A new biography of U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has caused a storm of media derision with its portrait of a world leader who deserves, according to one unnamed source, “an Olympic gold medal for chillaxing.” What is “chillaxing” for the head honcho of British politics? Well, according to Francis Elliot and James Hanning’s Cameron: Practically a Conservative, it boils down to an ability to entirely switch off on the weekends. When unwinding at his official country abode, Chequers, the PM enjoys dabbling in the vegetable patch, playing with the kids, watching “a crap film on telly,” hitting balls on the tennis court against a machine called “The Clegger”—named after his deputy PM and tennis partner Nick Clegg—having three or four glasses of wine with lunch and a long afternoon nap.
The perception of Cameron as a relaxed and affable family man who relishes his leisure time is, in fact, one that was carefully cultivated and promoted from the moment he took over as leader of the opposition against the legendarily morose and workaholic Gordon Brown. Since then, Cameron has dutifully kept up the image. In addition to being photographed walking in the country with his family, a Baby Bjorn strapped to his chest, he has defended the practice of date nights with his wife, admitted his addiction to the app Angry Birds and is generally known for being a gregarious, even-tempered sort of bloke who, as we found out from his recent testimony at the Leveson inquiry on press standards, rather enjoys connecting with old friends—even, perhaps especially, rich and powerful ones who are members of the so-called “Chipping Norton” country set.
For a while the strategy worked—voters seemed to connect to Cameron on a human level, something Brown could never quite achieve. But as the PM himself surely knows by now, politics is a fickle game and the very quality that might help get a leader elected in the first place can just as quickly become his greatest political liability (think of Barack Obama’s legendary calm recast as aloofness or Stephen Harper’s control over cabinet translated into inflexibility). In Cameron’s case, his political weakness seems to be his ability, tasked with an extraordinary job, to simply relax and enjoy his life in an ordinary way.
So while the British economy is in the grips of a double-dip recession, the eurozone spirals out of control, national health and education reform is in disarray and the country grapples with deep cuts to its civil service with little growth to show for it, David Cameron’s ability to “switch off” has taken on decidedly darker connotations. Is he overly relaxed about matters of state? Does he simply over-delegate? Does he lack real vision or is he completely out of touch with the troubles of regular working Britons? These are all the questions that critics of “Chillax Dave” have been asking, at top volume, in recent weeks.
Now that the die has been cast, the tabloids are of course having a field day. “A chillax too far!” declared the Daily Mail after it emerged last week that a distraught David and Samantha Cameron accidentally left their daughter Nancy, age 8, behind in a pub after driving back to Chequers from lunchtime drinks (apparently each car thought the other had her).
While most voters can empathize with an absent-minded parental slip, Cameron’s cozy relationships with a tight network of dubious-yet-powerful friends is another matter. During his recent testimony at the Leveson inquiry he was left squirming as fawning text messages from the embattled News Corp. executive Rebekah Brooks, who faces trial for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice linked to the phone-hacking scandal later this year, were read aloud. “I’m so rooting for you tomorrow,” said one particularly cringe-worthy note. “Not just as a proud friend, but because professionally we’re definitely in this together! Speech of your life? Yes he Cam!” (The final sentence became the headline in Murdoch’s Sun newspaper the next day.) Another text from Brooks, much picked over by the press, made reference to the legendary charm of “OEs” (Old Etonians, which Cameron is himself) and looked forward to another “country supper” soon.
According to the most recent polls conducted this spring, Cameron’s approval ratings have dipped to their lowest levels ever, hovering around 32 per cent. It’s a bitter pill for a leader who has, previously, been able to count on his popularity to buoy his party’s fortunes in difficult economic times. But as Britain struggles to catapult itself out of an economic dead zone, Cameron’s time-wasting app of choice seems in poorer taste than ever. As one Labour backbencher recently complained to the press, “People across the country will be concerned that while Britain was heading for a recession made in Downing Street, David Cameron was concentrating on ‘chillaxing.’ The prime minister should be totally focused on a plan for jobs and growth rather than playing computer games on his iPad.”