Wednesday night the U.S. and the U.K. audiences witnessed something that rarely ever happens: a serving British Prime Minister appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman. Following in the footsteps of Mayor of London Boris Johnson, David Cameron has become the first serving prime minister to appear on a U.S. chat show; a concept that is still quite alien to voters across the pond.
Yet the British Prime Minister, a man few people in the U.S. know about, won over the audience in New York last night, a reminder that yes Cameron is in fact a well spoken and charismatic politician. Yet the harsh reality is that the current prime minister and his government haven’t been doing well in recent opinion polls in the face of cuts and austerity, and with the Labour Party (the party in opposition) leading under leader Ed Miliband. You would think that British prime ministers should appear on chat shows more often but such exercises are often viewed with a lot of scepticism.
All in all Cameron’s appearance was a well-constructed PR exercise: soundbites on employment rates in the U.K., why we’re not joining the Euro, how little political parties in the U.K. spend compared to their American counterparts (cue applause from the audience), the success of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in London, and ... A history quiz (don’t worry Dave, I don’t think a lot of people know who wrote Rule Britannia anyway).
It is not uncommon for politicians to appear on TV through panel shows, but it is incredibly rare for prominent front line U.K. politicians to appear on chat show or anything that runs the risk of the hosts poking fun at a gaffe they made two years ago. When politicians do appear on a chat show it is normally when they’ve left office and are promoting a book.
Compared to the U.S., the U.K. generally views chat shows with a great deal of scepticism. Audiences consider them to be cleverly exercised PR stunts for the egotistical, and —politically speaking — not capable of making much of a difference. U.K. audiences feel that politicians should be doing other things with their time (like running the country), not schmoozing on the sofa with Jay Leno.
The last time a serving prime minister subjected themselves to a chat show was when Gordon Brown appeared on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories just before the 2010 general election, where he talked about his university days, how he proposed to his wife Sarah, and the death of his daughter.
Cameron of course has appeared on chat shows before; after being elected leader of the Conservatives he made the daring move of appearing on the Jonathan Ross show; fresh faced, full head of hair without a grey in sight and no tie; that was back in the days when he was simply known as "Dave." Now, Cameron has been in office for a few years, hair line receding, suited up with a tie, stiffer upper lip and the weight of unpopularity back home on his shoulders.
Most of the British public expected Cameron to get a grilling on Letterman, or at least be “mildly broiled.” He may have goofed when asked about British history, but there’s nothing wrong with that. It is widely known that the British citizenship test is one of the hardest tests anyone can sit, and it is often widely reported that even those who are British born and bred can’t even pass the test.
Proponents argue that chat shows are a way of allowing people to show they are “one of the people,” but we still view chat show appearances by politicians as unnecessary (this is politics, not the X-Factor). But other than that, there wasn’t anything about Cameron’s appearance on Letterman that made me like him more or less, and there wasn’t really anything “new” or even particularly exciting.
I wasn’t expecting the floodgates to open, or for him to go into details about his personal life and how he met his wife, or what was his first pet called: The problem with politicians is that you just don’t know how much you should get them to open up. With Boris Johnson it was easy because he had this reputation of being a bit eccentric and doing things most people wouldn’t do. Getting stuck on a zip wire for instance ...
With David Cameron on the program, there seemed to be that feeling of “Brad Pitt couldn’t make it, who else is available tonight?” And the history test just felt a bit as though they’d run out of things to talk about.