An empty suit in Downing Street?
Published in: Daily Mail
At first blush, it all sounds just too silly and trivial for words. The Prime Minister stands accused of riding a horse that had been on loan to the woman who is at the centre of the controversy over hacked emails and payments to police officers.
It turns out that between 2008 and 2010 he had ridden Raisa, a retired police horse loaned by the Metropolitan Police to the former head of News International, Rebekah Brooks, who was arrested as a result of the scandal.
To which many undoubtedly will have bemusedly asked — having scratched their heads over just what a horse had to do with the burgeoning police and newspaper corruption scandal — why David Cameron’s equine enthusiasm merited a second glance at all.
In fact, in my view, this apparently trifling distraction provides a sharp little cameo of life in No 10 and the character of its current occupant
When the Mail on Sunday put the story to Downing Street after a tip-off in late 2010, Downing Street flatly denied the claims.
Then, when the charges resurfaced last week, Cameron’s officials dismissively stonewalled inquiries for three days as to whether or not it was true. An hour after the last of these refusals to answer, Mr Cameron tortuously conceded that he had gone riding with Mr Brooks — and that since becoming Prime Minister, ‘I may have got on a horse once, but not that one’.
Later that afternoon, Downing Street admitted Mr Cameron ‘might’ have ridden Raisa, but had ‘no recollection’ of riding with Mrs Brooks.
Finally, while other leaders at an EU summit in Brussels addressed the grave economic situation, he interrupted his own press conference, where he had intended to garner headlines for strong words about the carnage in Syria, to announce that he had indeed ridden Raisa (although not while Prime Minister).
Dear, oh dear. If Downing Street had set out to plant the impression that Mr Cameron had some terrible secret he was trying to hide, they could hardly have made a better fist of it.
You can see why he was so desperate not be caught with his foot in this particular stirrup. For the image of him on that wretched ex-police horse links him to the steadily unfolding scandal of supposed journalistic malpractice and police corruption.
Even more lethally, perhaps, his rural rides on Raisa place him squarely back in the gilded world of the wealthy from which he is so desperate to distance himself. The fact he liked to hunt with the Brookses who, as his Oxfordshire neighbours, are fellow members of the so-called ‘Chipping Norton Set’ risks reviving the charge that he is a privileged and wealthy toff out of touch with the real world.
And the friendship he enjoyed with Mrs Brooks while he was Leader of the Opposition, showing his closeness to the Murdoch empire, suggests judgment and prudence seem to have been suspended because of his all-consuming preoccupation with massaging his image in the media.
How ironic, therefore, that, in the very week in which the Prime Minister was stepping into a pile of horse manure, Steve Hilton, the adviser most associated with the project to decontaminate the Tory brand, announced he was leaving Downing Street and decamping to California’s Stanford University for a year.
His departure has been put down variously to frustration over restrictions on his ideas caused by the EU or the Lib Dems, turf wars with ministers and civil servants and with a stand-up row over the Coalition’s lack of a sense of direction or just a simple desire to see more of his family, who live in California.
Maybe there’s some truth in all of these accounts. And while some say his departure is permanent, others predict that this closest of all Mr Cameron’s advisers will not only be back but will remain plugged into a telephonic hot line to No 10. For the moment, however, his loss will be a further destabilising factor for the PM.
Mr Cameron does seem to have trouble holding on to his senior advisers. The head of the policy unit, James O’Shaughnessy, departed last year while an ally of Mr Hilton’s, Tim Chatwin, left for a post at Google.
Every Prime Minister needs a wise counsellor — and Mr Hilton’s departure underlines the vacuum in Mr Cameron’s circle.
Moreover, since the apparently ultra- progressive Mr Hilton actually has certain very Thatcherite instincts — he believes in deregulating business and reportedly wants Britain both to depart the EU and ditch human rights law — his exit leaves the Prime Minister even more under the thumb of the Left-wing Lib Dems.
Indeed, in a curious way the departure of this hippyish radical leaves no one to connect to Mr Cameron’s inner conservative. And that in turn gets to the deeper and more concerning point.
Ultimately, Mr Hilton’s value to Mr Cameron lies in his skills at ‘triangulation’, the term for the political cross-dressing patented by U.S. President Bill Clinton and adopted by Tony Blair.
This strategy means a political leader cannot be pilloried as either Right-wing or Left-wing because it borrows from both.
At its heart, therefore, lies a hollowness where principle should be. And so the strategy is enthusiastically taken up by politicians whose own political philosophy amounts to little more than the aim of gaining and staying in power.
Accordingly, Mr Hilton provided his old friend Mr Cameron with a suit of clothes — the Big Society, hugging huskies and hoodies, championing the NHS to the death, not to mention his own famously shoeless and tieless attire — which managed to appear simultaneously conservative and trendy, free market and caring.
The big question, however, remains whether Mr Cameron himself has any deep beliefs of his own or whether he is little more than an empty suit.
Sure, his government is doing good and radical things in welfare and education — but these reforms are being driven by the respective passions of Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove. If either of these two moved on, it is surely hard to imagine that other ministers would or could do what they are doing.
This may sound rather harsh on the Prime Minister, who after all is running the government in which these reforms are being driven through.
Nevertheless, the suspicion remains that his own driving passion is the manipulation of public opinion — which is why he cosied up to the Murdoch empire.
Frustration with Coalition politics preventing the Tories from doing what he had hoped they would do is reportedly one reason why Steve Hilton is leaving.
But it is far from clear that Mr Cameron himself is as frustrated by this as his trusted adviser. Indeed, there are suspicions that the Prime Minister uses the Lib Dems as a fig-leaf for his own liberal approach to life.
And so Mr Hilton’s departure will merely amplify the question of which horse Mr Cameron himself actually rides.