“Harold!” Steptoe cried to his son when he couldn't cope, “HAROLD!!”
David Cameron reminds me of the old rag and bone man, pleading and increasingly desperate, but which Harold should he call for?
MacMillan? He’s the Prime Minister Cameron most admires and it's easy to see why. Harold MacMillan was an Old Etonian with the popular touch - a centrist who ignored the ‘swivel-eyed’ in his party. More importantly, he was easily re-elected in 1959, despite trailing in the polls for much of the parliament. It's a record Cameron longs to emulate.
But there are differences. MacMillan wasn't as touchy about his background. He didn’t mind being filmed striding round the grouse moor. As Minister of Defence he refused to live at Dorneywood (of Prescott and croquet fame), saying his wife didn't weed other people's gardens. The Tories can’t do that kind of magisterially snobbery anymore - now it's all rock music and pasties.
Cameron also lacks MacMillan's ruthlessness; this is a man who sacked a third of his cabinet in one day. Our own Mac finds it harder to wield the knife. When he demotes someone (Warsi, Lansley, Clarke whoever) they still turn up in Cabinet– if their meeting gets any larger, they’ll be staged at the 02 Arena.
And is Cameron really as unideological as his hero? He has swung to the right since coming to power, something MacMillan would never have done. This could fatally damage his electoral chances, especially with no '50s-style boom on the horizon. MacMillan rode to victory on the slogan ''You've never had it so good". The best Cameron can hope for is "Things are not quite as shite".
There is another Harold who might provide a suitable role model. A touch plebeian perhaps, from the other party, but how about Harold ‘Baron Rievaulx' Wilson? Is Cameron more Gannex mac than Supermac? Social differences apart, the ex-PR man in Cameron must surely admire Wilson's talent for publicity. Huddersfield’s most famous pipe smoker never missed a passing bandwagon - MBEs for The Beatles, hobnobbing with the England World Cup squad - Cameron would love that kind of reflected glory. He has to make do with Gary Barlow and Carol Vorderman.
Wilson cultivated a ‘man of the people’ image; his love of HP Sauce and the Scilly Isles was mocked at the time but he won four elections – so it does pay to be prolier than thou. This is hardly fertile ground for Cameron yet he craves to be tinned not smoked salmon. As un vrai paysan, he shares Wilson’s passion for football, though I struggle to imagine him singing, “Who ate all the pies?” at Villa Park. Venison pies perhaps.
It's in his political strategy that Cameron is already an ‘Old Haroldian’. The endless shifts and initiatives remind me of Richard Crossman’s barb about Wilson: “…the master tactician and the super-opportunist, who is so clever that his tactics are disastrous and he destroys his opportunities”. Cameron’s EU referendum is a Capital Gold Classic - the political equivalent of a Rubettes revival.
In 1975 Wilson called a similar ‘in-out’ vote - largely to paper over divisions in his party. His government had just re-negotiated ‘improved terms’ from Brussels, really a few minor face-savers, but this allowed Wilson to campaign on a yes vote. The 67% in favour was seen as a personal triumph. But Cameron needs to be careful: Labour’s divisions weren’t healed - they festered. It was one reason for the subsequent split on the left that kept the Tories in power for 18 years. This time it could be Cameron who’ll face a united opposition with his own party bitterly at odds.
If the Tories start to fragment it won’t matter who he cries for.