David Cameron: Delegator or Ditherer?

By Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister

All politicians fight the ticking of the clock. Every leader knows that eventually their resources, support and authority will run out. ‘One is, after all, finite’ as Margaret Thatcher said.

But how long a leader lasts and how much they can get done depends on both themselves and their circumstances: as Machiavelli pointed out long ago, their abilities and changing circumstances will shape the arc of their leadership. The two interact very closely as ‘events’ expose character flaws or, less often, display hidden strengths. It is this combination which we are starting to look at: what we call ‘leadership capital’ (see our paper for the PSA here).

As rumours swirl of plots against him, David Cameron’s two years show the effect of this arc. When he arrived in power Cameron was seen as a strong (and smooth) communicator and a flexible, ‘hands off’ delegator. Initially these personality traits were positives-his flexibility contrasted nicely with the ‘control freakery’ of Brown and Blair and his communication would help smooth the new and difficult business of coalition.

Yet after two years, a recession and a succession of ‘U-turns’ these same traits have become liabilities. Critics now claim Cameron’s communication skills hide a lack of strategic sense, his ‘smoothness’ masking a lack of ‘substance’. His ‘hands off’ style is now a sign of poor leadership and a prime minister unable or unwilling to exercise to control. He even had to deny accusations of laziness. Anthony King wrote of how: ‘Mr Cameron increasingly gives the impression of being an amateur doing a professional’s job. It is an impression that could destroy him’.

The danger is that traits and circumstances reinforce each other: a politician with negative traits gets locked into a cycle and events further expose their flaws. The same was seen with Gordon Brown. His ‘thoughtfulness’ and intellectual depth was refreshing after Blair’s constant initiatives. Yet following the 2007 election ‘that never happened’ the thoughtfulness became indecisiveness.

Is there a way out? A few special politicians can turn it around. Margret Thatcher benefited from the Falklands War to re-assert her authority and display the first traits of an ‘Iron lady’ (though it’s debatable whether it helped the 1983 election). It takes skill, blind luck and the right events to show off the right attributes. The big question is whether an event can come along and whether Cameron can take advantage of it.

Dr Ben Worthy is a lecturer in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. Dr Mark Bennister is a Lecturer in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University. He was previously a Teaching Fellow in British Politics at UCL, based in the Constitution Unit.