Girls in Rochdale. Photo: Getty Images
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How the Rochdale grooming case exposed British prejudice

Daniel Trilling reports from Rochdale in the aftermath of a trial which saw nine men convicted of rape, trafficking and conspiracy.

“Just because we live here, it doesn’t alter our standards in morals,” Tom says as he hands me a mug of tea. We’re sitting in his living room at the front of a neat council semi in Heywood, on the outskirts of Rochdale in Greater Manchester. Four years ago, his 15-year-old daughter fell victim to a gang of men who were grooming young teenage girls for sex. In May this year, after an agonising and protracted struggle to bring the case to trial, nine of the men were convicted of offences ranging from rape to trafficking and “conspiracy to engage in sexual activity with a child”.

It was not the first such case to come to light in Britain, but the trial provoked outraged coverage, pundits reaching for quick and easy ways to explain the terrible crime. To some, race or religion played a defining role – all five of the victims were white, while their abusers were all Muslims of British Pakistani or Afghan origin. Others pointed to a defect of character in the girls themselves which, in the words of one commentator, made them “happy to give up their affection and their beauty to men in exchange for a packet of crisps or a bit of credit on their mobile phone”.
 
For Tom, it is this blaming of the victims that hurts most. The mantra, originating from police officers, has been that the girls came from “chaotic, council estate backgrounds”, as if this somehow lessened the crimes, or explained them. “[My daughter] wasn’t a bad kid,” Tom says. “She wasn’t into stealing or shoplifting. And she certainly didn’t ask for it. No matter what you think of society and the way it’s going, girls aren’t that cheap. We’re talking about children. And it could be anybody’s children.”
 
**
 
It was the summer of 2008 when Tom and his wife – married for the best part of 20 years – began to notice that something was wrong with their eldest daughter. She was cheekier than her siblings, and a bit more mischievous, Tom says, but she would socialise with her family and always be home by ten at night. That July, however, her behaviour changed “almost overnight”. The girl became withdrawn and stopped doing what she was told. She would use “coarse and vulgar language” in front of her family, and started to come home tipsy or, at times, much more seriously drunk. After a family argument, she moved out of home to stay with one of her friends.
 
Yet nothing prepared Tom and his wife for what they would discover a few weeks later, one night in August. The police phoned to say that their daughter had been arrested on suspicion of criminal damage – she had smashed up the counter of the Balti House takeaway in Heywood. When detectives began to interview her, however, she poured out an awful story: she had been raped, on repeated occasions, by a gang of men. They would ply her with vodka or beer and threaten her with violence if she did not do as she was told. Was she telling the truth? Tom had arrived to collect his daughter from the police station and he remembers how, on their way out of the interview room, an officer turned to his daughter and said, “I believe you, because there’s somebody else come into the station and said the same thing.”
 
By accident, officers had stumbled on a crime of frightening proportions. Girls as young as 12 or 13 were being trafficked around the north-west of England. Men who worked in the takeaway trade or as taxi drivers – professions that gave them unsupervised access to young teenagers – were grooming girls by offering them gifts, slowly winning their trust, and then forcing them to have sex. Some victims were driven between Rochdale, Oldham, Bradford and elsewhere to have sex with men for money. Others were duped into thinking they were in a relationship.
 
Many of the abusers were known only by their nicknames: “Master”, “Tiger”, “Car Zero”, “the Ugly One”. The gang employed a teenage girl – her peers nicknamed her “the Honey Monster” – to lure in fresh victims. She was paid a £200 finder’s fee for each one. (The police did not charge her because they decided that she, too, had been a victim of the abuse.)
 
As Tom explained to me, this was a carefully planned crime. “They [the abusers] don’t just say, ‘Oh, I’ll give you a free kebab if you have sex with me’ – that doesn’t happen. They become your friend. Girls are told, as my daughter was always told, don’t speak to strangers – but these men aren’t strangers any more.” Children like Tom’s daughter would go to the Balti House and other takeaways where gang members worked to socialise. The men would befriend them, over a period of weeks or months, offering free food or free taxi rides home. “It made me feel like I was pretty,” Tom’s daughter told police. Then they would be invited to a seedy flat above the takeaway, or driven out to the countryside, and told they had to repay the favour. “It’s part of the deal,” Tom’s daughter was told the first time she was raped. “I gave you vodka, now you give me something.” Only then, after working to build up trust, would the threats of violence begin. One witness told of how one man slit his own wrist and then threatened to cut her throat if she did not have sex with him.
 
