On Charisma

by Babak Moussavi

David Cameron must have had a surprisingly merry Christmas.

Despite presiding over record youth unemployment, a stalling economy, and a series of regressive cuts, the Prime Minister seems to be one of the most popular politicians in Britain. The results of the latest Guardian/ICM poll, suggest that the Mr Cameron is more popular than his government, his party, his Deputy Prime Minister, his Chancellor, and the Leader of the Opposition.

When asked if he is doing a good job, 48% replied Yes, with 43% answering No: not great, but a spread of +5. George Osborne managed -2, but Ed Miliband received a worrying -17, and Nick Clegg achieved a terrible -19. Even Nicolas Sarkozy has little to envy there.

To be sure, these numbers don’t matter much: the next election will – probably – not occur until 2015, by which point people’s perceptions will certainly have changed. But as a snapshot, they are telling.

Nobody plausibly denies that Mr Miliband has social justice at heart, arguing in defence of the “squeezed middle” and putting forward (slightly inarticulately) a vision of a fairer capitalism at his conference speech this year. But his Labour Party emanates a sense of rudderlessness, and has done an abysmal job of defending its economic record, allowing the Coalition to dictate the terms of mainstream debate. Mr Miliband may have shed his ridiculous ‘Red Ed’ epithet, but he has not cemented his position as leader, and calls for his defenestration are no longer uncommon.

But what of Mr Cameron? His government has produced a clearly regressive budget. His response to the riots in August was widely criticised. His refusal to sack, and reluctance to criticise Andy Coulson for his suspected crimes as editor of News of the World, provoked condemnation. He turned up at the EU summit earlier this month with no allies, having never developed a coherent foreign policy, and found himself isolated. Somehow this rather dubious example of long-sighted diplomacy gave him a bounce in the polls.

He has one asset, though, which is crucial and has nothing to do with conviction, nor policy, nor wisdom, nor integrity. His advantage is his charisma. For all his faults, Mr Cameron is a significantly better performer than his rivals, as one can often cringe-worthily note at PMQs.

The venerable historian Stephen Graubard has noted the rising importance of charisma and performance in American presidential politics, with its election debates, glamorous fundraisers, and expensive haircuts. Without charisma, you cannot even hope to be commander-in-chief.

Our politics is headed – and has been heading – in that direction. As long as Mr Cameron can exude more charm and confidence than his rivals, he will remain strong. There are many consequences of this, but one unfortunate outcome is that a leader’s concern for social justice is now of lesser worth.

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