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David Cameron’s downfall

Charming, talented and disarmingly reasonable, Cameron kept on winning – until he lost everything.

When David Cameron first launched his campaign to be the Conservative Party leader in 2005, he had the support of just 14 MPs. Greg Barker, Andrew Robathan and Peter Luff stood down at the 2015 election, having failed to achieve full cabinet rank, while Hugo Swire will join them at the next election. Cameron ended the careers of Peter Viggers and John Butterfill over the expenses and lobbying scandals. His closest ally, George Osborne, now edits the Evening Standard. Just one of those 14 supporters, Michael Gove, is stillin the cabinet, while five have been kicked out of the Conservative Party by another, Boris Johnson.

The fate of the Cameroons reflects the story of David Cameron. He was the most able Conservative politician for 17 years, and took over a party that was £20m in debt, had fewer than 200 seats in parliament, and had suffered its first, second and fourth worst electoral defeats in its history. In 2010, he gained more seats in one night than any other Tory leader (excepting the National Government coalition in 1931) and in 2015 he won its first majority for 23 years. His party has yet to find a successor with a fraction of his gifts. But Cameron’s leadership ended in cataclysmic failure, shattering him, his faction and quite possibly his country. His party seems to have forgotten his achievements even more completely and quickly than the Labour Party rejected Tony Blair. For the Record is his attempt to explain what went wrong – and to recover some of the lustre that he lost on 23 June 2016, when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union.

The book was at one stage in its development to be called “Right at the Centre” – but the finished version is considerably better than that Alan Partridge-esque title suggests. It rattles along nicely at a pace that belies its 752 pages, with occasional drive-by shootings of a political foe – perhaps the best is when Cameron reflects on Theresa Villiers and Chris Grayling, two Conservatives who missed out on cabinet jobs in 2010 because of the coalition, adding: “Theresa later made an excellent Northern Ireland secretary, while Chris served as lord chancellor.”

Cameron writes so well that a cynical observer will assume his work must have been heavily rewritten by Daniel Finkelstein, the Conservative peer and Times columnist who paid monthly trips to Downing Street to record Cameron’s thoughts in office. I suspect though the majority of this came from the man himself, partly because Finkelstein would surely have finished the book to its original deadline and size, and partly because a ghostwriter wouldn’t have had the evident glee that Cameron takes in revisiting some of what he sees as his funniest quips, both in the House of Commons and in private conversation.

It provides an intoxicating reminder of his greatest political gift: to convey a sense of infinite reasonableness and moderation while advancing a programme of radical right-wing reform. Reading it is an insight into what it was like to be liberal and comfortably off under Cameron: yes, there’s a distant sense that not everything in the country is going as well as one might wish, but isn’t the prime minister so charming and so liberal?

The book, too, is a reminder of how badly the Conservatives needed a performer of his abilities. Cameron had a front seat for 17 years of Tory failure and retreat: arriving at the Conservative Research Department in 1988, just as Margaret Thatcher was beginning to lose her touch; and becoming Norman Lamont’s special adviser in 1992, as the UK dropped out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, shattering the Conservative reputation for economic competence. Cameron exchanged the Treasury for Michael Howard’s Home Office in 1993, just as Tony Blair entered the scene, and he and Howard’s senior adviser, Patrick Rock, shared the same thought over a drink in the Red Lion when John Smith died: “That’s it. Tony Blair will become leader and we’re absolutely stuffed.”

Cameron was a defeated candidate in 1997 in the marginal seat of Stafford, helped to prepare the hapless Iain Duncan Smith for PMQs, and was at the heart of the action as Howard’s unreformed Conservatives slumped to a third successive defeat at Blair’s hands in 2005.

The only difference between the Cameron who got his party out of the mire and the Cameron writing this book is class. As Conservative leader, Cameron took great pains to obscure his poshness, running and winning power by presenting himself as a “Boden dad”, firmly upper-middle-class but not a character from Brideshead Revisited. His concern about the damage the charge of poshness could do to his reputation caused him to avoid wearing a morning suit to his sister’s wedding and for his aides to consider opting him out of a tailcoat during Prince William’s nuptials in 2011. The moment I knew that Cameron had pulled it off in the run-up to the 2015 election was when a school friend reflected that Cameron “was all right for a Tory”, and only about as posh as a mutual friend’s father. The father in question’s posh credentials extended as far as a grammar school education and a home with a mortgage.

Freed from the demands of office, the mask can come off. “Then, of course, Eton College,” he writes. “I was following my father, his father and his grandfather, as well as my mother’s father, and his father… you get the picture.” Then he adds, in a voice I can only read in the posh happy bark he would occasionally lapse into: “Yes, to complete the picture of the old-fashioned, privileged set-up, I had a nanny!”

