I attended David Cameron's "Cameron Direct" event in Reading yesterday. It was held in one of the conference rooms at the Madejski Stadium.
There had been some problems with the organisation and it had been postponed from last Friday because of the weather. I have also heard that some people struggled to get places booked as it was necessary to pre-register. The fact that it started at 5:15pm on a weekday probably didn't help with maximising the possibility of all those who wished to attend being able to.
Anyway, I found the whole experience fascinating from the perspective of someone who is very interested in politics. It was good to see a face-to-face political event with one of the party leaders (I know that Nick Clegg has also done lots of these sort of events too) and it felt a bit like I guess the sort of town hall meetings there used to be many years ago.
Cameron was briefly introduced by Alok Sharma the Conservative PPC for Reading West and then he came on and rather than make a speech, pretty much straight away went into taking questions from the floor.
Being on the second row and directly in his eye-line when he asked for the first question as my hand went up, I managed to get selected first. I asked him about drugs policy and in particular I wanted to know why he had changed his position from one of supporting liberalisation of drugs laws before he was party leader and was a member of the House Affairs Select Committee to being in favour of the status quo now.
The way he responded to my question, I felt was representative of the way he answered quite a few of the questions during the evening in that he rather deftly and subtly shifted how he talked about what I had asked in a way that avoided directly answering the question. He first said about how the report that he had signed up to when a member of the committee was a great report but that the call for the UN to relax its legal approach (which I referred to in my question) was not a part of it that he thought was particularly useful. He instead suggested that the important thing to do is to focus on treatment and improving people's access to that treatment rather than on banging people up but he refused to countenance any change in the legal status of any illegal drug because of the message that that might send out.
I countered with a follow-up question suggesting that his aims are contradictory in that he is trying to improve access to treatment within a legal framework that makes that more difficult and that sometimes even people trying to help addicts find themselves falling foul of the law and even sometimes arrested and prosecuted. I also reiterated my initial question asking him why he had changed his mind. His response was that he does not think that the legal situation makes it difficult for people to get treatment and he restated his belief that the legal framework as it stands is correct. He again did not answer my question about why he had changed his mind.
I have to say that David Cameron is a very impressive individual in the flesh. I have found this with a number of senior politicians when I have seen them live giving speeches and taking questions. He is very charismatic and has the ability to inject humour at the right level to lighten his tone when it is appropriate. There were no questions that seemed to phase him.
However there was another theme to the way he answered a lot of the questions. He frequently went out of his way to insist that there was very little money around and that made it difficult for him to promise anything. He included this in virtually every answer he gave. There was a particularly odd answer (or so it seemed to me) when one of the audience members who identified himself as a floating voter asked for Cameron's "elevator pitch". Cameron then spent most of his answer explaining what he was not able to do or promise rather than on what he was going to be able to do. I am not convinced that is a winning pitch and Cameron seemed to suggest as much himself with a little self-deprecating jibe at the end where he quipped that he probably hadn't convinced him.
There was a very moving segment when a headteacher of a local special needs school asked about a putative Cameron government's priorities for special needs provision. He made reference to his son Ivan who was severely disabled and who died last year. I think everyone in the room was touched by the way he handled this; he even seemed close to tears as he talked about his experiences of trying to get the right schooling programme for his son.
Stylistically it was impossible for me to watch Cameron in the way he answered the questions with his injection of humour and confidant charismatic style without seeing very strong echoes of Tony Blair. Cameron himself even gave a nod to this at the start when he took his jacket off expressing the hope that he was not coming across too much like Blair which got a good natured ripple of laughter. It is clear to me that he had almost completely modelled himself on our former Prime Minister. This was underlined even more starkly in the flesh than when I have seen him on TV.
A couple of Blair-like rhetorical examples that stuck in my mind:
- He was asked a question about the "third sector" (i.e. voluntary sector). During his answer he suggested that it should really be referred to as the "first sector" as they often historically got there first e.g. setting up schools and things like Barnardos etc. There were a disproportionate number of people in the room from the voluntary sector and this received a number of approving comments.
- He was given a hard time on the Iraq war by one questioner who wanted to know if he regretted having voted for it. He refused to say that he regretted it and at one point used the formulation: "Am I glad that Saddam has gone? - Yes!". That wasn't the question that was asked and is a classic Blair way of responding to a question by asking another related but different question that he is more comfortable answering.
All in all, I felt it was a very worthwhile event and it was good to have seen the man who the bookies think will be our next Prime Minister.
However, I do think that he is going to have to hone his message in the run up to the election. I think people are looking for a leader who can inspire them and I was just not quite getting that yesterday. I think he is going to have to focus much more on what he can do and less on what he can't do.
As someone once said he needs to try a bit harder to let sunshine win the day.