Show Hide image

The new ruling class

If the polls are to be believed, the Conservative Party is heading for government in 2010, ending 13 years in the political wilderness. So who are the men, and women (yes, there are one or two), jostling for power around Prime Minister Cameron?

David Cameron, 43

Leader of the Conservative Party
Education Eton College. Oxford University
Wealth £3.2m*
Expected to inherit million-pound legacies from both sides of his family, David Cameron comes from a long line of stockbrokers. A direct descendant of King William IV, he is the fifth cousin twice removed of Queen Elizabeth II, and reportedly got his first job in the Conservative Research Department after one of the Queen's equerries intervened on his behalf. A former member of Oxford's notorious Bullingdon Club, Cameron - who said that the large expenses claimed on his constituency home were an "inadvertent mistake" - was described by Norman Lamont as a "brilliant Old Etonian with a taste for the good life".

* This and other wealth figures are estimates

George Osborne, 38
Shadow chancellor
Education St Paul's School, London. Oxford University
Wealth £4.3m
George Gideon Osborne stands to inherit the Osborne baronetcy of Ballentaylor in County Tipperary, Ireland, as well as a substantial share of Osborne & Little, his father's luxury wall­paper company. Not that he needs the money - he already benefits from a company trust fund, and as a backbencher commanded fees of up to £5,000 per article for the Spectator and Associated Newspapers. A former member of the Bullingdon Club, he is very much part of the old boy network, as shown by last year's scandal involving Osborne, his old friend Nat Rothschild, Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and a yacht in Corfu.

Oliver Letwin, 53
Chairman of the Conservative Party's Policy Review/Research Department
Education Eton College. Cambridge University
Wealth £1.5m
Despite earning £145 an hour for consultancy work at N M Rothschild & Son, Oliver Letwin claimed £2,000 in parliamentary expenses to replace a leaking pipe in his tennis court. He once said he would rather "go out in the streets and beg" than send his children to a London comprehensive, and during the 2001 election argued that the Conservatives should cut future public spending by £20bn a year relative to Labour proposals. His suggestion was so unpopular that he was forced to stay out of the public eye for the duration of the campaign.

Andrew Lansley, 53
Shadow health secretary
Education Brentwood School, Essex. Exeter University
Wealth £700,000
Andrew Lansley, who earns an extra £29,000 a year for 12 days' work at a marketing agency, spent more than £4,000 of taxpayers' money renovating his country home months before he sold it and flipped his expenses claim to his London flat, where he spent thousands more. Last year, Lansley caused outrage with a blog entry on the Conservative Party website arguing that a recession could be "good for us", as people could "spend time at home with their families". The potential future health secretary also has some insight into obesity, saying that "people who see more fat people around them may themselves be more likely to gain weight".

David Willetts, 53
Shadow universities and skills manager
Education King Edward VI, Birmingham. Oxford University
Wealth £1.9m
David Willetts makes £80,000 a year from 40 days' work as adviser to Punter Southall, and is also paid as chairman of Universal Sensors Ltd, but he still tried to claim £750 for a shed base and £175 for a dog pen on expenses last year.

Francis Maude, 56
Shadow minister for the Cabinet Office/ chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
Education Abingdon School, Oxfordshire. Cambridge University
Wealth £3m
Francis Maude, a former director of Morgan Stanley, juggles an array of non-executive financial positions. These bring him £68,600 a year, but luckily don't require too many hours - Barclays pays him £36,700 for six days' work. Maude, who has railed against the irresponsibility of mortgage lenders, banked £100,000-plus as director of a financial services group that profited from sub-prime mortgages. Despite owning four properties, he claimed almost £35,000 in two years for interest payments on a London flat just yards from his house.

Michael Gove, 42
Shadow schools secretary
Education Robert Gordon's College, Aberdeen. Oxford University
Wealth £1m
A self-proclaimed neoconservative and former journalist, Michael Gove still writes a weekly column for the Times, which pays him £5,000 a month. Gove has boasted that it takes him an hour a week to write it. This makes his hourly wage more than £1,100 - 127 times higher than the average salary in his constituency, Surrey Heath. He tops this up through contributions to other titles, including Scotland on Sunday and Building Magazine. Gove is a signatory to the Henry Jackson Society, a "project for democratic geopolitics" that advocates a proactive approach to spreading democracy, by military intervention if necessary. Last year, he described the invasion of Iraq as "a proper British foreign policy success".

