Brian Monteith: Being least worst is not good enough

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I really do want to like David Cameron. Not because he’s a Tory, just simply because he has some good qualities that I admire. When I line him up against the alternatives (for now) of Nick ‘I lied to the electorate’ Clegg and Ed ‘I knifed my brother’ 
Miliband there really is no contest.

Only one chap of the three has the quality to be a prime minister, and I think the British public knows that. That’s why the Prime Minister’s approval ratings are -14 (that’s actually very good), while Clegg’s is an appalling -54 and Milband’s an embarrassing -55.

(Yes, let’s pause for a moment and take stock of that survey – which is in line with similar polls. Who would have thought that after four years of coalition government the Liberal Democrat deputy would have worse ratings than the Conservative Prime Minister? No-one. Nobody. Not even Nick Clegg himself. And who would have thought that the leader of the opposition would have worse ratings than a Tory – even in Scotland! Not even Alex Salmond would have wagered on that.)

There are plenty of Tories I despise with a passion, but I rarely mention them on these pages as they are of no importance to Edinburgh or even Scotland, so I shan’t go on about the late William van Straubenzee or the ever present Michael Heseltine. Cameron is a different shaving of truffles altogether – his father was a Scot who did well in the metropolis but never forgot his roots and young Cameron feels a strong sense of his Scottish roots that makes him feel British.

When Cameron speaks about the country he can do it without notes for it comes from the heart. For all his privileged upbringing (achieved by his forebears’ hard work and toil, it must be recorded) Cameron is able to connect with people, to understand what individuals, families and communities go through. He has had his own experiences, of course, and he mentions them when he loses his rag to point out that he uses the NHS and swears by it.

But then there’s the downside, and firstly I must declare myself – I am a public relations professional. I have been in PR since 1983, when I first worked in the City learning at the feet of Michael Forsyth, Kevin Bell and John Hayes, and then in Edinburgh from the master of commercial publicity, Robin Dunseath. Cameron was still at Eton when I was sharpening the keyboard of my newly-fangled word processor, doing press releases and photo-calls, but when he graduated from Oxford with his first class degree he too went into PR. It was his only job outside politics, and it has stayed with him ever since.

For Cameron as a politician is always the PR man; he has a certain anticipation for what people think so he tends to veer (often violently and without warning) to what he thinks people want to hear. Me? When in politics but also an ex-PR man, I had to pinch myself to ensure I would say what I believed and not what punters wanted to be told – for there are times when unpalatable truths and stern warnings are the job of political leaders.

The whole austerity policy is like that; it seems that Cameron is advocating it because he believes in it, but my own take is that he has calculated we realise the state of the nation’s economy is bad and that the politician that advocates the most bitter medicine is the one being the most honest – and therefore the most appealing. Bizarre, I know, but politicians are calculating, especially PR men who become politicians. Tell me about it!

That’s why the austerity programme has not been half as austere as it could and should have been – but that’s another column for another time. Instead, the coalition has seemed austere, but not in comparison with other countries that have actually cut public sector wages and closed down government programmes, and that’s why the nation’s finances are still in an almighty mess.

So Cameron has the sense of occasion, the ability to empathise – and is able to speak knowledgeably without a script – but he keeps losing my personal support by making unnecessary judgement calls and breaking his word. Being the most capable is not enough.

The list of things he has gone back on just keeps getting longer; taking the state out of our lifestyle choices so that we can decide for ourselves was one into which his government has since expanded. Another is his ability to say one thing about Europe and then do another – think Lisbon Treaty referendum, and this week it was that promise of a vote on the European Arrest Warrant only to then go back on it.

But worse still is his begging for the votes of Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens – anybody – to help the Tories beat Ukip in the Rochester and Strood by-election next week. Prime Minister Cameron, where is your dignity? You are so much more a prime minister than your opponents, but when you get down on your knees pleading for people’s votes you become a man with no sense of shame. That’s demeaning. Get a grip man!