Well that came out of nowhere, didn’t it? Seven years as Prime Minister, more than a decade out of the commons altogether, and now John Major’s back, armed with the kinds of headline-smashing soundbites that sub-editors’ wet dreams are made of, and he’s ready to shoot poison darts at his own party. Shame it’s a little too late for him to finally make a dent in the front pages, but still.
To suggest the former PM’s calls this week for a windfall tax on energy companies have unsettled Number 10 would be an understatement: just when Mr Cameron thought he was busy enough deflecting criticism for the latest series of energy price hikes and plans for a nuclear plant in Hinkley Point which we won’t even own but will probably subsidise, the formerly most uninspiring Prime Minister of all time snuck up behind him and took a slash in his Eton Mess.
‘Heating or Eating’ and ‘protect people, not institutions’ were the calls: cue a PMQ bloodbath and some increasingly vocal accusations of dissent among the Tories. Major’s sudden penchant for pragmatic populist soundbites raises two questions: firstly, where was this Prime Minister back in 1990, and secondly has he got a book out at the moment or something? Not even Boris Johnson, the undisputed champion of the ambushing, loose cannon, tell-it-like-it-is, political persona has matched that recently.
But if we leave aside the issue of whether these suggestions suit the right or the left, the current state of energy market or whether this is an an actual dissenting voice on government policy, we can see this also highlights David Cameron’s utter failure of credibility, and his fatal indecisiveness towards his own political image.
Since 2010, Mr Cameron has repeatedly struggled in vain to brand his current coalition with anything even roughly resembling conviction and consistency: we’ve had these leanings towards lovely, new-age liberalism in batting off his own backbenchers in order to push through the equal marriage bill and having a pop at Nigel Farage, but then we’ve had these very much old-school Thatcher-lite exercises in societal masochism (most notably the bedroom tax). The modern Conservative it seems wants it both ways: he both does and does not want to be the face of the Nasty Party: he wants to be Call-me-Dave and hug-a-hoodie, but then he wants to be son-of-Maggy and tell the poor to wear a jumper if they can’t pay the heating bill.
If we put this into the context of the current political climate, his failings are only magnified: the other leaders he faces coming into the next general election are essentially two walking PR nightmares: ‘Red Ed’, who is somehow both a manic, unpalatable socialist and the most incoherent-dilly-dallying leader Labour have ever had, and Nick Clegg, the man who famously surrendered his credentials, his policies, and his dignity so he could have a go at being the PM’s secretary. Broadly speaking, since Blair there has been an alarming shortage of political personality: it’s almost as if when he strolled off into the sunset with his extra-blokey mug full of water he sucked all the charisma out of the commons with him. This shouldn’t be such a struggle for David Cameron, but it’s currently proving anything but.
There is a certain degree of mitigation available (he’s in a coalition, so he has to be the face of many, sometimes contradictory policies), but it boils down to the simple fact that the Tories’ current leader was taken to the woodshed by none other than John Major: the man dubbed ‘grey’, the man seen by so, so many to be the most so-so Prime Minister in recent memory, and the man whose scandalous affair with a fellow MP wasn’t even that interesting. Mr Cameron’s ultimate inability to decide whether or not to embrace his Bullingdon bully roots or shoot for a version of Conservatism which by and large in this country is yet to really exist, has cost him. His carefully curated hodge-podge persona, the polo-shirts, the ‘calm down dear’ wise-cracks, the dial-a-Blair mateyness, was completely trumped this week by the most simple and well-rehearsed Tory stereotype: the working-class Conservative.
In the same way we have seen so many survive on charisma alone (Boris Johnson, anyone?) we have seen just as many fail because of their complete lack of it (Gordon Brown, John Major himself, Ed Miliband?). And while Mr Cameron certainly doesn’t lack a persona altogether, his impending fall will surely come about because of his inability to pick just one. For both the entire country and his own party (both of which are becoming increasingly fidgety) the face needs to fit, but only one will do.