Election experts

David Cameron’s guide to modern masculinity

Where the magic happens. BBC

On Monday, Cameron revealed that he would not be seeking a third term as PM. He chose an informal interview with the BBC’s deputy political editor, James Landale, as the platform for his surprise announcement. The announcement caused feverish media speculation about his motivation for dropping this political bombshell, and the consequences for the electoral fortunes of the Conservative Party.

We do not know exactly what went on behind the scenes – in the Conservative Party and the BBC – to occasion and shape the announcement. The interview with James Landale was the first in a series of leaders’ profiles broadcast by the BBC as part of their coverage in the run-up to the general election. These profiles represent a growing trend of personalised coverage of political leaders, which places the emphasis on the personalities and private lives of political leaders as the backdrop for discussions of policy.

It is most likely that Cameron chose the BBC profile as the platform for his announcement simply because it is a “soft news” format unlikely to involve confrontational questioning. It allowed him to expand on his intentions and motivations in very personal terms. However, if we look more closely at the semiotics – or symbolism – of the interview we can learn a lot about how Cameron wanted to manage the news.

Kitchen cabinet

Cameron chose to tell Landale while making a “simple” dinner in his gleaming constituency home kitchen. This, in itself, should not be surprising. The election so far has been dominated by politicians holding forth in their kitchens, starting with Ed Miliband appearing in the lesser of his two kitchens, followed by Cameron offering exclusive access to the Sun, which saw him making a quick sardine sandwich with a dash of mayonnaise and eating it elegantly.

Of course, Cameron has a long-standing track record of using kitchen appearances for moments of heightened political drama. He famously opened his Webcameron videolog series doing the washing up after a porridge breakfast. Cameron explained his approach to the series, saying: “I want to tell you what the Conservative party is doing, what we’re up to, give you behind-the-scenes access so you can actually see what policies we’re developing.”

This mission statement provides important clues about why it is that politicians are hell-bent on showing off their culinary skills and sparkling appliances: It signals access to the domestic, intimate and private spaces the politicians inhabit; away from the cynical and calculating world of politics. Seeing politicians scrape porridge off breakfast plates, in other words, makes them appear more authentic – more truthful and sincere, less performed and rehearsed.

A new masculinity

The flurry of politicians in their kitchens demonstrates broader shifts in the norms of masculinity. Politicians are now not only required to show themselves as decisive leaders, but also loving fathers and husbands who contribute to domestic work, including cooking and child care.

It would have been unthinkable to see Winston Churchill doing battle with the dirty dishes, but today’s successful leader has to demonstrate peak performance with a kitchen sponge. According to this new paradigm of political masculinity, hard work in the private sphere of the kitchen is entirely compatible with victory in the public sphere of politics.

Cameron talked about the “very high testosterone” atmosphere of Prime Minister’s Question Time while chopping up lettuce, the attention of the camera squarely on the high-end salad spinner. The message: he knows how to make love and war. And a simple ham salad for dinner.

This is consistent with how Cameron has presented himself ever since he took over as leader of the Conservative Party. The profile further underpinned this image, as Cameron took Landale on a leisurely wander around Witney, going past playing fields where children were engaged in a vigorous football match, shopping for ham at the butcher’s, and meandering back home along picturesque country lanes.

Cameron revealed that he is a “country boy” at heart and that his children refer to Number 10 Downing Street as their “pretend home”. He referred to the importance of his children being “rooted and grounded” in their local community. When asked about his views on life after his stint as PM, he said:

I had a life before, I will have a life after … I’ve got an amazing family, I’ve got a wonderful, wonderful wife, we love where we live and we have a great relationship.

Cameron shows that he ticks all the boxes of the Ideal Conservative Man Anno 2015. Though keen to be called back to Downing Street, he is a loving husband and father, with roots in his local community. And he has an absolutely massive fridge.

Feels like home. Saffron Blaze, CC BY-SA

At the same time, his no-third-term revelation complicates the message: it hints at a symbolic retreat from the world of Westminster politics, off to his gleaming kitchen in the Oxfordshire countryside.

As George Parker put it in the Financial Times:

Mr Cameron was hoping to present the image of a regular family guy, relaxing in the kitchen of his constituency base in Oxfordshire and looking forward to spending time with his children, rather than clinging to power into the next decade. The BBC’s interviewer had not been primed to ask the question and Mr Cameron’s media team and cabinet colleagues had not expected the answer. It is hard to imagine the prime minister giving such a frank answer while wearing suit and tie in Downing Street.

In other words: Margaret Thatcher may have wanted to go on and on. David Cameron wants to make ham salad in the Cotswolds and spend time with his amazing family.

The jury is still out on how much we can learn about David Cameron from this interview. But what it did do is to show that for today’s male political leaders, the terrain on which elections are fought is more likely to be their kitchen than the House of Commons. That is because the former gives them more of a chance to show off their fine-tuned masculinity than the latter. Now more than ever, the personal is political.