Tory leader in ‘drinking champagne’ shock!

When appearance is everything in politics, even David Cameron enjoying a glass of bubbly can become a scandal.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics UK

Picture this: the leader of the Conservative Party with a flute of champagne in his hand at a drinks reception held by the Spectator magazine, a long-time supporter of British Conservatism. As images go, it’s unlikely to leave many all agog. In fact, footage of a bear defecating in the woods would be more surprising.

But this week, that very image – David Cameron, champers in hand, at a Conservative Party conference do hosted by the Spectator – suddenly became comment-worthy. Plastered over Wednesday morning’s newspapers, it had the Labour-supporting Mirror gloating (1), the Daily Mail half tut-tutting (2), and The Times sort of amused (3).

The ostensible reason for the image’s significance is clear enough. The Tories, brimful with talk of budget cuts, pay freezes and collective pain, were understandably keen not to be caught having a jolly old time, especially not with the aid of that symbol of excess and celebration – champagne. On Monday, party chairman Eric Pickles had even issued what seemed like a solemn pledge to embody the Tories’ much-trumpeted age of austerity: ‘It’s actually a humbling thing, if people give us their trust against the background of a recession… and we expect people [at the conference] to behave like that and to reflect that.’ (4) So for the leader himself to be caught with his champagne-sodden pants down was all a bit embarrassing.

But what’s interesting about this is not the hypocrisy of preaching poverty with one hand while quaffing £140 champagne with the other, it’s why the Tories were so desperate to be seen to be restrained and humble in the first place. If Pickles hadn’t donned an XXL hairshirt, if Cameron hadn’t demanded that bars within the Conservative Party cordon did not serve champagne (5), then seeing an Etonian with a glass of bubbly at the party of an old establishment magazine would have been about as remarkable as seeing a non-Etonian enjoying himself at a Spectator party. But because the Tories made an issue of their own behaviour – in effect, politicising it – it became significant. They effectively created, and then invited, the charge of hypocrisy just as their virtuous posturing attracted buck-making photographers on the lookout for a trace of vice.

So why did they do this? Why make such a song and dance about being seen to be genuinely humble? There’s little doubt the current Tory hierarchy are eager to rid themselves of the association with toffish entitlement, something not helped by the endlessly republished pictures of a young Cameron together with his Oxford chums, shadow chancellor-to-be George Osborne and future London mayor Boris Johnson, enjoying their membership of poshos’ paradise, the Bullingdon Club.

But there’s something more to it than that. To paraphrase Pickles, they did it because they want people ‘to give their trust’ to the Tories. And to do that they couldn’t appear like politicians anticipating a political victory. For the last thing people trust is a politician – well, after a journalist.

‘Trust’ as it is used here is not trust as we would normally understand it. Properly speaking, placing your trust in a person or an organisation is a pretty ordinary act of faith – faith, that is, that someone will do what they have said they will do. Trust exists where certainty is absent, and guarantees unnecessary.

That is not the case here. To trust the Tories, as Pickles intends it, is not an act of faith. It is not a case of trusting a political party to realise a particular vision of society. No, to trust the Tories here is an end in itself, a strategic objective. Pickles is talking about trusting the Tories’ trustworthiness, of believing that they are as they appear, that they are sincere. And why? Because how Cameron and the rest appear is as much their political content as any of their policies. Budget cuts and public-sector pay freezes are one thing, but what the Tories are really keen to sell to the electorate is the idea that Cameron and pals are absolutely genuine, that their personalities are really their politics, that their personalities transcend their profession as politicians, not like the other about-to-be-deposed lot, behoven to spin and dazed by a legacy of insincerity.

The fixation with being trusted is not solely a Tory obsession. It stems from the political class’s own experience of political disengagement, of withered party memberships and ever-dwindling electoral turnouts. Rather than understand this as a crisis of politics, of there being no vision, no ideas to actually vote for, it is interpreted as a crisis of politicians, of there being no one whom the electorate trusts enough to vote for. People do not trust politicians because they think politicians cannot be trusted, so runs the tautology. Hence the political class’s response to the MPs expenses scandal earlier this year was to set about ‘rebuilding the public’s trust’. Manufacturing trust, if it wasn’t already, became a cross-party objective.