But in August 2008, the gang had been uncovered: the police found a suspect’s DNA on Tom’s daughter’s underwear; two men were arrested and charged. Yet the victims’ ordeal was far from over. Months went by without news. 
 
It took the police 11 months to send a file to the Crown Prosecution Service, which then decided in July 2009 not to prosecute, for fear that Tom’s daughter would not be a credible witness. Only in late 2010 was the case taken up in earnest and arrests made that would eventually bring the gang to trial.
 
Yet, in the months that followed Tom’s daughter’s arrest, she continued to be abused and her parents, with no support from social workers, were unable to prevent it. Worried that the police were on to them, the gang passed her to Abdul Aziz, 41, a taxi driver, who would transport her between houses where she would be raped by up to five men in one night, several times a week.
 
For two years, the authorities knew a terrible crime was happening, but nothing was done to protect the victims. (The five girls who tes­tified in court represent a fraction of the victims. To date, the police have identified at least 47 suspects.) Rochdale is not the only town where grooming has taken place, but could this have happened anywhere? Why, for instance, did there seem to be such a steady supply of new victims?
 
**
 
“We’ve certainly got a specialism in this town,” Jonathan Rigg says, as he shows me around the school that his company runs for children who have dropped out of the education system. It has recently been given a glowing report by Ofsted inspectors. “If it was engineering or IT, I think it would be celebrated. But just because it’s childcare we all keep our heads down and duck under the table.”
 
Rigg is the director of Meadows Care, the largest provider of private care homes in Roch­dale. With 47 homes in the borough, run by companies ranging from independent local firms like Rigg’s to branches of private-equity conglomerates, it is something of a growth industry. In the fallout from the grooming trial, the issue of private care homes has loomed large, and the homes have been blamed for dumping large numbers of vulnerable children, from all over the country, on Rochdale’s streets. (For context, Haringey in north London, a similar-sized borough, has just two private care homes, compared to the 47 in Rochdale.)
 
Here’s why: when a local authority anywhere in the country needs to take a child into care and it doesn’t have any free beds of its own, it sends out an email to private providers. Some local authorities will email all the companies they know of; others will have agreed on a list of preferred providers. But the principle is the same – whoever can offer the home and support that best fits the child, at the most attractive price, gets the commission. Like any other industry, children’s care homes have concentrated where conditions are most favourable. The north-west of England, with its modest salary costs and property prices, has proved an ideal location. In Rochdale, vulnerable children from all over the country are funnelled into homes, supposedly monitored by social workers who may be as far away as Essex or Exeter.
 
To an outside observer, it sounds like the stuff of nightmares. In May, the leader of Rochdale Council, Colin Lambert, told the BBC that the concentration of private care homes in the town had created a “loophole” whereby “the safety of children is not being guaranteed”. “Unless the child is from the borough of Rochdale we have no say in whether the child should be here, whether the home is providing what it should [and] we get no reports back on how the child is progressing . . . It is a scar and a disgrace on this country’s record of caring for vulnerable children.”
 
Press reports of the grooming trial have emphasised that one of the five girls who testified was in care at the time of her abuse – not at a home operated by Rigg’s company, but at one owned by a private-equity firm.
 
Nonetheless most of the grooming victims were not in care; like Tom’s daughter, they lived with their families. According to Simon Dan­czuk, Rochdale’s Labour MP, the real failure lies with social services. During that crucial delay – the months after Tom’s daughter’s arrest in August 2008 – you might have expected social workers to intervene to protect her and other girls. Since the trial, other Rochdale parents have come forward to say that police were told about similar abuse as far back as 2002. In 2004, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary about the grooming of girls taking place in West Yorkshire in Bradford and Keighley. Certainly by 2008, any local authority should have been aware of the existence of this crime. But according to Danczuk, when health workers for Rochdale’s crisis intervention team, an NHS clinic offering advice on abortions and sexual health to vulnerable young women, alerted social services about girls they suspected were being abused, their concerns were ignored. According to Danczuk, they were told that the girls were making “life choices” and that they were sleeping with their abusers voluntarily.
 
