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Sunday 1 August 2010

It is good manners that maketh the PM

David Cameron's style of leadership is in stark contrast to the rudeness of Gordon Brown, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

Gordon Brown is writing his memoir of the financial crisis, allegedly at the rate of 10,000 words a day (the equivalent of 12 articles this length), which is what one might expect from such a Stakhanovite.

This is excellent therapy, as it allows him to be too busy to watch his hated successor enjoying himself hugely being Prime Minister.

Poor Brown wanted all his life the job for which he proved to be wholly unfit; while David Cameron is skipping around at home and abroad, apparently responding to every crisis with a beam and a 'Bring it on'. He has grace; a quality so evident in his Bloody Sunday speech (which he wrote himself after jettisoning the humming-and-hawing civil service offering) that he has become persona grata even in Irish-America.

Cameron's Eton education -- which he must often have cursed as an electoral liability -- has proven a post-election blessing. Etonians have wonderful manners, and Cameron's brought him to power. There would have been no coalition with the Lib Dems had Cameron not displayed the courtesy and respect that won him Nick Clegg's confidence, while during negotiations Brown continued to behave in what Peter Mandelson calls 'a Gordonish' way -- a euphemism for hectoring and rudeness.

And he is displaying a talent for keeping the junior partner happy that would do credit to Bertie Ahern.

Clegg has nice manners too, and -- as politicians go -- both he and Cameron are young and good-looking in a bland sort of way; similarities that, along with their propensity to pat each other in public, led to the nickname 'Brokeback Coalition' after Brokeback Mountain -- the film about two lovelorn gay cowboys. Before the election they had had only one conversation, when at a shambolic ceremony they found themselves alone in a side-room for 40 minutes -- but that was enough to persuade the leader of the coalition-phobic Conservative Party that a deal could be done with the right-leaning leaders of the left-leaning Lib Dems.

In truth, although their rank and file hate each other, there is little politically separating Cameron and Clegg -- which is why they are confidently setting about revolutionising almost every department of government, while enthusiastically wielding the axe of fiscal rectitude. Tony Blair's ambitions to reform public services failed because Brown blocked him at every turn. Now the leaderless Labour Party watches sullenly as its supplanters replace centralism with localism, dismantle authoritarian structures that have eroded civil liberties, hack away at the 'big state' and exhort the populace to show initiative and personal responsibility rather than relying on government handouts.

That Cameron is an audacious opportunist was evident when he won the party leadership by taking the risk of giving a note-free speech and when, after the election, he decided to go for a full-blooded coalition rather than bribe small parties to shore up a minority government. He has been brilliant too in using the economic crisis as a battering ram to storm the barricades of public-service vested interests, while using the Lib Dems as an excuse to suppress demands from the right of his own party.

The question is whether his opportunism extends to the point of jettisoning his principles to keep power. For his fans, the past week has had troubling moments. Yes, it's polite to say nice things to your hosts, but did he have to tell the Turks that those who oppose their application for EU membership are driven by protectionism, narrow nationalism or prejudice? It does not make one a bigot to suggest that the EU might not be able easily to absorb an enormous Muslim country.

And kicking Israel over the flotilla deaths and the blockage of Gaza without mentioning the rocket attacks or the nastiness of Hamas's murderous regime was the worst kind of pandering, even if he did modify his remarks later under press pressure. Similarly, in India, he overdid the anti-Pakistan rhetoric when he accused it of "promoting the export of terror" and of "looking both ways". There are Americans and Europeans who would level the same accusation against the UK governments for failing to control their resident Islamic extremists. It took press attention again for Cameron to admit that Pakistan itself suffers from domestic terrorism.

However, one of Cameron's virtues is that he learns from his mistakes. He's been Prime Minister for less than three months and has demonstrated vision, courage and flair; and although he's taken on the job at a terrible time, I remain optimistic. The media, the opposition, the Tory right and the Lib Dem left are searching for weakness in the coalition edifice.

A Labour friend bet me £50 the other night that it will fall within a year, but I believe the Cameron-Clegg chemistry offers the hope that -- unlike the Brokeback cowboys -- their story will not end in tears.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards