All this week the Daily Mail has been publishing extracts from Lord Ashcroft’s unauthorised biography of David Cameron, which has included some potentially relatively serious political stuff about Cameron’s knowledge of Ashcroft’s non-dom status and relations with military leaders for example. However, none of that sent twitter into a apoplexies. The bit that sent twitter over the edge was PigGate. Now if you’ve got this far in life without hearing about the pig, then I very strongly suggest that you look away now. It’s one of those things that, once heard, can not be unheard and, believe me, you’re happier in ignorance.
Seriously, you read on at your own risk.
Still here? Are you sure?
Right then. Well it was your choice. PigGate, for those who don’t already know, relates to the accusation that, while at university, David Cameron took part in a initiation ritual for some form of posh boy club that involved putting his – oh god, I’m not sure I can even type this – his… erm… gentleman sausage, shall we say, in the mouth of a dead pig. Now let’s be clear this is an entirely unsubstantiated claim from someone who has a major grudge against Cameron. Let’s proceed on the assumption that it’s not true (for reasons of both lack of evidence and really not wanting to get sued.) So, if it’s not true, does it matter?
Well, yes. Unfortunately for Cameron the reaction to the allegation does matter, and, from my very unscientific reading of the twitters, that reaction seems to break down into three basic types:
Type 1 – It’s an uncorroborated rumour. People shouldn’t take it seriously;
Type 2 – Well it was probably just youthful japes and high jinx. Didn’t we all do stupid things at university?
Type 3 – Any one of a range of jokes about ham face and apple sauce.
Type 3 is inevitable. I mean, it’s a rumour that the Prime Minister did adult-fun stuff with a dead pig – it would almost be rude not to make up and share as many off-colour jokes as you can think of. Type 1 is very sensible, and Type 2 is something of a worry, but what none of these reactions do is rely on the notion that the idea of the PM engaging in the sort of ritual suggested is simply implausible and unthinkable of such a fine and upstanding chap. And that, I suspect, is at the heart of Cameron’s public image problem.
Let’s be realistic – Cameron doesn’t have a BIG public image problem. He’s won one and a half general elections, and has already said that he doesn’t plan to lead the Tories into another. All he needs to do is maintain sufficient popularity to be able to choose his time of departure rather than be pushed. But Cameron’s personal public image is all tied up in the idea that he’s a new Conservative. He’s the Conservative who can be trusted with the NHS, because he knows first hand what it’s like to be the parent of a severely disabled child. He’s the Conservative who cares about ‘hard-working people’. He’s spent a lot of time trying not to be seen as an old Etonian rich boy, even thought that is absolutely what he is. And the lack of disbelief around the PigGate story suggests that he hasn’t quite pulled off that particular smoke and mirror trick.
And that is, potentially, damaging in a way that it probably wouldn’t be to a politician like Boris Johnson. Boris has never tried to downplay his fundamental hooray Henry-ness, so stories of him Bullingdon-clubbing it up fit with and reinforce a public image with which he’s comfortable. Cameron runs the risk of looking like a man who’s not really at ease in his own skin. And that’s never been a problem in the past because he’s been in competition with opposition leaders who made personal discomfort into a national spectator sport. Gordon Brown trying to do a relaxed smile or Ed Miliband shouting ‘Hell, yeah’ were moments of inept image management that turned the six o’clock news into something to be cringe-watched from behind a cushion. All Cameron has ever had to do before was look more at ease than that. But, during the Labour leadership election Jeremy Corbyn certainly looked entirely comfortable with who he is – whether the Labour party publicity machine allows him to retain that or media trains him into oblivion is yet to be seen, but looking inauthentic is, potentially, Cameron’s Achilles’ heel, and it’s not one he’s been punished for so far.