Holiday critics flag up David Cameron's delegation issues
If the prime minister wasn’t so keen to be presidential and visibly farmed out more work, he wouldn’t have to weather so many grumbles about his absences
This week’s papers have been full of disapproval for David Cameron’s holiday antics. There’s nothing new about this story; indeed, variations on the theme have been a staple part of the summer silly season for many years. Under normal circumstances, we can write it off as faux outrage at politicians doing what most of us take for granted. But the sheer horror of events unfolding around the world this summer may have made it more reasonable than otherwise to question the PM’s commitment to his job – questions he has responded to by returning a day early to chair a COBRA meeting.
The PM returns amid mounting diplomatic and humanitarian crises across Iraq and Gaza, with tough decisions on military intervention awaiting him. Of course, it’s most likely the case that he has been acutely aware of everything that has transpired in his absence, and more than actively involved in government decision making. The reality of modern communications means that there is no hiding place – no matter how much any world leader might like to take a break. Nonetheless, a perception has been allowed to build that Cameron’s eye has been off the ball.
To some extent, this is a problem of Cameron’s own making. Despite our Parliamentary system, the public has increasingly come to view politics along presidential lines, and Cameron has played a part in propagating that idea. As such, it seems that a large part of next year’s Conservative election strategy will be to compare Cameron’s leadership credentials against those of Ed Miliband. All indications are that Cameron will comfortably win this contest – but he can’t then complain when he is expected to show a statesmanlike commitment to his office, despite the need for a family break.
That said, the UK does not have a president, and the foreign secretary has been on hand in Whitehall throughout the prime minister’s absence. The problem, though, is that the man holding the all-important role was only appointed a few weeks ago. Phillip Hammond has a solid reputation for competence, but has yet to establish himself as a global big-hitter. Nor will he, if he is seen as nothing more than a placeholder, filling in until the PM sweeps home to make the big decisions.
In our system of government, foreign secretary is an important office of state with an influence of its own – not just a route through which the will of the prime minister is expressed. By visibly taking on this mantle over the past few weeks, Phillip Hammond could have embodied this ideal, coming to inhabit the role rather than just hold the title. Cameron’s early return to take control of events works against this.
Politicians can’t have it both ways. If they portray themselves as strong leaders to win elections, they can’t complain at condemnation of their absence when the going gets tough. When the dust settles, Cameron may reflect on this and rebalance the obvious benefits of bolstering his own leadership credentials with the strategic gains of a visibly statesmanlike ministerial team.
Mark Fuller is associate director at corporate communications consultancy Linstock Communications
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