And how is this to be done? By making the workings of politics and politicians themselves ever more visible, by becoming ‘transparent’. If, to quote Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, ‘nefarious practices thrive in any dark corners of politics unchecked by scrutiny’, then those dark corners, so the thinking goes, need to be exposed to public sunlight (6). Speaking at a party conference fringe event, Ben Wallace, the Tory MP for Lancaster and Wyre, was clear about the best way to ‘fix politics’: ‘Transparency is the answer to most problems… most things that are kept secret should not be. Transparency would be a solution.’ (7)

Politicians must not only do their jobs; more importantly, they must be seen to be doing their jobs. And the more the public sees of politicians and civil servants, from their expense claims to their after-conference recreation, the more people will trust them. As Cameron put it in the aftermath of the MPs expenses scandal: ‘I am determined that, from this point on, myself and my shadow cabinet will do all we can to be as transparent as possible. Only then can trust between the public and their politicians begin to be rebuilt.’ (8)

Ushering in this era of ‘maximum transparency’ in July, Chloe Smith, the then newly elected Tory MP for Norwich North, announced: ‘I will publish the details of all my personal expenses, office expenses and donations on my website so the people who employ me – the public – can see them easily. Every year I’ll appoint a firm of local auditors to sign off my expenses.’ (9) Nothing will be hidden, I am completely honest! Not only does proving oneself trustworthy trump politics, it becomes politics; a reason for people to choose who to vote for. Appearing to be without stain, without even the faintest of doubling of standards, even if it’s just a sip of expensive champagne at the Austerity Party’s big do, is invested with political import.

Along similar lines, shadow minister for the cabinet office, Francis Maude, announced at the conference this week that a Tory government would publish online its staff numbers, all salaries over grade seven and job descriptions of all government departments. ‘We want to unleash an army of armchair auditors to crawl over the government’s accounts’, he said (10). This is the meaning of ‘accountability’ in the era of ‘maximum transparency’. For it is no longer policies, and the ideas underpinning them, that are being held to account; it is the politician as a person. It is not what they are doing with their office, it is their behaviour while in it, that is to be judged. Political engagement is reduced, to use Maude’s phrase, ‘to crawling over accounts’, and the electorate to little more than ‘an army of armchair auditors’.

And this is the problem. How politicians appear to the public, ensuring that appearance is reality, has become a party political obsession. While ideas might seem a bit dodgy, ensuring that your accounts add up, that you are what you seem, that you are not-drinking-champagne and are serious about tackling the recession becomes all important. This is personality as politics, personality as the end of politics, in every sense.

Politicians, just like everybody else, always had personalities, even anti-personalities like ex-Conservative Prime Minister John Major. But, over the past 20 years, as politics with a capital P departed the scene – ‘the totalising ideologies of left and right’ as then Labour leader, and personality-politics trailblazer, Tony Blair called them in 1996 (11) – what became important was less what one stood for but who one was. Really, honestly, truthfully.

Yet one of the ironies with obsessing over how politicians appear, as New Labour discovered with its anti-sleaze election campaign of 1997, is that it is self-defeating. Within months of victory, New Labour were embroiled in a sleaze scandal of their own when it was revealed that Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone had donated £1million to the party, which had just granted Formula One an exemption from a ban on tobacco advertising. Making anti-sleaze a cause had lead to it being found everywhere. And so it repeats. A political obsession with appearing absolutely honest and unspun means that things of no world-historical significance – an affair for instance, an expense fiddle, or even a glass of champers – become politically important. If the moral implacability of the person is the sole substance of politics, so the individual’s peccadilloes, their follies and their flaws become their downfall. Public engagement with politics, when it is more than auditing accounts, amounts to watching a spectacle of honesty, while always suspecting dishonesty.

The picture of Cameron drinking champagne at a nice party provides a snapshot of politics in an age of anti-politics. The desperation to appear not as a politician savouring the possibility of electoral victory, but as an honest man reluctantly facing up to hard choices, was always going to be difficult to sustain. But that is the problem with anti-politics. The one thing politicians are desperately trying to appear not to be is a politician, with all the untrustworthiness that entails.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume said the Tories have changed – for the worse. Elsewhere, he pointed out that the demise of New Labour did not amount to a Tory revival. Back in 2005, he argued that David Cameron was a non-Tory leading the Tory party.  Rob Lyons reckoned Cameron’s Tories are the heirs to Blairism. And after the Tories’ victory at the Crewe by-election last year, Brendan O’Neill called for positive politics. Nathalie Rothschild explained what ‘politics of behaviour’ with a Tory twist looks like. Or read more at spiked issue British Politics.

(1) DAvid Cameron seen drinking champagne as Tories reveal wage freezes and pension cuts, Mirror, 7 October 2009

(2) What Champagne ban? Cameron caught with glass of bubbly as MPs and delegates party hard at conference, Daily Mail, 7 October 2009

(3) David Cameron beats the bubbly ban at Tory conference, The Times (London), 7 October 2009

(4) Conservative chairman bans champagne at conference, Evening Standard, 5 October 2009

(5) Champagne Tories?, Financial Times blog, 6 October 2009

(6) Seize this moment to bring in real constitutional change, Guardian, 18 May 2009

(7) Guardian fringe debate – how can we fix politics?, Guardian, 5 october 2009

(8) Brown and Cameron pledge greater transparency over expenses, Guardian, 19 June 2009

(9) Cited in The by-election that nobody won, by Brendan O’Neill, 27 July 2009

(10) Tories to disclose top civil servants’ pay, Independent, 5 October 2009

(11) Cited in Cynicism and Postmoderntiy, Timothy Bewes, Verso, 1997

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Topics Politics UK


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