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11 September 2019

The man who broke Britain

Three years after leaving office, and in the midst of a deep political crisis, David Cameron is about to publish a book about his premiership. But can he justify his catastrophic legacy?

By Martin Fletcher

With impeccable timing, as Britain is convulsed by the Brexit turmoil that he triggered, David Cameron is about to emerge from three years of purdah in order to promote his long-delayed memoirs, For The Record.

To say that he will receive a hostile reception is an understatement. Much of the population consider him the most disastrous prime minister of modern times – with only his two successors coming close.

They see him as the man who ordered a referendum on a bewilderingly complex issue of profound national importance for which there was little public clamour, simply to hold his party together; who was so arrogant and complacent that he allowed the outcome to be decided by a simple majority; who led and lost a wretched campaign in favour of Remain; and who cut and run the moment he was defeated, leaving others to cope with the ensuing mayhem.

They hold him ultimately responsible for all that has happened since: Britain’s bitter breach with its allies in Europe, the hobbling of its economy, the loss of its global stature, the paralysis of its political system, the destruction of its social cohesion, the sundering of the United Kingdom and the accession to power of the demagogic Boris Johnson.

Fuelling their rage is the perception that Cameron has been cashing in and enjoying himself – behaving like a “twat” with his “trotters up” as the EastEnders actor Danny Dyer memorably put it. That may not be fair, but for a former PR man Cameron seems remarkably careless of his public image, making occasional appearances in the media for all the wrong reasons.

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In 2017, amid widespread austerity, he flaunted the luxurious £25,000 shepherd’s hut that he bought as a place to write his book. During the final days of the 2017 general election campaign, as his party  battled to retain its parliamentary majority, his wife, Samantha, posted a picture of their four feet in bed while they celebrated their wedding anniversary at a luxurious Spanish retreat. As Theresa May fought desperately to secure parliament’s approval for her “Chequers deal” last January, Cameron was “chillaxing” at a £1,700-a-night beach resort in Costa Rica.

He has been seen in Lanzarote and Wimbledon’s Royal Box, and at pop festivals and the races. He has purchased a £2m holiday home in Cornwall from which, in August, he ejected his teenage daughter’s friends for revelling late into the night – he never was good at controlling parties.

To his considerable credit, Cameron is donating the £800,000 that the publisher HarperCollins paid for his book to charities for Alzheimer’s, veteran servicemen and childhood disability (his six-year-old son, Ivan, who suffered from severe epilepsy and cerebral palsy, died in 2009). But that is unlikely to assuage the public’s anger.

His book’s imminent publication has triggered an overwhelmingly contemptuous reaction on social media. “Will the hardback come out without a spine as well?” “I do hope it will be printed on perforated, soft paper.” “I’ve always thought the idea of book burning to be barbaric, but…” “Can’t we just lock him in his shepherd’s hut?…”

There has been a lively market in alternative titles: “Running Away.” “I Came, I Failed, I Scarpered.” “Eton Mess.” “The Man Who Broke Britain.” “Well, That Didn’t Work.”

The Guardian reported that “one society hostess entertaining [the Camerons] recently had to ring fellow guests in advance, checking that they would be able to keep things civil; not all the responses were positive.” In her recent speech resigning as the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson took a swipe at Cameron when she declared: “Referenda should be used to affirm public opinion but not as a way for political leaders to fail to lead.”

It is not just Europhiles who are furious with him. Leavers feel little affection for the man who led the Remain campaign. A YouGov poll shows that 61 per cent of the population view him negatively, and just 16 per cent positively.

That being so, his publishers have devised a promotional programme for his book – £25 in hardback – seemingly designed to keep Cameron away from angry punters, and even from certain interviewers.

He will appear in the controlled environments of the Cheltenham and Harrogate literary festivals, and before an audience of Times readers, but no bookshop signings have been scheduled.

And while Cameron will do interviews with the BBC’s John Humphrys and ITV’s Tom Bradby, he refused to be interviewed by Janice Turner, the tenacious Times inquisitor whose paper has bought the serialisation rights. “I don’t want Janice to do it. She notices things other people don’t,” he allegedly remarked. He is instead being interviewed by Andrew Billen, a fine but much less political journalist.

Living in a box: David Cameron poses outside his £25,000 shepherd’s hut, which he bought in order to complete his book For The Record​. Credit: Graham Flack/Red Sky Shepherds Huts/PA Wire​

Once a month during his six-year premiership Cameron secretly met his old friend Daniel Finkelstein, the Tory peer and Times columnist, in his Downing Street flat. At each session Finkelstein would tape Cameron’s accounts of his recent doings. Those 53 hours of recordings form the basis of a 752-page book from which the publishers reportedly asked Cameron to cut 100,000 excessively worthy and self-justifying words.

