As the perfect politician would be so excruciatingly annoying as to be unelectable, we try to choose the ones that come off the least worst when set against various scales of sincerity, mental agility, empathy and a whole raft of qualities we would ideally like to see in those appointed to oversee our affairs and intercede where and when necessary. Some glaring flaws may be overlooked if a candidate shines in one particular aspect. Margaret Thatcher may have made a virtue of her lack of empathy, but she had considerable populist and analytical skills and, self-evidently, was a devastatingly successful political operator. Neil Kinnock is a smashing bloke and one of our last conviction politicians. Given the state of the rest of the field, his sincerity was unimpeachable and he had, until one fateful moment, considerable oratory punch. But he had the political skills of a drunk at a wedding. Ultimately, though, each fell to their own shortcomings and will be remembered for little else. Thatcher for denying society's existence, Kinnock for an unnecessary and cringe-worthy celebratory high-fiving at a pre-election rally in 1992 that undoubtedly won the election for John Major, whose blandness was somehow mistaken for reliability.
In this age of endless and instant communication, most politicians with any sense should have concluded that trying to manipulate the media directly was now impossible. There are only so many fingers that can be stuck in the dyke and truth will out more quickly than is manageable. Simply in terms of sheer size and gross weight, there are more in media than there are in government anyway, so the task is physically impossible, but given that any illusion of harmony between the various estates has been well and truly blown with the expenses scandal, the bank crash and the phone-tapping exploits of some in the press and the collusion of the Metropolitan Police, even attempting to control opinion as crudely as Thatcher and Blair could in the good old days is laughably futile. All that can be done is to control impressions through transmitting an air of unity and forthrightness and hope that nobody fluffs their lines or is caught playing cards behind the bike sheds.
But nobody has told David Cameron this as he and his cabinet underline daily just how convincing Tony Blair really was in bad photocall after bad photocall, as each upbeat press release is followed on all channels with the latest growth and unemployment figures and a truck load of awful news that should perhaps cast a light on our renowned drink problem.
Forthrightness is easy, especially for Tories, for whom their own authority is woven through the natural order of things. Unity is harder. Thatcher enforced it by scaring dissenters witless with ruthless caprice. Major achieved it through dismal compromise. Blair achieved it with the considerable weight of three back-to-back election landslides and with the Tories' political corpse permanently on display for all to see; not being Thatcher was always going to be good for three terms.
David Cameron, lacking either Thatcher's steel, Major's calm or Blair's charm, seems to have opted for the lowest of lowest common denominators and chosen his team on the basis of uniform mediocrity, where any flare or talent is balanced by acquiescence and shameless deference. They are united only by the dogma of their own narrow ideology. This is no aberration. Their own cherry-picked version of Adam Smith's “enlightened self-interest” dictates that collective will is anathema to them. To agree is weak. To compromise is weak. If Tories ever appear united, this is clear evidence of ebbing conviction in the ranks. The whole point of modern conservatism is to be as free of the tentacles of constraint as possible. The only numbers and equations a Tory seeks security in are the ones on his own balance sheet.