How will history judge David Cameron? Will he be remembered as the Eton-educated posh boy with a penchant for trashing restaurants with his trust-fund friends? Or as a slick PR man, who, when not posing with huskies was hugging hoodies? The smarmy head boy of a political class that was born to rule?
How about one of our greatest post-war Prime Ministers? Much of the reaction to last month’s election result has focused on Labour’s parlous performance rather than on Cameron’s genuine triumph. Previously, he had been discounted as the bargain basement PM, forced to share power with the Liberal Democrats after failing to conclusively slay Gordon Brown in 2010. Now, basking in the glory of a clear election win, he can dial-up the Toryism of his new majority government and set the seal on what may be viewed, retrospectively, as an epic premiership.
This is not overstating things. Conservatism now dominates the intellectual life of British politics in a way it hasn’t for a generation. So successful has Cameron been at framing the terms of our political debate that even Labour leadership hopefuls feel obliged to mouth (wrongheaded) platitudes about the previous Labour government’s spending record in the hope of finally gaining a fresh hearing on the economy.
Not bad for someone who, while lacking Blair’s tactical brilliance and Brown’s intellectual heft, nevertheless possesses countervailing strengths. Cameron doesn’t panic – or hurriedly react – in the way that both his predecessors frequently did. There seems to be little mania about the “24 hour news cycle” in his Downing Street operation. His spin doctors are largely unknown figures and his premiership appears to have restored cabinet government from the sofa-dwelling era of Tony Blair and the Samsung-flinging of Gordon Brown.
Yet, his more collegiate style, partly the product of sharing power in coalition, has not come at the expense of his radicalism. By any measure, Cameron’s programme has been ambitious from Day One, with every part of the public sector and welfare state feeling the lash of reform. He may be wrong – egregiously so to some tastes – but there is no argument that he has set a high bar for what he wants to achieve.
Like all great leaders, Cameron possesses fortitude. Criticised by some on his own side for a lacklustre election campaign, after eschewing the kind of giveaway budget governments in a tight spot have always been fond of making, he stuck to his core message on the economy: “We’ve weathered the storm/ Taken tough decisions/ Developed a long-term economic plan/ Brought back growth/ Don’t take a chance on irresponsible Labour.” It was brutally simplistic and successful. His strategy and his judgement were vindicated and so, in turn, his victory was historic.
On a personal level, he is loyal to his colleagues in a way that Blair and Brown were not. Iain Duncan-Smith or Andrew Lansley would have been dropped at the first sign of trouble. He can also delegate (again, a flaw common to both Blair and Brown). For the hyper-tribalists of New Labour, there would be no prospect of allowing some Australian political consultant to run their election campaigns.
During the Labour years in office, there was a sense that the party was squatting on the centre ground and had to continually prove it had the right to govern. This meant endlessly triangulating between what Labour voters might want with the dictates of a predominantly right-wing media’s agenda. Perhaps the expectation of governing comes more naturally to a former member of the ‘Buller’, but, (with the odd exception, like same sex marriage) Cameron, unlike Blair, usually sets out to please his grassroots, as last week’s removal of wind power subsidies shows.
The one imponderable remains Europe. Cameron’s in/out referendum pledge is a high-wire act, but with the business lobby, large chunks of the commentariat and the critical mass of British politics ready to catch his fall, it’s only a calculated risk. It’s unlikely the referendum will be lost, regardless of the slim concessions he eventually manages to wring out of the European Commission. For the ultras, whatever he brings back will never be enough, but for everyone else, the European question will be put to bed. Cameron will have delivered what he promised, stood his ground, and won.
At which point his last trick will be to ensure an orderly transition to new management. If he avoids creating a death cult like Thatcher, (or, to a lesser degree, Tony Blair), when he passes the torch to his successor, he will leave his party in an ideal position just ahead of the next election in 2020.
Then we will look back on the underestimated David Cameron and, against all early predictions (and perhaps from behind rows of gritted teeth), realise that he will be counted among Attlee, Thatcher and Blair as the outstanding premiers of the post-war era.