Gordon Campbell on the similarities between John Key and David Cameron

This week, Prime Minister John Key was reportedly invited to join a private birthday celebration for the young daughter of British PM David Cameron. They’re that close, the Keys and the Camerons. For years now, David Cameron has been the closest available thing to a mentor/analogue to our Prime Minister, such that Key watchers could be interested in an analysis of Cameron that appeared in the British press over the Christmas break.

Certainly, there are sharp similarities between the two. The British analysis began with the observation that while the government that Cameron heads has been ideological, this has not been in a way that bears the intellectual imprint of the Conservative leader. Cameron may have given his permission to his colleagues to carry out changes in (a) schools are funded and evaluated (b) how the health service is run and (c) the benefit system – but crucially, Cameron did not pioneer and front those divisive changes himself. The model is of a PM who enables polarizing policies to be enacted, while staying above the fray and seeking to avoid being identified with any policies that are less popular than he is. Sound familiar?

When the history of David Cameron’s time as prime minister is written, no doctrine will be named after him….Friends say this makes him a practical conservative of the old school, guided by ancient and un-codified British instincts of decency. His enemies think that is a posh way of saying he lacks principle. With no pattern of belief associated with his name, Cameron’s legacy will be a collection of tactical manoeuvres….

Unlike Key, Cameron does have an issue of historical significance on his plate – namely, the looming national referendum in 2017 on Britain’s membership of the European Union. So far, Cameron’s solution has been pure Key – in that he has made enough concessions to the anti-EU hardliners in his own party to avoid an outright revolt, while trying not to become so strongly identified with either side of the debate that he loses room to move. (Cameron’s preferred position, if you can call it that, is that Britain should stay in the EU, but only under changed conditions – and currently, he seems willing to wait for Brussels to come back with a good enough offer on those conditions, such that he can then promote a compromise to the nation. The process has been a good example of the modern PM-as-salesman role.)

Cameron faces an election in May. At this point he is behind Labour in the polls, despite a recovering economy. The public appear to distrust him:

Downing Street clings to the now familiar explanation that voters haven’t properly engaged with the choice, and that the Tory surge will come at the eleventh hour when the reality of a possible Miliband regime penetrates the national consciousness. But what if Cameron has hit the limit of credit available for five years in charge because even the good bits don’t connect in people’s minds with decent motives?

In the New Zealand context this is an avenue for making inroads against Key. The contrast that Labour’s tacticians in Britain are seeking to draw is between “Cameron’s ethical plasticity, and a challenger who sticks to his beliefs.” In the case of Key, the question both his left wing and right wing critics continue to ask is – what beliefs does he have? After six years as PM, do we have any evidence of what John Key actually stands for, besides an inexhaustible willingness to tack to whatever position will generate him the maximum in political advantage ? Ethical plasticity may win you elections, but it is hardly something you’d want to be remembered for. (Ah, John Key: he manoeuvred so well.) For a politician, there are always other options:

Ed Miliband will be cast as a man guided by what David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s former aide now advising Labour, calls “a north star” – a compass point that tells voters a leader is propelled by something more noble than the salvation of his own skin. Waverers who don’t warm to Miliband (and who aren’t irredeemably riddled with anti-Westminster rage) might still be persuaded that he is in politics for the right reason.

The opposite is true of Cameron.

And of Key as well?

Even those in his own party who like the direction of policy cannot sincerely claim that their leader is driven by much beyond a sense of entitlement to the job. That was less of an impediment in the past. For much of the 20th century, Britain was ruled by Conservatives who thought of political theory as something suspect or vulgar, a folly for continentals and socialists, and no substitute for the innate good sense drilled into English boys at the best schools. The Thatcher revolution disrupted the patrician culture in the Conservative party, but not the underlying belief that Tory rule is a default setting for British politics; the norm to which the country tends.

Robert Muldoon too, used to think that his own political instincts were always somehow mystically in sync with the mood and the tolerance levels of the nation. (In his last interview before his 1984 defeat, Muldoon told me that he had this innate ability to know New Zealanders, even though he hadn’t walked down Lambton Quay for over a decade, nor shopped for clothes in an actual shop for years – “ They bring in some shirts and I choose.”) With Key and Cameron, it is a far more conscious process, aided by focus groups. In both cases, being ever-willing to shift ground in order to perpetuate themselves in power is what passes for a political philosophy :

That assumption, more than economic growth, deficit reduction, an EU referendum or any other part of the prospectus, is what makes Cameron think he can stay on after May. It is the confidence that he is an archetypal prime minister and the only credible candidate for the job. Perhaps he will be proved right. He will have money and much of the press to amplify that view. But even loyal Conservatives can’t entirely ignore the intellectual void at the centre. The right has decried it as often as the left.

Indeed. In New Zealand too, the right wing is almost as annoyed as the left is with Key. To the right, Key has been steadily frittering away a golden opportunity to bring on the neo-liberal Armageddon. Company tax rates at 10 %, income tax at zero, Working For Families scrapped etc etc..For those on the right of Key, what’s the point in having power if you don’t use it to the max ? Key is plainly not One of Them, even if occasionally he tosses them a bone, via the likes of charter schools. Which finally, invites the question : are the Keys and Camerons of this world intellectual voids by nature, or by choice ?

Out of sheer frustration, the left in New Zealand tend to over-rate Key’s skills and his malignancy, as Rob Hosking pointed out in an amusing NBR column over the Christmas break, when discussing Key’s ‘rather bizarre’ relationship with Cameron Slater “

If you’re on one side of politics it shows yet again, that Prime Minister John Key is an evil shape-shifting bastard son of Richard Nixon, and a wolverine to boot.

On the other side of the political fence, Hosking contends, the whole Slater furore has been a sign that the “news media is obsessed with trivia and nastiness” – which the media never were of course, during the term of the Clark government. Never, never, ever. Posterity however, is unlikely to be kind to Key. In time, his mastery of political maneouvring will evaporate as quickly as that of Muldoon, Lange and Clark before him. Roger Douglas, who was never Prime Minister, has left a bigger imprint than any of them.

But of which encounter with a great problem can it be said the prime minister truly rose to the occasion? Cameron [Key ] doesn’t have big answers, he shrinks questions. And that is how history will remember him….He successfully pursued power and spent it without purpose.

Songs About Posing

There are dozens of good songs about people who turn out to be less than they seem. Few can match “ He Will Break Your Heart” though, co-written by Jerry Butler – one of the great voices of the 1960s – with Curtis Mayfield, whose distinctive harmonies and guitar add depth to this classic single. (Great work by the drummer with his brushes, too.) The lyrics and Butler’s voice manage to salvage a lot of dignity out of the pain of rejection, even if the last verse optimism sounds like sheer wishful thinking. (Self-deception, this time.) Jerry Butler has gone on to enjoy a very successful career since 1985 as a politician, within the Democratic Party’s machine in Chicago, Illinois.

And for good measure, here’s the other classic Butler song about survival against the odds:

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