“Social services believed that these girls were choosing to be prostitutes,” Danczuk says now, “and they concluded, absolutely wrongly, that they should be allowed to get on with it.”
 
It was not privatisation, but prejudice, that enabled this crime to continue for as long as it did. Rochdale Council has gone some way towards acknowledging this: in June 2012, its new chief executive, Jim Taylor, acknowledged that Rochdale had “missed some opportunities to offer support to [the grooming victims] in 2008 and 2009” and promised that staff today were better informed, “to such an extent that they now see child sexual exploitation as part of a wider pattern of behaviour and offending”.
 
Nonetheless, Danczuk believes the debate over private care homes is being encouraged “to distract attention from failure by the local authority. If the issue is about on-street grooming, then I’m puzzled as to why so much emphasis has been put on children’s homes.”
 
Rigg feels that businesses such as his are being made the scapegoat and that, as a result, other local authorities have begun to avoid placing teenage girls in his homes. The New Statesman has seen email evidence, for instance, that on 26 July his company was offered a placement by a local authority in Yorkshire, only for it to be withdrawn an hour later with the explanation: “We have since been advised by Rochdale Social Services not to place vulnerable girls in and around the Rochdale area.” When the New Statesman contacted Rochdale Council, a spokesman denied that the borough was giving this advice.
 
Whatever one’s views on private-sector involvement in such a crucial public service, one can’t deny that confusion of this kind will only end up harming children’s welfare. For better or worse, Rochdale has built up significant resources and expertise in childcare – and it now risks being unable to offer these to the people who need it most.
 
Back in Heywood at Tom’s house, we talk through all this as a couple of ageing Staffordshire terriers pad around the floor between us. It must have made you very angry to have been let down so comprehensively, I say. “Not angry,” he replies. “More . . . lost, really. No one would listen to me.”
 
**
 
When some people feel lost, they become vulnerable to all kinds of predators. On the evening of 23 February 2012, a crowd of 200 – mostly teenage boys – gathered outside the Balti House takeaway on Market Street. The grooming case had finally come to trial and tensions were on the rise. Ignoring the banner above the door of the takeaway that pleaded “Under New Management”, the crowd shouted racist abuse and hurled bricks and other missiles at the shop window. Some youths chanted “EDL” – the initials of the far-right English Defence League, though the group later denied that it had had any role in the evening’s violence.
 
In Rochdale, which is home to approximately 20,000 people of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin, far-right activists spied an opportunity.
 
It was in nearby Oldham, in 2001, that tensions between white and Asian locals, exacerbated by neo-Nazi provocateurs, had boiled over into a riot. Then, in 2004, the British National Party (BNP) won a council seat in Keighley in West Yorkshire by hijacking the campaign of a local mother whose daughter had been abused. The grooming case seemed ripe for exploitation: all the girls were white, all the accused were Asian Muslim men, and they had displayed a searing contempt for their victims. “You white people train them in sex and drinking,” one of the accused men told the jury during the trial, “so when they come to us they are fully trained.”
 
Over the months that followed, both the BNP and the EDL held rallies in and around Roch­dale. A close relative of one of the victims even joined the BNP after receiving a party leaflet through the door, but left soon afterwards when he encountered the neo-Nazi ideology that lay beneath the surface talk of “fair” treatment for white people.
 
That was about as far as they got. The hoped-for confrontation never came, and to date neither group has been able to sink roots in the town. Yet the presence of the far right, and the fear of a violent backlash, were keenly felt by many Asians. Taxi drivers in particular have experienced verbal abuse, and even violence. One driver told the Manchester Evening News that many of his colleagues have given up on the job because they see it as too dangerous. Worse still, according to the youth worker Mohammed Shafiq, it has intensified what he describes as a “siege mentality” among many of his Muslim peers.
 
I met Shafiq at a Pakistani cafe near Rochdale train station, in an area of flat-fronted Victorian terraces where many of the town’s Asians live or work. It was Ramadan, and as evening drew near, people were hurrying home for the iftar meal. Shafiq told me that he first heard about child sexual exploitation in 2006, when he encountered a mother in Blackburn whose daughter had been abused. “At the time, she was blaming Islam. She had gone to the mosque leaders for help but they had slammed the door in her face.”
 
