often unruffled by the setbacks of the job, his peculiar style of decision-making has served him well. The infamous ‘chillaxing’ charge – that he takes time off to relax and enjoy time with his family – betrays the reality of the modern premiership.

His resilience is due in part to an ability to recharge his batteries, but also a more ordered daily routine. ‘The real business of this government was done between 6 and 8am up in his flat, when he went meticulously through his papers in his boxes,’ says one official. Working with a tight and trusted group of aides, Cameron’s Number 10 operation revolved around two key meetings throughout the day – at 8am and 4pm.

The weakness in this approach has been the tendency for tactical considerations, often dictated by reaction to the news agenda, to trump more strategic thinking. The debacle over Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms in 2011 and the ‘omnishambles’ Budget the following year are two examples we examine, but it is a criticism that extends to foreign policy, not least on Europe.

Cameron’s immediate response to the result of the Scottish referendum was in part due to pressure from his own party to do something about the ‘English Question’ rather than trying to reconcile damaging differences laid bare during the campaign. Short-term tactics may well have assisted the momentum of the SNP, whose electoral success may threaten the very union he tried to preserve.

The circumstances of Cameron first five years in office presented enormous challenges. The aftermath of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and the instability of the Middle East and North Africa after the Arab Spring in 2011 could not have been less propitious.

Indeed, the rise of Islamist extremism and the renewed threat of terrorism from ISIS pushed national security to the top of Cameron’s agenda in the latter stages of the term. His intervention in Libya, motivated by a humanitarian concern that was lauded at the time, has been criticised, not least by senior figures in the military and the intelligence figures we spoke to, for failing to foresee and prevent a failed state becoming a hotbed for terrorist activity and people trafficking.

Now Cameron faces a perfect storm, where his efforts to reduce immigration and the imminent renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the European Union are thrown into sharp relief by the most severe refugee crisis on Europe’s borders since the Second World War. His ability to navigate a way through will be tested to the full in the coming months.

If adverse circumstances and divided public opinion shaped Cameron’s first five years, so too did the central relationships at the heart of his government. Insufficient credit has been given to the way he and Nick Clegg constructed and sustained a coalition that endured the full Parliament.

While tensions boiled over, notably over reform of the House of Lords and electoral reform, the coalition partners persevered.

The Conservatives ultimately destroyed Liberal Democrat chances of electoral success, but Cameron’s desire to work with Nick Clegg and George Osborne with Danny Alexander, forming the Quad, was born out of stable government rather than partisan advantage. Similarly Cameron and his Chancellor enjoyed a close working relationship at the top of government that has so rarely occurred in British politics.

Whether they can maintain it in the years ahead, as Osborne’s gaze fixes firmly on the succession, will be intriguing to watch.

The inside story of David Cameron’s first five years in office has been a challenge to write given the intensity and exceptional nature of this period. Cameron’s mark on the nation is still taking shape, though the contours of his premiership between 2010 and 2015 are clear.

By holding the coalition together and providing stability at a time of economic renewal at home, he has earned his place in history. As crises abroad abound, it will be a measure of the success of Cameron’s second term if he can provide leadership for Britain on the world stage.

Peter Snowdon is a political writer and co-author, with Anthony Seldon, of Cameron at 10: The Inside Story 2010-2015 published by William Collins, priced £20.