Cameron: the best political communicator in a generation, or Blair-lite?

David Cameron's former director of strategy has said the PR turned PM was "the best communicator in politics for a generation" - although political comms experts disagree over the extent to which his background as a comms man defined his time in Westminster.

Adieu, Cameron (© Dylan Martinez/AFP/Getty Images)
Adieu, Cameron (© Dylan Martinez/AFP/Getty Images)

Cameron, who yesterday resigned as MP for Witney, spent nearly seven years as a senior comms executive at the television company Carlton, which is now part of ITV, before entering parliament. A Guardian article in 2010, the year he became PM, called it "his only professional excursion beyond the cosseted world of Westminster".

Speaking to PRWeek, his former aide Ameet Gill, who yesterday announced that he was co-founding a PR firm called Hanbury Strategy, said: "For David Cameron, policy always came first in terms of what he wanted to do for the country. I think his biggest legacy is in his policies, but he also understood that it was important in modern politics that you communicated well."

He said Cameron, who left Downing Street in July after the UK voted to leave the EU, was "the best communicator in politics for a generation - and I think his electoral successes, okay he didn’t win the EU referendum, but two general elections and two other referendums [AV and Scottish independence], proves that".

Gill, who worked with Cameron for 10 years, said of likely next steps for his former boss: "At the core of David Cameron is a sense of political service, I think there are a lot of things he cares about, from the Big Society and encouraging community development, to international development and international aid, and I imagine he would do something that was a combination of those areas."

Former Labour MP Andy Sawford, who is now the managing partner and co-owner of Connect Communications, said: "I think in the end, PR was to him the definitive tool for Cameron as a political leader, rather than substance."

"I think we’re going to see a big contrast now with his successor," he said, referring to new PM Theresa May, who PR professionals have previously suggested may struggle to convey emotion in public appearances and speeches.


More: Theresa May has six comms priorities, half-way through her first 100 days


Sawford said that Cameron's "talent for a turn of phrase" and success in turning around the perception of the Conservative Party were clear strengths, as was his ability to know which photo opportunities would resonate with the public - mentioning posing with huskies in the Arctic and with young people as good examples. "That was very much about saying ‘we’re modern’," he said.

"But it [PR] was also his undoing, because he thought he could present the deal he had done with Europe to the public in a way that would win the EU referendum, but people saw through it, and he underestimated the underlying concern - he lived by the spin and died by the spin," Sawford went on to say.

Asked whether Cameron or his predecessor but one Tony Blair was the the better communicator, Sawford said: "I would say undoubtedly Tony Blair - where Cameron presented a new logo for his party, Blair gave it a new name."

Malcolm Gooderham, a former Conservative researcher and press secretary to shadow chancellor Michael Portillo, and now one of the founders of Montfort Communications, said: "The extent to which Cameron's background as a political and media advisor in Government and then in business helped him 'win' his first and second general election is debatable. It certainly fine-tuned his political antennae, which will have accentuated his ability to seize opportunities to reposition the Party and do so avoiding major pitfalls.

"However, his decision to pledge a referendum on EU membership - and fail to take people with him - will always cast doubt on his judgement, let alone his campaigning abilities."

It has also been suggested that Cameron's apparently abrasive manner in his time as a PR at Carlton paved the way for later negative coverage, due to him making enemies in the media.

It has been argued that this played a part in the coverage given to the 'pig-gate' scandal last year, in which the Daily Mail gave front page coverage to poorly sourced allegations of him having "put a private part of his anatomy" into the mouth of a dead pig.

Cameron also received criticism at the end of his time as PM for giving 'resignation honours' to several former advisers.

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