This wasn’t out of contempt, he explained, but rather a complete unwillingness to accept that it was anything to do with them. “If you look at it from a religious point of view,” Shafiq said, “what these guys did was evil. Islam does not sanction these sort of activities or these crimes, so, from the point of view of a mosque, it was, ‘This has nothing to do with us; we don’t encourage this sort of behaviour. If people go out and do this sort of thing, it’s them who should be held responsible.’”
 
Any community faced with the discovery of child abusers in its midst will find it hard to accept; after all, colleagues, friends – even family members – may be involved. Two Muslim Labour councillors gave character references for one of the men on trial and, according to Shafiq, “there are some parts of our community that are still in denial. People saw the BNP talking about this, put two and two together and said ‘this is just a BNP conspiracy’, against Muslims and against Pakistanis.”
 
Some white officials, in seeking to prevent the growth of racism, have tried to police debate. A senior council official told Shafiq that he was “doing the work of the BNP” by tackling the matter in public at all.
 
Danczuk acknowledges that, in the past, politicians have failed to discuss this type of crime sensitively. His Labour colleague Jack Straw, for instance, made comments last year about how some British Pakistani men are “fizzing and popping with testosterone” and see white girls as “easy meat”. Rather, says Danczuk, when race does appear to be a factor in child sexual exploitation “you have to raise it calmly and sensibly, and acknowledge that you can’t generalise on these types of issues. Because if you don’t, then right-wing extremists will come forward and say that mainstream parties are ducking the issue.”
 
What complicates matters is that Muslim and Asian men are the targets of racism. Child abuse is committed by people of all races and religions, and most child abusers in Britain are white. Although a disproportionate number of Asian men have come to trial for grooming, they represent a tiny fraction of Britain’s Asian population. Just 50 out of a total UK population of 1.2 million British Pakistanis have been convicted of this crime, yet the lurid press coverage of “Asian sex gangs” gives an entirely different impression. To some observers, it has uncomfortable parallels with the way that African-Caribbean men were demonised as “muggers” in the 1970s and 1980s.
 
The double standard is clear to see when other child abuse cases come to light. Last month, five men in Derby were found guilty of trawling the streets for vulnerable girls, then giving them drink and drugs before having sex with them. All but one of the men convicted in the Derby case were white, and though the Rochdale case dominated the headlines for days, only the Times and the Guardian reported this verdict. When, at the end of June, it was reported that the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the Association of Chief Police Officers are carrying out a rare joint inquiry into why so many police officers use their position to rape, sexually assault or harass women, it did not spark a national debate over the “culture of misogyny” among policemen.
 
Nathalie Walters, chief executive of Safe and Sound, a Derby-based charity that works to tackle child sexual exploitation, argues that the key to preventing the crime is well-informed, open discussion. Safe and Sound has trained well over 2,000 Derby social workers, youth workers and police officers in recognising the warning signs of abuse, and both the city council and the local police force have specialist responses to child exploitation. All the local agencies meet regularly to share information, and the recent convictions there are the product of this proactive approach.
 
“Any child could be a victim of this crime – boys and girls, and not just those living in care,” Walters tells me. “There’s a need to move away from the myth that it’s only Asian men who perpetrate this crime. Child exploitation happens in many ways; young people can be approached in person, via the internet or through mobile phones, and offenders can come from any community and walk of life.” And Sue Bere­lowitz, the deputy children’s commissioner, recently told the House of Commons home affairs select committee: “There isn’t a town, village or hamlet in which children are not being sexually exploited.”
 
In Rochdale, Mohammed Shafiq told me, people were inching their way towards being able to talk openly. “The progress is on the street. It’s in the cafés, in the takeaways, with people socialising in the gym. People are talking about this. There has been utter disgust at the crime, and shame that someone from our community has done this, and sympathy for the families who have had to suffer.” But, he added: “I think we’ve got a chattering class in London, where anything to do with race, anything to do with working-class people, they rub their hands with glee and decide that they’re going to inflame this. And because they [the abusers] were Asian, because they were Muslim, it just fitted their agenda.”
 
