Friday. 8th April, 2016. The blood in the water: the predators can taste it. A big fish is thrashing around somewhere in the shallows. Its oxygen is depleting and every spasm meant to signal strength is really a show of vulnerability. It can now only be a matter of time…
And it is, surely, only a matter of time before David Cameron succumbs. He thrashes from one statement to another because he faces a crisis like none he’s known. Everyday political difficulties are just that: they exist in a political sphere that rarely intrudes on reality. Politicians can change their mind about proposals and it does little to change our perceptions of who they are. That’s why Prime Ministers rarely fall on matters of detail. They fall when some crisis exposes a fundamental flaw in their character. Margaret Thatcher fell because her inner strength led to an arrogant belief in her powers that blinded her to the dangers of imposing a tax that was widely disliked. With John Major it was quite the opposite: a lack of political courage to call an election which led to a huge defeat when he finally went to the country at the last (and wrong) moment. Tony Blair left office because his sense of virtue became overwhelming. The very quality that led him to power also led him to try to do the ‘right thing’ in the Middle East. The result was a much criticised war and a long tragic aftermath. With Gordon Brown, it was a simple failure to appreciate that politics is a game of personality as much as policy. The man with all the policies and no personality lost to a quite insubstantial man with all the charisma. It was, in other words, the familiar story of Gordon Brown’s life.
When it comes to matters of policy, politicians can usually brazenly stand their ground, smile for the press, and know that the headline writers will soon grow weary and find another victim for their puns. This time, however, the crisis is not something abstracted from the person of David Cameron. It goes the very core of his identity and of who he is as a man. He claims to have nothing to do with the business affairs of his late father Ian Cameron and he might well be right. Yet he’s also not being entirely truthful or, at least, truthful to himself. Those business affairs made him who he is. He was born, raised, educated, and given a privileged start because of those business affairs. Privilege, however earned, tells us a great deal about David Cameron and it has always been the fatal flaw most likely to bring him down.
The term ‘existential’ is thrown around whenever a politician faces a real threat to their career. In that sense, Cameron’s plight might well be existential. However, it’s existential in the greater sense of that word in that it has so much to do with his ‘being’. Those of us born with British passports might think of ourselves as subjects of the British crown. We are part of a system that exists above us, around us, and, in a sense, through us. ‘Being’ British shapes us all in some way. It informs our sense of duty as citizens and our part in the social contract right down to the grubby business of paying tax. The Panama Papers exposes the lie that we are all subjects in the same way. From the perspective of being outside London and well beyond traditional Tory homeland, the news feels like an affirmation of something that we’ve known all this time. The system is what we always thought it was: something that benefited those in a position to work the rules and punish those of us who have no choice but be subject to the rules.
We always knew that some places — some people — were bearing the weight of government cuts heavier than others but the basic mathematics always seemed right. Not enough money was in the taxman’s kitty. Expenditure did not match revenue. The government’s talk was always about cutting back on waste and lowering their expenditure. So we gritted our teeth whenever we hit one of the potholes that have now grown so deep they seem to be have been scraped during some glacial retreat. We grit them even more when our libraries and local colleges are bulldozed. Some of us even gritted our teeth when we were treated cruelly, when new rules and regulations were imposed without feeling, nuance, or care. So much about ‘austerity’ felt wrong but the pain at least made some sense because the government made strong claims that it was more than disguised ideology. The Conservatives fought the last election on that dog whistle message of being ‘for hardworking people’, a deeply sinister message but one that also implied that our collective efforts could turn the country around.
Except now we know that there were people — quite a few people, it seems — who were not so invested in that collective effort. Is it any surprise that David Cameron now finds himself in such a bad place given that he mocked Jimmy Carr just a few years ago in words that should rightly haunt him?
People work hard, they pay their taxes, they save up to go to one of his shows. They buy the tickets. He is taking the money from those tickets and he, as far as I can see, is putting all of that into some very dodgy tax avoiding schemes.
It’s not so much what his father had been doing (and from which the young Cameron had benefited) but his temerity in thinking that it was somehow different to what Carr had done. He is shamed by his hypocrisy as much as he’s shamed by his actions. But it is the same pathology shared by all those that view sharp financial practices as being somehow different to, for example, benefits fraud. It is the flawed reasoning of those who think that the wealthy are simply being ‘clever’ by protecting their assets by keeping them offshore. In some countries, at different times, such ‘cleverness’ would be enough to provoke a revolution.
Cameron is struggling to prevent this story developing into a full blown crisis. The crisis weakens his hold on the party, already split by the EU referendum. His personal crisis could easily become a crisis of leadership, with Boris Johnson eager to take over. Would Cameron quit over these revelations? Hard to say that he would, no matter how hard Tom Watson cries foul. It has never been Cameron’s character to feel much shame. He is too relaxed when being brazen. Since the Blair regime, it has become the habit of governments in crisis to simply fall silent. They offer no spokespeople to the news channels. No ministers are sent to argue the government position. Yet even if Cameron thought it a reason to resign, he is in no position to do so. Not now. Not with the nation supposedly contemplating the tricky European question.
The irony is, of course, that Cameron’s plight lends strength to his argument that we should stay in Europe. The European Union, it seems, wanted to protect us from these shabby arrangements. Granted, it was the Prime Minister who is said to have blocked those reforms but it perhaps shames Cameron more than it shames his argument, which at least offers him one hope of salvation. Ultimately these revelations weaken the notional arguments of those who claim that we need to reclaim our sovereignty. Brexit is predicated on the belief that we can do these things without European oversight. Yet there will be a few asking if we can really trust an elite that is now widely perceived as putting their private interests over those of the public. Might the Brexit argument seem more persuasive among those that know that their own finances are in order, safely protected in some overseas fund? In the very same way that ‘austerity’ didn’t feel too bad so long as you had a couple of million in the bank, might Brexit feel more attractive when you don’t need (or welcome) the protection of European law?
Those questions are the reason why Cameron is now facing a crisis. It’s not simply about the hypocrisy of the man sitting in Downing Street. It is about flawed paradigms of society and nation and how and where might the majority feel less exposed to the avarice of the few.