Liam Fox, 48
Shadow defence secretary
Education St Bride's High School, East Kilbride. Glasgow University
Wealth £1m
Fox, a former GP, may lambast the public sector for its inefficiencies and "bloated administration", but he is not so thrifty himself. Despite earning £25,000 a year by lecturing for the medical educational firm Arrest Ltd (14 days' work), he claimed almost £19,000 of taxpayers' money for his mobile phone bill. A staunch Eurosceptic and strong believer in the "special relationship" with America, Fox said recently a Conservative government would be "sympathetic" to a request for thousands more troops in Afghanistan.

Andrew Mitchell, 53
Shadow international development secretary
Education Rugby School. Cambridge University
Wealth £2m
Mitchell, an ex-merchant banker racks up £43,500 every year for financial advisory and consultancy roles that involve a few hours' work each week, as well as owning shares worth up to £180,000. But it's obviously not enough - last year he claimed more than £21,000 for cleaning and redecorating his constituency home. In 2004 he asked the Commons Fees Office to pay him £2,000 a month from his MPs' additional cost allowance "until it is exhausted". Mitchell said last year that the recession was an "incredibly good moment" for the party.

Caroline Spelman, 51
Shadow communities and local government secretary
Education Herts and Essex Grammar School, Bishop's Stortford, Essex. University of London
Wealth £1.5m
Caroline Spelman co-owns Spelman, Cormack & Associates, a food and biotechnology business, with her husband. They also own three properties, including a four-storey Georgian townhouse in London, with an estimated combined value of £5m. In 1997-98, she misused the parliamentary staffing allowance to pay her nanny. The expenses revelations this year showed that she received £40,000 for bills and cleaning for her constituency home, despite her husband claiming it was their main home. In 2005, she attacked proposals on revaluing council tax. Ironically enough, for the 2007-2008 financial year she overclaimed hundreds of pounds on her own council tax.

Lord Strathclyde, 49
Leader of the opposition in the Lords
Education Wellington College. University of East Anglia
Wealth £10m
The majority shareholder in the family estate management company Auchendrane Estates, worth roughly £6m, Lord Strathclyde holds down a plethora of paid directorships for hedge funds and investment companies. One of them is Galena, the investment management arm of Trafigura, a controversial oil trader recently found to be dumping toxic waste in Africa. He said that Trafigura's other activities fell "well outside the terms of my remit".

William Hague, 48
Shadow foreign secretary
Education Wath-on-Dearne Comprehensive School, Rotherham. Oxford University
Wealth £2.2m
Earning up to £10,000 for an appearance, Hague is a stalwart of the Conservative after-dinner speaking circuit. As a non-executive director of JCB, he was paid £50,000 a year and went on to a directorship at AES Engineering, receiving £25,000 a year. He has been paid up to £1,041 an hour for his consultancy work, a wage rate 113 times higher than the average among his constituents in Richmond, Yorkshire. Hague reportedly threatened to walk out when Cameron suggested forcing the shadow cabinet to give up second jobs.

Chris Grayling, 47
Shadow home secretary
Education Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Cambridge University
Wealth £500,000
Chris Grayling, worth only half a million, is a real man of the people. The proprietor of four London homes, he still billed a £40,000 second-home refurbishment to the state. So in touch is the former BBC producer with the reality of life in Britain, that he compared the country's streets to those of Baltimore on the US television drama The Wire, and came up with the idea of deterring young criminals by taking away their mobile phones.

Lord Ashcroft, 62
Conservative Party deputy chairman
Education Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Mid-Essex Technical College
Wealth £1.1bn
Lord Ashcroft, the Tories' fairy godmother, has donated millions to the Conservative Party since the 1980s, personally guaranteeing its overdraft when it was reportedly £3m in the red. He makes a habit of political donation, and has been accused of wielding undue political influence in Belize, where he has extensive business interests. He does not say whether he pays tax in the UK, and the Electoral Commission is investigating whether his company fits strict rules on overseas donations.

