In a few months' time, we will face one of the biggest political choices in living memory. For the past few years, Britain has stumbled from crisis to crisis under the direction of one of the worst governments any of us can remember. Our economy is hamstrung by recession and public debt, many of our best-known retailers have been wiped off the high street, and the vacant eyes of the young men on street corners testify to the devastating impact of high unemployment.
The BBC, once the envy of the world, now finds its reputation tarnished and its morale shattered. And with a referendum on Scottish independence apparently inevitable, the United Kingdom itself, for centuries one of the most successful states in the world, seems in danger of collapse.
This is David Cameron's broken Britain in 2015. How did we come to this?
The palpable sense of excitement and enthusiasm that greeted Cameron's victory five years ago seems a very distant memory. Even many Labour supporters, exhausted by the perennial squabbles about Gordon Brown's future, privately conceded that it was time for a change in 2010. When the new Prime Minister cycled from Buckingham Palace to Downing Street that sunny morning in May 2010, his smooth cheeks glowing with pride and his hair oddly unruffled by the breeze, he carried the hopes and goodwill of millions with him.
In those first few weeks, as the new man invited the cameras into his first cabinet meeting, asked his officials to call him Dave and kicked
a ball about with England's ill-fated World Cup football squad, it seemed things had changed for the better.
How wrong we were, how terribly wrong. To contemplate the state of the nation today is to gaze upon a picture of near-unrelieved misery. Thanks to the worst winter since the Second World War, Britain has been virtually shut down for the past few weeks. The railway network - already debilitated by unregulated fare rises and service cutbacks - has ground to a halt while, outside the motorways and a handful of major arteries, the roads are impassable.
In the severe winter of 2010, as Cameron's critics never fail to point out, his predecessor managed to cope. But that was before five years of savage local government cuts drove councils to slash their recycling services, charge for bin collections and subcontract their gritting services to private firms, which promptly made a total hash of it. So, it is not surprising that even where the snow and ice has been cleared, the roads are a disgrace, scarred with potholes, many of them not repaired for years. With the pensioners' fuel allowance long since cut back, itis no wonder that there are reports of elderly people quietly freezing to death in their unheated homes. Fifteen years into the 21st century, we find ourselves back in the 19th.
In a sense, the winter crisis has been the story of the Cameron government in microcosm: a story of empty promises, ill-advised cuts, slavish addiction to private capital. And although the administration began life with such high hopes, the signs were there from the start. It is clear now that behind the tough talk, the government never had any clear sense of direction, no coherent plan to lift Britain out of recession and return to growth.
Five years ago, everyone agreed that cuts had to come eventually. But even at the time, it was obvious that George Osborne's first Budget, introduced in the autumn of 2010 in an attempt to appease the right-wing press, was a disaster. Reluctant to alarm middle-class voters with tax rises, Osborne rushed into a punitive and misguided package of spending cuts worth as much as £30bn. Free admission to most museums and galleries disappeared; even the defence budget, at a time when the army was palpably overstretched in Afghanistan, was virtually frozen. And behind the spin about being "all in this together" - a trite line he had first trotted out before the election, but of which he never wearied - the Chancellor's axe fell most heavily on those who benefited from public services: children, the poor, the elderly, the infirm.
It would have been a botched Budget at any time, but with the economy delicately poised between recession and recovery, it was a catastrophe. Indeed, for sheer bad economic management, historians will probably rank Osborne on a par with Ted Heath's chancellor Anthony Barber, who presided over the disastrous inflationary boom of the early 1970s. As Britain had come out of recession only a few months beforehand, consumer confidence was desperately weak - and in this context, Osborne's measures had the worst possible effect.
Within just a few months, the psychological effects of withdrawing Labour's stimulus programme had become painfully apparent. By December 2010, unemployment was approaching 2.75 million. High-street retailers predicted that Christmas sales were bound to be sluggish. And with turmoil in the Middle East pushing up petrol prices, Britain's businesses had their worst festive season since the 1970s. By New Year's Eve, five major high-street chains had followed earlier casualties such as Woolworths and Borders into administration.