Publication was originally scheduled for autumn 2018. Some say it was delayed because Cameron struggled to complete it, others that he did not want to “rock the boat” during Theresa May’s protracted efforts to secure a soft Brexit. Whatever the truth, it is now being published a mere ten days before the Conservative party conference and six weeks before the date on which Johnson has vowed to take Britain out of the EU, with or without a deal.

The book will record how in 2010 Cameron became the youngest prime minister for two centuries, formed the first coalition government since the Second World War, and five years later led the Conservatives to their first outright election victory since 1992. It will recount his attempts to modernise the party, his legalisation of gay marriage, his education and welfare reforms, his stewardship of the economy following the financial crash, his commitment to overseas aid, his intervention in Libya’s revolution and non-intervention in Syria’s, the Scottish independence referendum and the London Olympics. The sections “where he tries to explain his achievements as prime minister are pretty dull”, a friend of Cameron told the Sunday Times last year.

It is the Brexit pages that will inevitably monopolise the attention, however. Cameron’s spokesman told me the book ends the day he resigned as prime minister, so sadly it will not cover the last three years of Brexit chaos – a former colleague said he was dismayed by his successor’s handling of the negotiations with Brussels.

But how will he justify his catastrophic decision to call the 2016 referendum? He has said he is “looking forward to having the opportunity to explain the decisions I took”, and has promised to be “frank about what worked and what didn’t”, but the one commodity readers will want but emphatically not get is contrition – just as they didn’t from Tony Blair over Iraq. On the rare occasions that Cameron has spoken about Brexit since leaving office he has insisted that he has no regrets about calling the referendum, only that he lost it.

“The lack of a referendum was poisoning British politics, so I put that right,” he once declared with a lack of irony matched only by his unguarded observation in Davos last year that Brexit was “a mistake, not a disaster. It’s turned out less badly than we thought.” Or by his 2015 campaign ultimatum of “stability and strong government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband”.

Cameron’s apologists expect him to argue that a referendum on Europe was fast becoming inevitable because all three main parties had reneged on promises to hold one over the previous decade, the eurozone crisis and soaring immigration were fuelling demand for a vote, and democratic consent for Britain’s continued EU membership had become wafer-thin.

He feared that if he did not call a referendum a much more Eurosceptic successor would. “Simply asking the British people to carry on accepting a European settlement over which they have had little choice is a path to ensuring that when the question is finally put – and at some stage it will have to be – it is much more likely that the British people will reject the EU,” he declared in 2013. Having lanced the boil of Europe, Cameron could then focus on his ambitious social reform agenda.

The counter-narrative is less charitable. It is one of weak leadership, dreadful misjudgements and reckless gambles.

When Cameron won the Tory leadership in December 2005 he regarded Europe as a distraction. He urged his parliamentary colleagues to stop “banging on” about it, and called Nigel Farage’s fledgling UK Independence Party (Ukip) a “bunch of fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists”.

But during his first term as prime minister, when he headed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, his rabidly Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers – and party members – grew increasingly rebellious. At the same time Ukip emerged as a serious electoral threat to the Conservatives by exploiting fears about immigration, and in 2014 the party triumphed in the European elections while two Tory defectors won its first parliamentary seats in by-elections.

A stronger leader might have resisted the pressure – a January 2013 YouGov opinion poll put Europe fifth on the list of voters’ priorities. But that same month Cameron responded with a fateful speech at Bloom-berg’s London headquarters. He promised to negotiate far-reaching reforms with the EU before holding a straight in-out vote on British membership by mid-2017. “We thought: ‘This is quite a good wheeze because we’re not going to win [the 2015] election unless we make sure we’re not haemorrhaging votes to Ukip’,” a former associate of Cameron’s told me.

It was a big risk. George Osborne, Cameron’s chancellor and closest political ally, warned that he could lose. Michael Gove, then education secretary, advised that a referendum would not settle the issue. Tim Shipman, author of All Out War: The Full Story of Brexit, quotes Craig Oliver, Cameron’s former communications director, saying the prime minister was well aware of the danger that “you could unleash demons of which ye know not” – rampant Euroscepticism, nativism, economic disaster.

