Restless Days

Politicians are aspiring polymaths born with a low boredom threshold.

They like the idea of appearing on Any Questions and being quizzed on issues ranging from the latest Peruvian banana crisis to whether it’s appropriate for Lady Gaga to dress as a camouflaged ostrich.

If they were just policy wonks they could enjoy a happy life in academia, think tanks or the civil service; if they were only social crusaders, they could join a charity or pressure group; if they were merely in love with the limelight they would have auditioned for the RSC.

But the political animal wants to be tested daily and to live out a drama on a public stage. David Cameron did not leave a lucrative life in television-land and head back to Westminster where he had once been a youthful researcher because he wanted a quiet life.

From 2008 onwards, it was clear that if he won power he would be not be a chequebook-PM, dishing out cash for pleasure-domes during a time of plenty. He would have to lead the country during radically straightened times.

But it is unlikely when he stepped into Downing St having sealed a historic deal with the Liberal Democrats that he thought he might be the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Yet when he chaired yesterday’s gathering of first ministers from across the UK such a possibility would not have seemed ridiculous.

The implications of an SNP majority government in Scotland intent on staging a referendum on independence grow starker by the day.

With a little help from the likes of former Labour Home Secretary John Reid he killed off any chance of electoral reform in this year’s AV referendum. The battle to knock independence on the head will excite much deeper, more fiery passions; he will be determined not to go down in history as a PM who failed to win a majority and then failed to save the union from this existential threat to its existence.

Mr Cameron will also come under pressure from international counterparts to thwart Alex Salmond’s ambitions. Spain will not want the UK to set a precedent for the secession of the Basque region and Catalonia; nor will France want to wave goodbye to Corsica in a springtime for EU nationalism; and Quebec nationalists would draw the conclusion that if Scotland can make a bid for Braveheart-style freedom in the 21st century, why should the unity of Canada be sacred?

Despite such epic challenges and a growing number of policy headaches in England, Mr Cameron seems oddly at ease in his prime ministerial predicament. It is the life he wanted.

A Thursday column

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