Writes the author of Campaign 2010: The Making of the Prime Minister Nicholas Jones
Any suggestion that the Prime Minister’s headline-grabbing remarks about Gaza and Pakistan were slips of the tongue by an uncontrolled ‘loudmouth’ could not be further from the truth.
David Cameron cut his political teeth crafting punchy one-liners for the likes of John Major and it is farfetched to imagine he would launch himself on the world’s stage without having thought through the messages he wanted to deliver and how he intended to present them.
Cameron’s accusation that Pakistan was ‘looking both ways’ in the battle against terrorism – which set the framework for his meeting at Chequers with the Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari – was as pointed as his description of Gaza as a ‘prison camp’.
David Miliband, the shadow Foreign Secretary, rebuked the Prime Minister for having a ‘loose tongue’ and for ‘going off script’ during his visits to Turkey and India. He considered Cameron had created an international mess with his bluster: there was a ‘big difference between straight talking and being a loudmouth’.
What Miliband failed to acknowledge was that Cameron’s skill in crafting punchy soundbites was what originally marked him out as an up-and-coming political strategist after he joined Conservative Central Office at the age of twenty-two.
His job was to hunt for embarrassing quotes and slip-ups by Labour politicians and then ‘think of killer facts and snappy one-liners’ which John Major could use to attack Neil Kinnock.
He was credited with having sharpened up Major’s performance at Prime Minister’s questions and his ability to identify timely anti-Labour ammunition and transform it into ‘razor-sharp script’ lines won him promotion to head of the party’s political section and then the job of special adviser to the then Chancellor, Norman Lamont, and later the Home Secretary, Michael Howard.
Cameron’s track record suggests that his one-liners are entirely calculated. He had every intention of reminding Israel of its obligations to Gaza and of Pakistan’s responsibility to do more to tackle home-grown terrorism.
Early on in his bid for the Conservative leadership Cameron found a neat way to disarm critics of Eton and Oxford education: ‘Yes, I know I have this terrible CV...’
Not surprisingly Cameron knew instinctively how to woo the White House press corps after his first meeting with the US President.
Barrack Obama opened their joint news conference with a sombre seven-minute resume of US/UK relations. Less than a minute into his response, Cameron complimented the President on the tidiness of children’s bedrooms in the White House family quarters.
‘If the President of the USA can get his children to tidy their bedrooms, it is time the British Prime Minister did exactly the same’. When Obama signalled his encouragement, the Prime Minister looked to straight to camera to send a message home.
‘They should be in bed by now...but if not, they have notice from the President’.
Cameron’s easy-going style is beguiling but there should be no mistaking the message of his soundbites: they deliver what he meant to say.