A couple of months ago he was the most powerful man in the country, followed everywhere he went by a retinue of aides and a jostling pack of news-hungry reporters and cameramen.
Today David Cameron is a 49-year-old at a loose end, snapped this week sitting barefoot on a car-park wall in Cornwall, eating fish and chips and staring abstractedly into the middle distance Eating with him is a woman presumed to be his wife (though her face is obscured by somebody’s back), while three apparent strangers sit slap beside the couple, seemingly unaware that they are just inches away from the man who was so recently the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
Doesn’t that photograph, taken by a passer-by on Tuesday evening, speak more than words can say about the drama of this summer, the instantaneous changes of fortune we witnessed after the referendum and the sheer ruthlessness of our political system?
Entourage No doubt police bodyguards were keeping a discreet eye on the Camerons as they ate their fish and chips in Polzeath.
It’s also possible that the three women sitting with them on the wall may have recognised the couple.
But if so, they were either too courteous to show any sign of it — or else they were remarkably unimpressed. Looking at this photograph, I can’t say I’m surprised. Indeed, it has set me thinking that if there really is such a thing as an aura of power — and I’m inclined to believe there is — Mr Cameron appears to have left his behind in Downing Street when the removal men took his other possessions away. Of course, it may be foolish to read too much into a single image, snapped when the sitter wasn’t expecting it. But to me, Mr Cameron looks diminished and deflated, a shadow of his former self — if not in girth, then at least in the sense of authority and self-confidence he exuded when he held the reins of government. This has nothing to do with his bare feet or the holiday outfit he’s wearing — the shorts and the zipped-up fleece. Indeed, we’ve seen him similarly attired, and in the same Polzeath location, many times before.
We’ve also seen him, in all those carefully staged photo-opportunities of the past, with his entourage kept out of camera-shot.
The difference is that from the moment he walked into Number 10, he looked like a Prime Minister — even when he was dressed for a holiday photoshoot like a complete wally.
There was something about his demeanour and strong physical presence that said here was a leader, at ease with himself, used to being listened to and getting his way. Indeed, it was one of his strengths as PM that he looked the part. In this, he differed from some of his predecessors, who always looked and sounded as if they had been miscast for the top job. Sir John Major springs to mind. Even after more than six years in Downing Street, he retained the air of a middle-ranking local government officer, while Gordon Brown appeared more like an eccentric, irascible schoolmaster than a head of government. Meanwhile, other former prime ministers kept their air of authority long after they left office. Margaret Thatcher, I can testify, was quite as formidable a character after she was knifed by her colleagues as before. And although it grieves me to say it, even the egregious, self-deluding Tony Blair still gives off a certain aura — albeit mixed with a powerful whiff of sulphur. Of course, you’d be more likely to find him digging into the caviar on a crooked oligarch’s yacht than sitting on the wall of a Cornish car park, eating chips. But wherever Mr Blair happens to be, you can be sure he is noticed by everyone around him. Not so Mr Cameron. Whatever intangible quality of leadership he may have possessed until a couple of months ago seems to have disappeared along with the trappings of his office.
Pride And though he hummed a nonchalant tune as he turned away from the lectern after announcing his resignation, I’ll bet he’s missing the job — and everything that goes with it — far, far more than his pride will allow him to admit. On June 23 he went to bed, recently re-elected with an overall majority and no opposition worthy of the name, looking forward to four years in which to stamp the name Cameron indelibly on the history books. But when he woke up the next morning, he was finished — washed up at 49, with only a couple of bodyguards to remind him that once he was a power in the land. How could he feel anything but bitterly frustrated, after the suddenness of his fall, by the near certainty that nothing he can do in the years remaining to him will be anything like as exciting as the life he has lived for the past six?