Nick Clegg has compared the experience of being in government to having a lobotomy. For those unfamiliar with this procedure, it involves Nurse Ratched cutting the connections to and from the prefrontal cortex of the brain, before a large Native American known as “Chief” smothers you with a pillow. But I don’t think Cleggy quite means it in the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest sense. I think what he has in mind is more the frenetic pace of government; how it leaves a chap no time to think. And he has a point. Even to reflect on the working day of a modern political leader is to feel exhausted.
In John Major’s case it would begin with an early morning encounter with his press secretary, Christopher Meyer, sometimes while he was getting dressed. And the thought of him being shown the front page of The Sun, while wearing only his underpants and vest, arouses pity — not least because The Sun’s editor himself compared the experience to pouring a bucket of (and I euphemise) organic matter over the PM’s head.
Nowadays all leaders greet the dawn with a jog or a work-out. Even Gordon Brown, bless him, had a personal trainer, though whether she allowed him to listen to the Arctic Monkeys on his iPod as he sweated away, history does not record.
This much we do know, a politician’s gym is no longer a place of privacy and contemplation: at the G8 summit at Camp David, Cameron and Obama engaged in strategic talks while pounding the treadmill before the other delegates woke. And when Cameron flew back from that summit he went straight into a grilling at PMQs. I’m sure he wasn’t travelling economy and so would have been able to nap on the plane, but still – I can’t even tie my shoelaces when I have jet lag.
Then there are the constant demands of the media to consider, the endless brawl that is 24-hour news. It must feel like you are perpetually reeling from a left hook. Imagine waking up, padding blearily to the bathroom, squirting shaving foam on your toothbrush and then remembering you are expected in the Today studios at eight to be given an almighty kicking by John Humphrys.
And when you get back to No 10 you are straight into a Cabinet meeting where you have to humour the Lib Dems by listening to them bore on about Lords reform and gay marriage as you check your BlackBerry under the table for breaking news about the euro crisis. Then you look out of your window and see Nick Robinson with his back to your front door, broadcasting live to the nation about how incompetent you are.
And when Cameron says he tries to chillax from time to time he is ridiculed for it. It is always argued that Margaret Thatcher didn’t need to chillax, that she could cope on four hours’ sleep. But could she? Didn’t it leave her a little unhinged by the end of her premiership? And do we really want Cameron and Clegg to turn out like Ed Balls, the incredible exploding man?
The comparisons with Macmillan’s era are sobering. He would spend August on the grouse moors. While I don’t suppose that is possible today, I do think our leaders would be able to serve us better if we cut them some slack. Give them a window in which to read some poetry, listen to Bach, go and watch Shakespeare. Allow them time to catch their breaths, stand and stare, clear their heads.