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16 September 2019updated 17 Sep 2019 6:38am

What David Cameron’s comeback interview tells us about the Tories

In conversation with ITV's Tom Bradby, the former prime minister revealed just how spectacularly his political project has failed.

By Patrick Maguire

He disagrees with the biggest calls of Boris Johnson’s premiership…

So far, so unsurprising: Bradby kicked off his hour of questioning with the journalistic equivalent of underarm bowling. Did Cameron agree with his successor-but-one’s decision to prorogue Parliament? 

As reluctant as he was to appear keen to criticise Johnson as prime minister – though he did attack his role in the referendum campaign – his answer was as predictable as it was robust. 

Though he did not question the legality of Johnson’s five-week suspension, Cameron described it as a “rather sharp practice of trying to restrict the debate”. He went on to say that prime ministers should “work through parliament, and you can’t deny the arithmetic of parliament and the majorities there are in parliament”.

Unbidden by Bradby, he then criticised Johnson’s “disastrous” decision to withdraw the whip from the 21 Tories who voted against a no-deal Brexit, and said the prime minister ought to reinstate them. “If they’re not, I really worry about what could happen.”

That that sort of blanket pardon is very unlikely to happen reflects the big differences in Cameron and Johnson’s electoral priorities and political projects. The former sought a broad base. The latter is only interested – for now, at least – in gobbling up the leave vote.

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…and regrets one of his own…

One thing Cameron is never going to do, on the basis of this interview and what we’ve seen of his memoirs, is say that he was wrong to call the EU referendum.

But he did go as far as to admit that he handled it maladroitly. “I have huge regrets,” he said. “I regret that we lost the campaign. I regret I let expectations about the negotiation run far too high. I regret some of the individual decisions we made in the campaign. I think perhaps there’s a case to say the timing could have been different.”

It was, in effect, an admission that he ought to have paid more attention to the instincts of George Osborne and Michael Gove – neither of whom thought the plebiscite was worth holding.

…but he’s still prepared to defend most of the others

Something shared by each of Cameron’s media appearances this week – and, indeed, the serialised extracts of his memoir – is the absence of the sort of sweeping mea culpa his detractors feel that, by rights, he really ought to be offering. 

Though he admitted that he “hugely regrets” its outcome, and went as far as to admit he had failed and implicitly apologise for it, he defended his decision to call the EU referendum as necessary and right – despite dogged questioning from Bradby.

Similarly, he rejected any suggestion that he had been misguided in imposing austerity during his tenure – despite the very visible human and political consequences. Instead, he reeled off a defence in which he stressed he had cut the deficit, reduced inequality, and raised taxes on high earners.

Right or not – and plenty of people in his own party, to say nothing of parliament and the country at large, will say not – it was a striking moment, though not necessarily because of what he said. 

What was really striking was the fact of his making the argument. It threw two things into harsh relief, and both reflect the ultimate failure of Cameron’s political project. 

The first is that the Conservatives have abandoned both the language of preaching fiscal rectitude, and any pretension of practicing it. 

The second is that, three years on from his resignation, Cameron’s old party is yet to find a leader who is willing or, more pertinently, able to make an internally coherent argument about the economy. That is something they might yet pay for.

Despite what Boris Johnson says, there is no way to “get Brexit done”

The most revealing exchange of the interview wasn’t really about Cameron at all, but rather the inconvenient truth of Britain’s relationship with Europe and its single market – and how it will inevitably dominate our political discourse regardless of the outcome of the Brexit process. 

Bradby kicked off the second half of the programme with what he appeared to assume was a stinging gotcha. “One of the things that did surprise me in 800 pages of your book is you come across as a raging Eurosceptic,” he told Cameron. “You have almost nothing good to say about the European Union in 800 pages…and then you end up arguing that we should stay. I mean, is it surprising?”

In reply, Cameron insisted it was an unfair criticism. “I’ve always believed Britain is better off in the EU because we have to be sitting round that table that sets the rules for our biggest market,” he said, adding: “My sense has always been in spite of however many frustrations you have with the EU, it’s in our national interest to be at that table, setting those rules.”

That pragmatic case for EU membership – which, as is self-evident from the 2016 result, did not resonate with the public – reflects a truth that the Brexiteers in Cameron’s party seldom acknowledge. The fact of Britain’s economic reality is that the strategic decisions governments of any stripe will have to make will, to one degree or another, be responses to those made by the EU27 – particularly, as Cameron says, when it comes to regulation. 

This much was also clear from Cameron’s suggestion that Theresa May ought to have pursued a Norwegian or Swiss-style settlement after the 2016 vote to leave.

Of course, Brexit Britain will be free – at least notionally – to choose to ignore those rules and strike out on its own. But the trade-off Cameron describes speaks to the unpalatable (and politically unsaleable) reality that the UK cannot really afford to do so, at least in the short to medium term. And whatever the outcome, no government will ever be able to ignore the EU, the decisions it makes and the diktats it sets – as much as some in Cameron’s party assume that, in good time, they will.

He has no plans to return to a Conservative Party that bears no resemblance to his

Intermittently, there are reports that Cameron is considering – or even actively planning – a return to Westminster. They last came in May, when it was suggested he would stand to replace Michael Fallon – whose retirement was then unannounced. And last November he was reported to have told friends that he was keen to return to the Treasury bench as foreign secretary.

Signing off, Cameron was at pains to scotch suggestions those reports carried any basis in truth. 

Asked by Bradby if he would ever re-enter frontline politics, he said: “No; I—look…if a prime minister asked me to do something to help with an issue like I am with National Citizen Service or I am with dementia, I’ll always, you know, want to help. I love this country. I care passionately about what happens. But I think the idea of going back to frontline politics is not going to happen, nor should it.”

Coming as they do in a week where Sam Gymiah, his former parliamentary private secretary, quit the Tories for the Liberal Democrats, those remarks betray a truth that Cameron was altogether too diplomatic to acknowledge explicitly: the Conservative party that he led bears very little resemblance to the Conservative party led by Boris Johnson.

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