Getty
Show Hide image

David Cameron: The moderniser whose bravery stopped fatally short

Will the former PM soon not just be gone, but forgotten?

Few if any British Prime Ministers have been able to rescue their reputations by publishing their memoirs.  David Cameron had better hope he proves one of the exceptions to the rule because, right now, he’s in danger of being written off – and maybe even written out of history. Not just gone, but forgotten.

Certainly Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, seems bent on proving that almost everything he ever did as Tory leader, whether in opposition or in government, might as well have been written in sand.  The man who made it his mission when he took over in 2005 to drag the Conservatives (kicking and screaming if that’s what it took) into the 21st century has been replaced by someone seemingly intent on taking the country back to the 1950s – a time before mass immigration, entry into Europe, the decline of the Commonwealth, the abandonment of industrial policy, and the abolition of the eleven-plus ruined everything.

Perhaps it was the reintroduction of grammar schools, rather than the lure of the international lecture circuit or his family’s understandable desire to escape the media spotlight and public scrutiny, that saw him go back on his declared intention to stay on in the Commons. It’s one thing, after all, to follow John Major in refusing to conduct a running commentary on one’s successor, but quite another to remain completely silent as that successor does all she can, albeit with icy politeness, to trash your legacy in her desire to differentiate herself, keep the economy ticking over in the face of an inevitable downturn, tickle her party’s tummy, and maybe mop up what’s left of UKIP following Farage’s departure.

Perhaps it’s no more than Cameron deserves.  After all, his willingness to take on the so-called Tory Taliban was always far more limited than he pretended.  True, he got gay marriage onto the statute book – although one could argue that it was an idea whose time had come and was realised in spite of rather than because of a majority of Conservative MPs.

But Cameron’s bravery certainly never extended to taking on those MPs and their grassroots supporters on immigration and Europe.  Indeed, had he confronted rather than continually appeased them by promising what he could never realistically hope to deliver, he might never have been forced into calling the referendum that led to Brexit – apart, maybe, from the gongs he gave his gang in his resignation honours list, the one thing that he’ll always be remembered for, not just by those of us obliged to live through it but also the proverbial "historians of the future".

Yet maybe this is unfair.  Cameron, after all, can claim with some justification to be one of the electorally successful Tory leaders of all time.  He took on a party that had lost – and lost badly – three contests on the trot and was seriously wondering whether it stood much chance of avoiding yet another defeat next time around.  The swing Cameron achieved during his four and half-years as leader of the opposition – admittedly with the help of Gordon Brown and the Great Recession – was huge.  And while it proved insufficient to give him a majority, it allowed Cameron to demonstrate the lightness of touch and quick-thinking creativity required to coax the Liberal Democrats into a coalition that, played right (and, boy, did he play it right) was always going to destroy them. At the same, he provided the Tories (still Thatcherite after all those years) with the "national interest" cover they required to make unprecedented (and many at the time thought impossible) cuts to the apparently "bloated" state that New Labour had supposedly cemented permanently into place.

Even more incredible – although admittedly Cameron was lucky to be facing a far less fluent, fleet-footed performer across the dispatch box – he and George Osborne managed to push through five years’ worth of (probably unnecessarily harsh) austerity measures and yet, notwithstanding all the much-trumpeted targets missed on the economy and immigration and the absolute mess they helped make of Libya, bag their parliamentary colleagues an overall majority at the next general election. Even better, by holding and winning the first of his three referendums at the height of Nick Clegg’s unpopularity, Cameron killed off the prospect of electoral reform for at least another generation.  

All that might not count much to a man who, claiming to be motivated above all by the spirit of public service, aspired to be a statesman. Cameron always looked and sounded the part – especially, it must be said, when dealing with Northern Ireland.  Yet it constitutes no mean achievement for what, at heart, he always was – a politician. As such, when defeated, he knew he had to resign the job he loved doing.  And who can blame him when, faced with life on the backbenches supporting a woman determined to portray herself as a very different kind of Conservative, he simply couldn’t bear to stick around.

 

Tim Bale is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.  The second edition of his book, The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, was published in September 2016 by Polity Press.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496