At the time, Cameron's admirers said that those disastrous first six months were merely a necessary initial step to getting the economy under control, insisting that, like Margaret Thatcher three decades previously, he would soon turn things around. His poll standing remained surprisingly good, partly because voters were prepared to accept his claim that he was simply cleaning up Labour's mess. But when Osborne cut public spending by a further £20bn in the 2011 Budget, unease turned rapidly to shock.
With their income from Westminster badly shrunk, local councils were forced to slash front-line services, eliminating subsidised bus services used predominantly by pensioners, reducing opening hours and pushing up entry fees at leisure centres, even cutting "meals on wheels" programmes. With Britain back in recession, unemployment was now approaching 3.5 million, but Osborne remained resolute and even slashed funds for job training schemes. With universities forced to squeeze numbers, a generation of school-leavers faced the inevitable prospect of life on the dole.
The summers of 2011 and 2012 will be long remembered. By many standards, indeed, August 2011 was one of the worst months in modern British history, as headlines on the atrocious economic figures competed with reports of rioting in Bradford, Blackburn and Burnley. The first disturbances were provoked by Michael Gove's ill-advised remark about a public ban on Islamic veils, but behind them lay something deeper - the outrage of a section of society apparently abandoned by a government that knew only how to cut.
A few weeks later, three young men were killed during fighting on the streets of east London after a march by the British National Party to celebrate success in the local elections. Soon afterwards, a huge "march for jobs" through the West End turned nasty after clashes between the Metropolitan Police and demonstrators. Boris Johnson, now more conservative than cuddly, defended the police. But between the mayor and his party leader, the gulf was already widening. There were even reports in the Telegraph that Johnson was contemplating returning to Westminster and mounting a coup.
Meanwhile, almost unnoticed amid the dreadful headlines about the economy, Cameron was already moving to emasculate the welfare state. Even many Labour MPs privately conceded that reforms were inevitable and that, in the light of the yawning public debt, some services would have to be cut back. But although Cameron held back from asking the chief NHS critic and former MEP Daniel Hannan to dismantle state health care, Lord Hannan of Brighton's presence in the cabinet since July 2011 has been a telling sign of the government's ideological direction.
In health and education, the culture of league tables prevails. Public investment has been virtually non-existent, while more and more private firms have been invited to run schools and hospitals at a profit. It is no wonder that under Cameron, the Vardy Foundation has become one of the biggest suppliers of education in the country. To critics, Sir Peter Vardy's faith schools are "creationism academies". But to many parents they are the only alternative to underfunded, understaffed state comprehensives.
If this makes Cameron's Britain sounds worryingly close to Tennessee, that is hardly surprising. For all Gove's talk of emulating schools in Scandinavia, it is American conservatism that has been the most influential model for Cameron's ministers. Initially, the Prime Minister made much of his affinity with Barack Obama; their press officers claimed that the two men relaxed by watching episodes of The West Wing together, and they played a much-photographed game of tennis at the Chipping Norton Leisure Centre, near Cameron's constituency home. But when Obama's reputation began to slide, Cameron stayed away. And on Tuesday 6 November 2012, he was the first foreign leader to telephone his congratulations to President-elect Mike Huckabee.
While the special relationship has thrived, Britain's reputation outside the United States has rarely been worse. When British, Israeli and US planes launched air strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities in May 2013, angry crowds poured on to the streets of London. And when a stray missile hit a school in Tehran, killing 42 schoolgirls, the demonstrations in capitals across Europe and the Middle East left no doubt about our standing in the world. Perhaps it is no wonder that, as neocon commentators never cease to point out, Britain is now the biggest target in the world for Islamist extremists.
Moreover, inside the European Union, Britain is an unwelcome guest at the high table. Because of Cameron's decision to pull out of the European People's Party, our governing party's representatives in the European Parliament still sit with a weird gaggle of racists, homophobes and anti-Semites. Britain remains the only EU member not to have signed the Budapest Treaty, last year's crucial document reforming Brussels institutions, and Cameron has already stated that he has no intention of submitting it to a referendum. By contrast, there are increasingly strong rumours that his re-election manifesto, to be published in a few weeks, will include a promise to hold a referendum on membership of the EU itself - a referendum that, if Tory hardliners have their way, could leave us in international isolation.