Cameron feared that if he ran for office as himself he would never be able to win over the country. For a while I agreed with him, but reading the book, I’m not so sure: Cameron is never more winning than when the evident love and warmth he has for his parents and his siblings comes to the fore, and the expediency of hiding his privilege meant that he was seldom able to do so in public. Even Nicolas Sarkozy emerges well by proxy, thanks to a touching anecdote about the death of Cameron’s father: the French president, after Ian Cameron fell ill in France in 2010, phoned his opposite number to warn that the prognosis was grim and that if Cameron dropped everything to get to France, Sarkozy would do everything in his power to get him to the hospital in time. Cameron boarded his plane and Sarkozy kept the pledge, laying on a helicopter to transport him from the airport to the emergency ward, in time for Cameron to say a final goodbye to his father.

Equally endearing but less surprising is his affection for Samantha and his four children (their first child, Ivan, died in 2009, aged six). I was reminded of the complaint one of his allies made after yet another concession to the party’s right: “The problem with Cameron is that he had a happy family and has a beautiful wife,” they grumbled, “so he has nothing to prove.”

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There is one section that will raise suspicions about Cameron’s commitment to standing up to his right flank. After his victory in 2015, Cameron turned his hand to forming the first Conservative-only government since 1997. There were genuinely bold appointments, such as the promotion of John Whittingdale, an exemplary select committee chair who knew the brief backwards, to the post of culture secretary. But Cameron also shunted Grayling to the role of leader of the House, saying “he hadn’t excelled at Justice, but moving him would anger the right”, before reflecting that “it was the right time for IDS to go”, after five years of failure and delay at the Welfare brief. But Cameron’s hand was stayed because, again, he feared the “backlash from the right”. One wonders just how many incompetent cabinet ministers would be too many before the needs of party management were put on the backburner.

That seems to confirm one of Nick Clegg’s frequent frustrations with Cameron. Both in coalition and afterwards, Clegg felt Cameron was an excellent coalition leader, but one who feared the consequences of being upfront about its benefits. When discussing the Alternative Vote, Cameron dubs it “the perpetual trap” of the coalition prime minster: “If you anger your partners, you don’t have a majority in parliament. If you anger your party, you might not have a job.”

Liberal Democrat ministers tended to believe in the existence of an authentic “good Cameron”, who quite liked the coalition and the compromises it brought, and a performed “bad Cameron”, who liked to rail against, as Vince Cable once put it to me, “all these bloody liberals” getting in his way. But what this book reveals is that it was the “good Cameron” who was the performer.

Cameron, freed from the binds of office, is perfectly happy to criticise his party’s position on international development, the conduct of senior Brexiteers, the political strategy pursued since he left office and the honesty of Boris Johnson. But he is repeatedly defensive of his time in coalition, a political arrangement that allowed the Conservative Party to enact contentious, radical and far-reaching legislation for the first time since 1993, and whose stability has not yet been matched by either of his Conservative successors. He enjoyed working closely with his fellow centre-right leaders: he had tempestuous relationships with Sarkozy and the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, and long chats with his Commonwealth opposite numbers Tony Abbott, Stephen Harper and John Key, with whom he shared bonding sessions and bottles of wine. In his way, Cameron was just as keen to free himself from the “bloody liberals” as the likes of Grayling and Duncan Smith were.

But in finding that freedom, he was undone. It is not true to say, as many have done, that he hoped that a second coalition would free him from his obligation to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. His private commitment to the referendum was such that Clegg had already resolved that while there might be a second Liberal-Conservative coalition, it could not be led by Cameron.

It is true to say, however, that Cameron gravely overestimated his ability to win that vote. The book finishes, like his premiership, with all the senselessness of someone meeting their end because they didn’t look both ways. He overestimated his ability to persuade Gove not to back Brexit and then, once Gove joined the Leave campaign, overestimated his ability to dissuade his old friend from taking a key role. He underestimated Johnson’s Euroscepticism (if you are sympathetic to the current prime minister), or his opportunism (if, like Cameron, you are not).

He believed that he didn’t have to choose between keeping the Conservative Party together and the United Kingdom in the European Union. In the end, he lost both. Osborne’s warning to Cameron, that “if Britain voted to leave the EU, everyone, including me, would be finished”, was proved to be exactly accurate. The referendum destroys his best political friend’s hopes of becoming his successor. And it ruptures Cameron’s electoral coalition, perhaps for ever.

Osborne had to strain every sinew to keep Sajid Javid, “who was far more pro-Brexit than I had thought”, and Cameron had to perform a similar task with Liz Truss and Jeremy Wright. He reflects that “the latent Leaver gene in the Tory party was far more dominant than I had foreseen”.

That latent gene is one reason why the charge against Cameron – that he didn’t need to hold a referendum – doesn’t quite work. The Conservative Party as it existed in 2016 was bound to hold one eventually. But the problem for Cameron is that he was not a passive victim of the Leaver gene: he was its carrier. It was his political skill that allowed the Conservative Party to win again and to give full voice to its hunger for Brexit. Even as he lays bear his culpability in the Brexit catastrophe, the reader cannot quite stop themselves from liking him. The only good news for anyone hoping that the disaster might be mitigated or reversed lies in the fact that his party still has no politician of equivalent quality available. 

For the Record
David Cameron
William Collins, 752pp, £25

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article appears in the 27 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great disgrace