david-cameron

Because politics happens in the gaps between what they say and what they mean…

When most of us, not ensconced within the Westminster bunker, think of continental Europe it conjures images of sun drenched pavement cafes looking out onto sweeping tree-lined boulevards or the gentle click-clack of a triumphant boule landing in a dusty town square. The benign weather and pleasant pace of life, you would think, are pretty relaxing.

However when leader of the Conservative party David Cameron said he was “relaxed” about Europe, many were taken aback. Mr Cameron’s backbenchers are set to table an amendment to Parliament expressing “regret” at not having a referendum on Britain’s EU membership included in the Queen’s Speech. You would be forgiven for thinking the Prime Minister had intended to say ‘relapse’ instead, as his party once again prepare to conduct visceral policy disputes over Europe in public.

Perhaps the Prime Minister had meant relaxed in the sense that one is ‘relaxed’ before major dental work, or the moment of calm before you are pushed out of a plane. Certainly Labour leader Ed Miliband didn’t think so, saying in a speech to the Blairite Progress think-tank, that Mr Cameron, rather than relaxing on the couch, was “hiding behind the sofa, too scared to confront his party”.

Confronted with open dissent and outright sedition on Europe from not only young upstarts such as newly restored wolf in the fold Nadine Dorries but also ermine-clad Tory grandees like Nigel Lawson, it’s not hard to see how Mr Miliband arrived at his analysis.

However this is to overlook a trend in the language used by the Conservative leader in response to seemingly intractable problems. He was equally “relaxed” about the challenge posed by Boris Johnson’s seemingly open leadership ambitions when asked about the matter during last year’s Tory party conference.

It seems that when faced with these kinds of long-term issues which have no obvious resolution, Mr Cameron’s response is to underplay their importance. Mr Johnson is not currently a serving MP and UKIP, equally, have only the merest intimations of electoral legitimacy. By ambiguously dismissing these issues, Mr Cameron acknowledges them but with the lightest touch possible. Relaxed is taken to mean aware but not overly concerned.

Similarly, Mr Cameron would not brook the issue of UKIP until after the local elections, he pointedly refused to refer to them by name when interviewed on the BBC’s World at One in the run up to the polls.

Using such an anodyne and insipid word to express his feelings on the matter adds a paragraph to these stories without progressing them at all. It is not quite an evasion but it is so banal as to be almost not worth reporting. He is content to address the issue in the absence of being able to fully solve it.

This approach plays well into the general persona put forwards of an unflappable Prime Minister focussed on more pressing matters. Tony Blair famously employed a similar approach in his final Prime Minister’s Question Time answered Teignbridge MP Richard Youger-Ross’s question on the Church of England by saying: “I am really not bothered about that one” before promptly retaking his seat.

This drew a rapturous response as it was clear Mr Blair was on the eve of greater things in the Middle East and by making that remark he came across as human rather than political, humorous rather than derisive. It was an honest response to a parochial point rather than the normal political platitude.

Mr Cameron has embraced this method by down-playing serious issues by juxtaposing them with the grandeur of his office. By being “relaxed” he appears both stalwart and statesman-like – not sweating the small stuff – as opposed to engaging directly with the issue which would clearly be more difficult and potentially more divisive.

So when David Cameron says he is “relaxed” there is far more going on than his attempts to portray himself as the chillaxed everyday Dad, drinking Guinness from a can, he is belittling the issue by appearing to be unmoved by it. At least until such a time as he thinks he can engage it on his own terms, as he attempted to do in January with his speech on Europe.

This is a dangerous conceit as, while it buys time in the short-term by stifling the oxygen needed to keep the story alive in the press, it does not deal with the issue itself. The insoluble problem of Europe in particular is one which Mr Cameron knows he cannot ignore, as the divisions run all the way from to backbenches into his cabinet.

It seems the Prime Minister is hoping to be able to keep to the peripheries of the fray just long enough to give the most vociferous rebels enough Eu-rope to hang themselves through internecine squabbling. At which stage, we can imagine, his counter-offensive will begin in earnest and the rel-axe will swiftly fall on the dissenters. If he fails to do this it is entirely possible his relaxation will lapse into outright retreat.

BY: John Newton