But Cameron had what Finkelstein called “a taste for big bold gambles”. He had secured the Tory leadership against the odds, won referenda on Scottish independence in 2014 and electoral reform in 2011, and formed a stable coalition government with the Lib Dems when a supply and confidence agreement would have been much safer. He had no doubt he would prevail in a referendum on Europe. “I’m a winner,” the Old Etonian blithely assured his fellow EU leaders six months before the vote. “Defeat was never part of the conversation. It never entered anyone’s calculations that Remain would lose. It was plain to everybody that Remain would win,” a source familiar with his thinking said. Cameron may also have calculated that the Conservatives stood little chance of securing an outright majority in 2015, and that the Lib Dems would force him to drop the referendum promise as a price of remaining in coalition. But against all expectations he did win and so had to keep his pledge.

Cameron’s miscalculations did not end there. He failed to negotiate a credible reform package with Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel and other EU leaders – specifically one that tackled the burning issue of free movement (the book will be “searingly honest about the key players from his time in politics”, the publishers say, and he is expected to accuse those EU leaders of fatal intransigence and bad faith).

He failed to require safeguards for a vote on such a profound constitutional issue, such as requiring a 60 per cent majority for leaving the EU. He rushed into the referendum, failing first to prepare an electorate conditioned by decades of EU-bashing by politicians and the media. He failed to insist that cabinet colleagues supported the official government policy of Remain, with the result that four campaigned for Leave (he is expected to use the book to condemn Gove’s “betrayal” of their friendship).

He failed to run a positive campaign that extolled the benefits of EU membership, focusing instead on the economic costs of Brexit. And he failed to instruct the civil service to prepare contingency plans in case of defeat. Interviewed during the 2015 election campaign, Cameron five times declined to answer when the BBC’s Nick Robinson asked whether he had a Plan B if he could not secure a reform package and then lost the subsequent referendum.

Cameron announced his resignation the day after Britain voted to leave the EU. He left Downing Street three weeks later, and was gone from parliament within three months. Having campaigned strenuously for Remain, he thought that a Leaver should negotiate Britain’s departure. But he was widely seen as abrogating responsibility, and bequeathing to others the mess he had created. One seasoned political commentator, noting that Cameron still had a healthy majority in parliament, believes he could have swiftly negotiated and won approval for a very soft Brexit.

Three years on, it is painfully obvious that Cameron has achieved the exact opposite of what he intended. He called the referendum to unite his party, neuter Ukip and finally resolve the vexed issue of Europe. He has instead split his party almost irrevocably, sundered his country as never before, inflamed British Euroscepticism and poisoned its relations with Europe for generations to come. He has, in short, unleashed all manner of demons.

Credit: André Carrilho

Cameron was 49 when he left Downing Street, the youngest ex-prime minister in 121 years. It hurt. “I know what it feels like when you come to realise that your leadership time has finished, that the country needs a new leader. It’s extremely difficult to step outside Downing Street and say those things,” he acknowledged after Theresa May’s resignation. He largely avoided his former political colleagues and was in a “dark place”, according to friends. Today he makes as much as £120,000 a pop from delivering speeches in Atlanta, Wall Street, Switzerland, India, Ukraine – anywhere but Britain. He heads a UK-China investment fund, sits on a corporate board or two, and does some charitable work – for Alzheimer’s Research UK, National Citizen Service and a commission on fragile states (excluding the UK, I presume). He spends time with his family, jogs, plays tennis and golf, and occasionally shoots.

But Cameron has not acquired some high-profile international post – how could he, after Brexit? He has not taken on a string of lucrative jobs like Osborne. He has not set up a foundation, or an institute like Tony Blair. He has not found a new purpose in life, and last November an unnamed friend told the Sun he was “bored shitless”. So here’s a suggestion, albeit one he is unlikely to follow.

Former associates say Cameron wanted to maintain the closest possible relations with Europe after Brexit. They say he would have been privately aghast at May’s deal, which would have taken Britain out of the EU single market and customs union, and “utterly appalled” by the extreme Brexit that Boris Johnson is pursuing.

Cameron’s legacy is sealed. He will forever be remembered as the prime minister responsible for Britain leaving the EU, but it is not too late to make amends. He could use his timely book launch to decry the hijacking of Britain by a tiny cabal of right-wing zealots, and to join all the country’s other former prime ministers – May excepted – in opposing a catastrophic no-deal Brexit.

He could recall the spirit of his Bloomberg speech, when he spoke so memorably of Britain’s unique contribution to Europe – how it provided a haven to those fleeing tyranny and persecution, kept the flame of liberty alight in the continent’s darkest hour, sacrificed hundreds of thousands of its sons for the Continent’s freedom and helped tear down the Iron Curtain. “I never want us to pull up the drawbridge and retreat from the world,” he declared. l

Martin Fletcher is a New Statesman contributing writer and a former foreign editor of the Times


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