**
 
On 9 May 2012, the Rochdale grooming trial reached its conclusion. Nine men were found guilty and sentenced to a total of 77 years in prison. More arrests, and more convictions, are likely to follow. Throughout the trial, Shabir Ahmed, the 59-year-old ringleader of the gang, showed no remorse. He tore out clumps of his own chest hair in the witness box and made a female court interpreter run crying from the room. Delivering a bilious rant from the dock, he dismissed the accusations as “white lies”, cursed the “bent bastards” who had brought him to trial and denounced everyone from the prosecution lawyer and Theresa May to Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher.
 
A month later, Ahmed was convicted, in a second trial, on 30 counts of child rape. This time his victim was Asian. The abuse had gone on for longer than a decade, but it was not until after Ahmed’s arrest in the grooming case that his victim found the courage to give the police full details of what she had suffered.
 
In the autumn, the various inquiries into what went so badly wrong in Rochdale will begin to make their findings public. We already know that Ahmed was motivated above all by contempt for women: all women, and not just those of a different race or religion. But a truth that may prove much harder to accept is that our own prejudices – about who falls victim to the crime of grooming and why, about what motivates the perpetrators, and about where the system is failing – enabled him and his gang to operate unhindered for so long. 
 
Some names have been changed
 
Daniel Trilling is assistant editor of the New Statesman. His book, “Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain’s Far Right”, will be published by Verso next month

 

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality

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David Cameron's fatal insouciance

Will future historians remember the former prime minister for anything more than his great Brexit bungle?

On 13 July 2016, after a premiership lasting six years and 63 days, David Cameron left Downing Street for the last time. On the tarmac outside the black door, with his wife and children at his side, he gave a characteristically cool and polished parting statement. Then he got in his car for the last journey to Buckingham Palace – the picture, as ever, of insouciant ease. As I was watching the television pictures of Cameron’s car gliding away, I remembered what he is supposed to have said some years earlier, when asked why he wanted to be prime minister. True or not, his answer perfectly captured the public image of the man: “Because I think I’d be rather good at it.”

A few moments later, a friend sent me a text message. It was just six words long: “He’s down there with Chamberlain now.”

At first I thought that was a bit harsh. People will probably always disagree about Cameron’s economic record, just as they do about Margaret Thatcher’s. But at the very least it was nowhere near as bad as some of his critics had predicted, and by some standards – jobs created, for instance – it was much better than many observers had expected. His government’s welfare and education policies have their critics, but it seems highly unlikely that people will still be talking about them in a few decades’ time. Similarly, although Britain’s intervention in Libya is unlikely to win high marks from historians, it never approached the disaster of Iraq in the public imagination.

Cameron will probably score highly for his introduction of gay marriage, and although there are many people who dislike him, polls suggested that most voters regarded him as a competent, cheerful and plausible occupant of the highest office in the land. To put it another way, from the day he entered 10 Downing Street until the moment he left, he always looked prime ministerial. It is true that he left office as a loser, humiliated by the EU referendum, and yet, on the day he departed, the polls had him comfortably ahead of his Labour opposite number. He was, in short, popular.
On the other hand, a lot of people liked Neville Chamberlain, too. Like Chamberlain, Cameron seems destined to be remembered for only one thing. When students answer exam questions about Chamberlain, it’s a safe bet that they aren’t writing about the Holidays with Pay Act 1938. And when students write about Cameron in the year 2066, they won’t be answering questions about intervention in Libya, or gay marriage. They will be writing about Brexit and the lost referendum.

It is, of course, conceivable, though surely very unlikely, that Brexit will be plain sailing. But it is very possible that it will be bitter, protracted and enormously expensive. Indeed, it is perfectly conceivable that by the tenth anniversary of the referendum, the United Kingdom could be reduced to an English and Welsh rump, struggling to come to terms with a punitive European trade deal and casting resentful glances at a newly independent Scotland. Of course the Brexiteers – Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Daniel Hannan et al – would get most of the blame in the short run. But in the long run, would any of them really be remembered? Much more likely is that historians’ fingers would point at one man: Cameron, the leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, the prime minister who gambled with his future and lost the Union. The book by “Cato” that destroyed Chamberlain’s reputation in July 1940 was entitled Guilty Men. How long would it be, I wonder, before somebody brought out a book about Cameron, entitled Guilty Man?