Dominic Grieve, 53
Shadow justice secretary and shadow attorney general
Education Westminster School, London. Oxford University
Wealth £3.1m
A barrister and QC, Dominic Grieve supplements his income with shareholdings in 13 firms, most notably with £240,000 worth of shares in companies operating in Zimbabwe. Apparently £3.1m doesn't go very far towards keeping a second home - Grieve was forced to bill the government £18,668 in maintenance costs last year. A traditionalist who has voted against bills promoting gay rights, he has praised the Victorian era for its "sense of moral values".

Philip Hammond, 53
Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury
Education Shenfield School, Brentwood, Essex. Oxford University
Wealth £9m
Hammond enjoys a lucrative directorship at Castlemead Property, in which he has shares worth £4.9m, but that didn't stop him claiming £23,075 - £8 short of the maximum - for his second home in London. He now promises to oversee swingeing cuts in public spending in an emergency post-election budget. He has said it is "absolutely not the case" that public-sector workers are dreading cuts, feeling instead a "sense of liberation".

Owen Paterson, 54
Shadow Northern Ireland secretary
Education Radley College. Cambridge University
Wealth £1.5m
Paterson, married to the 4th Viscount Ridley's daughter, owns a large country estate in his North Shropshire constituency (he voted strongly against the hunting ban). He is a member of the Cornerstone Group, which published a report describing the NHS as "Stalinist" and calling for it to be replaced.

Jeremy Hunt, 42
Shadow culture, media and sport secretary
Education Charterhouse School. Oxford University
Wealth £4.1m
Hunt is paid £1,000 a month for two hours of business advice to Hotcourses Ltd, an educational guide publisher, and enjoyed a £245,181 dividend payment from the company in 2006. He still felt hard-pressed enough to submit an invoice for 1p for a 12- second mobile phone call.

Gregory Barker, 43
Shadow minister for energy and
climate change
Education Steyning Grammar School, West Sussex. Royal Holloway, University of London
Wealth £3.9m
Gregory Barker, a former adviser to the Russian billionaire and Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich, reportedly made millions when he sold his stake in a recruitment advertising firm, and continues to rake in cash as director of Flare View, a property investment company, and as an adviser for Pegasus Capital Advisors. He made a £320,000 profit in just over two years by using the second-home allowance
to buy and sell a house in the exclusive borough of Chelsea, in central London.

Philip Dunne, 51
Conservative whip/deputy chairman
Education Eton College. Oxford University
Wealth £5m
Dunne, a super-rich backbencher has had a 20-year career spanning investment banks in London, New York and Hong Kong, as well as Ottakar's bookshop, which he co-founded. The son of Sir Thomas Dunne, the Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire, he has done all this while looking after the family farming estate.

Brooks Newmark, 51
Conservative whip
Education Bedford School, Bedfordshire. Harvard University. Oxford University
Wealth £3.2m
Yet another Conservative MP with a high-flying background in the world of finance, Brooks Newmark held a senior role at Lehman Brothers, and spent eight years at a British merchant bank. He now owns the investment firm Telesis Management and has shares in two other investment firms, from which he gets undisclosed payments.

Zac Goldsmith, 34
Conservative parliamentary candidate
Education Eton College (expelled). Cambridge Centre for Sixth-Form Studies
Wealth £300m
Son of Sir James Goldsmith and his third wife, Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart, Frank Zacharias Robin Goldsmith is an environmentalist and socialite. An odd combination, perhaps, but both grandfathers were Conservative MPs, so he is walking a well-trodden path.

Michael Spencer, 53
Conservative Party treasurer
Education Worth Abbey, West Sussex. Oxford University
Wealth £250m
A close friend of Cameron's, Spencer owns a 21 per cent stake worth £474m in the money broker Icap, which he set up in 1986. He was caught up in controversy last year when it emerged he had pledged his stake in the investment bank Numis as security for a loan, a legal grey area. When he did sell his shares, he made only £16m - a third of what he would have gained in 2006 when shares were at their peak. It's a hard life.

Research by Samira Shackle, Stephanie Hegarty and George Eaton

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The tories/the people

PETER NICHOLLS/REUTERS
Show Hide image

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