If Britain does pull out of the EU, that would almost certainly mean the end of the United Kingdom. But the end of the Union may well be coming anyway. Scotland did not vote for Cameron's Tories in 2010, and it shows no sign of wanting to do so this year, either. Indeed, opposition to the Tories north of the border is stronger than it was five years ago. Alex Salmond, Scotland's First Minister for the past eight years, has played a canny waiting game;if Cameron does win re-election, Salmond will certainly trigger an independence referendum. And with all polls since 2010 showing that Scots favour going it alone, the chances are that Cameron will be the last Prime Minister of Great Britain. No doubt Scotland will make a go of it. But it is England - probably condemned to Tory hegemony for years to come - that we should worry about.
No government is without some successes. The parliamentary coup against John Bercow - who had narrowly held off the UK Independence Party's Nigel Farage to retain his Buckingham seat after the 2010 election - was to be applauded, although the persistent failure to clean up the system of MPs' allowances or to introduce electoral reform remains troubling. (Bercow is now a rather undistinguished addition to Labour's front bench.)
On the environment, meanwhile, Cameron has so far stuck to his guns, although the signs are that many Tories are becoming exasperated at his commitment to fight climate change. But in any rational assessment, all of this is vastly outweighed by the failures. The Murdoch newspapers and Sky News - whose strident tone is increasingly set by star presenters such as Rod Liddle and Jeremy Clarkson - openly tout the Prime Minister as a courageous and reforming historical figure. But to the pensioners shivering in their council flats, to the children damaged by years of substandard education, to the underequipped soldiers on the front line in Afghanistan and Yemen, above all to the young men and women with little hope of a job or a decent life, such claims can sound like nothing more than a cruel joke.
It seems very doubtful, however, whether the forthcoming election will bring any relief. With the BBC hamstrung by years of cuts and the looming abolition of the licence fee (scheduled for 2018, though it is rumoured the government will bring it forward), the voters are arguably less well informed than ever. With the deep cuts in news services, radio and factual television, many of the jewels in the BBC's crown have already disappeared. The World Service might be better renamed the Skeleton Service; the Proms have been severely curtailed; and as for the mainstream channels, who could enjoy such a relentless diet of Horne and Corden? James Murdoch must be rubbing his hands with glee.
Meanwhile, the opposition parties offer little inspiration. Labour arguably never recovered from Gordon Brown's defeat and the civil war that followed. The ensuing leadership election merely reignited the feuding between the crown princes. Even five years on, Ballsites and Milibandits loathe one another. In the country at large, many working-class voters seem to have defected permanently to the BNP; indeed, the BNP leader, Nick Griffin, has told some reporters that he expects his party's percentage of the national vote to reach double figures either at this election or the next. Immigration may have declined as a national issue since Cameron introduced the non-EU quota system in 2011. But as the BNP's apparently inexorable rise demonstrates, racism's appeal in hard times remains as strong as ever.
It could all have been so different. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear now that Labour could have won the 2010 election, perhaps by forming a pact with the Liberal Democrats. To be sure, Gordon Brown's government offered little to be hopeful about. But what came next - the deep, ideological cuts, the lurch back into recession - could have been avoided. It is hard now to recapture the collective delusion that cast a plausible and articulate but untried PR man with little experience of the outside world as the answer to Britain's problems, and hard to imagine that some people perceived Osborne as a kind of economic guru.
Now we are living with the consequences, in a country where the BBC has been castrated, local services have dwindled, health and education are the property of the highest bidder, and the United Kingdom itself stands on the brink of oblivion. Perhaps this sounds angry - overstated, even. But it is hard not to be angry when you contemplate the wreckage of David Cameron's nightmarish Britain.
There were those, a small minority, who predicted what was coming. But being right is scant consolation, and at the International Monetary Fund's palatial headquarters in Washington, DC, the managing director gives only the tiniest hint of a smile when asked about his successor in 10 Downing Street. "It's not for me to criticise the Prime Minister," says Sir Gordon Brown. "I'm sure he's doing the best he can." He does not smile, but fleetingly - only fleetingly - you can almost believe he means it.
Dominic Sandbrook is a historian. His counterfactual column "What If . . ." appears weekly in the NS.