Naturally, all this may prove far too pessimistic. My own suspicion is that Brexit will turn out to be a typically European – or, if you prefer, a typically British – fudge. And if the past few weeks’ polls are anything to go by, Scottish independence remains far from certain. So, in a less apocalyptic scenario, how would posterity remember David Cameron? As a historic failure and “appalling bungler”, as one Guardian writer called him? Or as a “great prime minister”, as Theresa May claimed on the steps of No 10?

Neither. The answer, I think, is that it would not remember him at all.

***

The late Roy Jenkins, who – as Herbert Asquith’s biographer, Harold Wilson’s chancellor and Jim Callaghan’s rival – was passionately interested in such things, used to write of a “market” in prime ministerial futures. “Buy Attlee!” he might say. “Sell Macmillan!” But much of this strikes me as nonsense. For one thing, political reputations fluctuate much less than we think. Many people’s views of, say, Wilson, Thatcher and Blair have remained unchanged since the day they left office. Over time, reputations do not change so much as fade. Academics remember prime ministers; so do political anoraks and some politicians; but most people soon forget they ever existed. There are 53 past prime ministers of the United Kingdom, but who now remembers most of them? Outside the university common room, who cares about the Marquess of Rockingham, the Earl of Derby, Lord John Russell, or Arthur Balfour? For that matter, who cares about Asquith or Wilson? If you stopped people in the streets of Sunderland, how many of them would have heard of Stanley Baldwin or Harold Macmillan? And even if they had, how much would they ­really know about them?

In any case, what does it mean to be a success or a failure as prime minister? How on Earth can you measure Cameron’s achievements, or lack of them? We all have our favourites and our prejudices, but how do you turn that into something more dispassionate? To give a striking example, Margaret Thatcher never won more than 43.9 per cent of the vote, was roundly hated by much of the rest of the country and was burned in effigy when she died, long after her time in office had passed into history. Having come to power promising to revive the economy and get Britain working again, she contrived to send unemployment well over three million, presided over the collapse of much of British manufacturing and left office with the economy poised to plunge into yet another recession. So, in that sense, she looks a failure.

Yet at the same time she won three consecutive general elections, regained the Falklands from Argentina, pushed through bold reforms to Britain’s institutions and fundamentally recast the terms of political debate for a generation to come. In that sense, clearly she was a success. How do you reconcile those two positions? How can you possibly avoid yielding to personal prejudice? How, in fact, can you reach any vaguely objective verdict at all?

It is striking that, although we readily discuss politicians in terms of success and failure, we rarely think about what that means. In some walks of life, the standard for success seems obvious. Take the other “impossible job” that the tabloids love to compare with serving as prime minister: managing the England football team. You can measure a football manager’s success by trophies won, qualifications gained, even points accrued per game, just as you can judge a chief executive’s performance in terms of sales, profits and share values.

There is no equivalent for prime ministerial leadership. Election victories? That would make Clement Attlee a failure: he fought five elections and won only two. It would make Winston Churchill a failure, too: he fought three elections and won only one. Economic growth? Often that has very little to do with the man or woman at the top. Opinion polls? There’s more to success than popularity, surely. Wars? Really?

The ambiguity of the question has never stopped people trying. There is even a Wikipedia page devoted to “Historical rankings of Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom”, which incorporates two surveys of academics carried out by the University of Leeds, a BBC Radio 4 poll of Westminster commentators, a feature by BBC History Magazine and an online poll organised by Newsnight. By and large, there is a clear pattern. Among 20th-century leaders, there are four clear “successes” – Lloyd George, Churchill, Attlee and Thatcher – with the likes of Macmillan, Wilson and Heath scrapping for mid-table places. At the bottom, too, the same names come up again and again: Balfour, Chamberlain, Eden, Douglas-Home and Major. But some of these polls are quite old, dating back to the Blair years. My guess is that if they were conducted today, Major might rise a little, especially after the success of Team GB at the Olympics, and Gordon Brown might find himself becalmed somewhere towards the bottom.

***

So what makes the failures, well, failures? In two cases, the answer is simply electoral defeat. Both ­Arthur Balfour and John Major were doomed to failure from the moment they took office, precisely because they had been picked from within the governing party to replace strong, assertive and electorally successful leaders in Lord Salisbury and Margaret Thatcher, respectively. It’s true that Major unexpectedly won the 1992 election, but in both cases there was an atmosphere of fin de régime from the very beginning. Douglas-Home probably fits into this category, too, coming as he did at the fag end of 13 years of Conservative rule. Contrary to political mythology, he was in fact a perfectly competent prime minister, and came much closer to winning the 1964 election than many people had expected. But he wasn’t around for long and never really captured the public mood. It seems harsh merely to dismiss him as a failure, but politics is a harsh business.

That leaves two: Chamberlain and Eden. Undisputed failures, who presided over the greatest foreign policy calamities in our modern history. Nothing to say, then? Not so. Take Chamberlain first. More than any other individual in our modern history, he has become a byword for weakness, naivety and self-deluding folly.

Yet much of this picture is wrong. Chamberlain was not a weak or indecisive man. If anything, he was too strong: too stubborn, too self-confident. Today we remember him as a faintly ridiculous, backward-looking man, with his umbrella and wing collar. But many of his contemporaries saw him as a supremely modern administrator, a reforming minister of health and an authoritative chancellor who towered above his Conservative contemporaries. It was this impression of cool capability that secured Chamberlain the crown when Baldwin stepped down in 1937. Unfortunately, it was precisely his titanic self-belief, his unbreakable faith in his own competence, that also led him to overestimate his influence over Adolf Hitler. In other words, the very quality that people most admired – his stubborn confidence in his own ability – was precisely what doomed him.

In Chamberlain’s case, there is no doubt that he had lost much of his popular prestige by May 1940, when he stepped down as prime minister. Even though most of his own Conservative MPs still backed him – as most of Cameron’s MPs still backed him after the vote in favour of Brexit – the evidence of Mass Observation and other surveys suggests that he had lost support in the country at large, and his reputation soon dwindled to its present calamitous level.

The case of the other notable failure, Anthony Eden, is different. When he left office after the Suez crisis in January 1957, it was not because the public had deserted him, but because his health had collapsed. Surprising as it may seem, Eden was more popular after Suez than he had been before it. In other words, if the British people had had their way, Eden would probably have continued as prime minister. They did not see him as a failure at all.

Like Chamberlain, Eden is now generally regarded as a dud. Again, this may be a bit unfair. As his biographers have pointed out, he was a sick and exhausted man when he took office – the result of two disastrously botched operations on his gall bladder – and relied on a cocktail of painkillers and stimulants. Yet, to the voters who handed him a handsome general election victory in 1955, Eden seemed to have all the qualities to become an enormously successful prime minister: good looks, brains, charm and experience, like a slicker, cleverer and more seasoned version of Cameron. In particular, he was thought to have proved his courage in the late 1930s, when he had resigned as foreign secretary in protest at the appeasement of Benito Mussolini before becoming one of Churchill’s chief lieutenants.

Yet it was precisely Eden’s great asset – his reputation as a man who had opposed appeasement and stood up to the dictators – that became his weakness. In effect, he became trapped by his own legend. When the Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in July 1956, Eden seemed unable to view it as anything other than a replay of the fascist land-grabs of the 1930s. Nasser was Mussolini; the canal was Abyssinia; ­failure to resist would be appeasement all over again. This was nonsense, really: Nasser was nothing like Mussolini. But Eden could not escape the shadow of his own political youth.

This phenomenon – a prime minister’s greatest strength gradually turning into his or her greatest weakness – is remarkably common. Harold Wilson’s nimble cleverness, Jim Callaghan’s cheerful unflappability, Margaret Thatcher’s restless urgency, John Major’s Pooterish normality, Tony Blair’s smooth charm, Gordon Brown’s rugged seriousness: all these things began as refreshing virtues but became big handicaps. So, in that sense, what happened to Chamberlain and Eden was merely an exaggerated version of what happens to every prime minister. Indeed, perhaps it is only pushing it a bit to suggest, echoing Enoch Powell, that all prime ministers, their human flaws inevitably amplified by the stresses of office, eventually end up as failures. In fact, it may not be too strong to suggest that in an age of 24-hour media scrutiny, surging populism and a general obsession with accountability, the very nature of the job invites failure.

***

In Cameron’s case, it would be easy to construct a narrative based on similar lines. Remember, after all, how he won the Tory leadership in the first place. He went into the 2005 party conference behind David Davis, the front-runner, but overhauled him after a smooth, fluent and funny speech, delivered without notes. That image of blithe nonchalance served him well at first, making for a stark contrast with the saturnine intensity and stumbling stiffness of his immediate predecessors, Michael Howard and Iain Duncan Smith. Yet in the end it was Cameron’s self-confidence that really did for him.

Future historians will probably be arguing for years to come whether he really needed to promise an In/Out referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, as his defenders claim, to protect his flank against Ukip. What is not in doubt is that Cameron believed he could win it. It became a cliché to call him an “essay crisis” prime minister – a gibe that must have seemed meaningless to millions of people who never experienced the weekly rhythms of the Oxford tutorial system. And yet he never really managed to banish the impression of insouciance. The image of chillaxing Dave, the PM so cockily laidback that he left everything until the last minute, may be a caricature, but my guess is that it will stick.

As it happens, I think Cameron deserves more credit than his critics are prepared to give him. I think it would be easy to present him as a latter-day Baldwin – which I mean largely as a compliment. Like Baldwin, he was a rich provincial Tory who posed as an ordinary family man. Like Baldwin, he offered economic austerity during a period of extraordinary international financial turmoil. Like Baldwin, he governed in coalition while relentlessly squeezing the Liberal vote. Like Baldwin, he presented himself as the incarnation of solid, patriotic common sense; like Baldwin, he was cleverer than his critics thought; like Baldwin, he was often guilty of mind-boggling complacency. The difference is that when Baldwin gambled and lost – as when he called a rash general election in 1923 – he managed to save his career from the ruins. When Cameron gambled and lost, it was all over.

Although I voted Remain, I do not share many commentators’ view of Brexit as an apocalyptic disaster. In any case, given that a narrow majority of the electorate got the result it wanted, at least 17 million people presumably view Cameron’s gamble as a great success – for Britain, if not for him. Unfortunately for Cameron, however, most British academics are left-leaning Remainers, and it is they who will write the history books. What ought also to worry Cameron’s defenders – or his shareholders, to use Roy Jenkins’s metaphor – is that both Chamberlain and Eden ended up being defined by their handling of Britain’s foreign policy. There is a curious paradox here, ­because foreign affairs almost never matters at the ballot box. In 1959, barely three years after Suez, the Conservatives cruised to an easy re-election victory; in 2005, just two years after invading Iraq, when the extent of the disaster was already apparent, Blair won a similarly comfortable third term in office. Perhaps foreign affairs matters more to historians than it does to most voters. In any case, the lesson seems to be that, if you want to secure your historical reputation, you can get away with mishandling the economy and lengthening the dole queues, but you simply cannot afford to damage Britain’s international standing.

So, if Brexit does turn into a total disaster, Cameron can expect little quarter. Indeed, while historians have some sympathy for Chamberlain, who was, after all, motivated by a laudable desire to avoid war, and even for Eden, who was a sick and troubled man, they are unlikely to feel similar sympathy for an overconfident prime minister at the height of his powers, who seems to have brought his fate upon himself.

How much of this, I wonder, went through David Cameron’s mind in the small hours of that fateful morning of 24 June, as the results came through and his place in history began to take shape before his horrified eyes? He reportedly likes to read popular history for pleasure; he must occasionally have wondered how he would be remembered. But perhaps it meant less to him than we think. Most people give little thought to how they will be remembered after their death, except by their closest friends and family members. There is something insecure, something desperately needy, about people who dwell on their place in history.

Whatever you think about Cameron, he never struck me as somebody suffering from excessive insecurity. Indeed, his normality was one of the most likeable things about him.

He must have been deeply hurt by his failure. But my guess is that, even as his car rolled away from 10 Downing Street for the last time, his mind was already moving on to other things. Most prime ministers leave office bitter, obsessive and brooding. But, like Stanley Baldwin, Cameron strolled away from the job as calmly as he had strolled into it. It was that fatal insouciance that brought him down. 

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian, broadcaster and columnist for the Daily Mail. His book The Great British Dream Factory will be published in paperback by Penguin on 1 September

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author. His books include Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. He writes the What If... column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser