David Cameron yearned to modernise the Tory party but his legacy is one of chaos

The ex-prime minister was brought down by his gambler’s instinct and an elevated sense of superiority and entitlement. 

NS

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I was told a revealing story about David Cameron, which is worth retelling again in the week he publishes his long-delayed book about his premiership. One day after a cabinet meeting – this was in the run-up to Cameron’s speech on 23 January 2013 at Bloomberg London, in which he pledged, if the Conservatives won the 2015 general election, to hold a binary plebiscite on the UK’s future membership of the European Union – Ken Clarke, the veteran Europhile, approached the then prime minister. “What are you doing?” Clarke said. “It’s far too risky to hold a referendum. What if we lose?” Cameron looked at Clarke and, with characteristic insouciance, said: “Don’t worry Ken, I always win.”

In the event, Cameron lost. When the end came it was brutal for him: he removed himself from Downing Street with indecent haste because he had lost a referendum he expected to win comfortably. He was humiliated and defeated and, much worse for the country, had done no contingency planning for a Brexit process that, since the summer of 2016, has consumed, divided and radicalised the people of these islands.

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Cameron was ultimately brought down by his gambler’s instinct and an elevated sense of superiority and entitlement (“I always win!”). It’s true that, until the 2016 referendum, he had been a serial winner in politics, as in much of his life. As the young, stylish, charming pretender, the self-styled Notting Hill moderniser, in 2005 he overcame the front-runner David Davis to win the Conservative leadership. Five years later he defeated Gordon Brown and what was left of the New Labour project. (To this day, Brown remains contemptuous of Cameron and his Sancho Panza, George Osborne, editor of the Evening Standard.)

In 2010, after the Tories emerged from the general election as the largest party in a hung parliament and Brown clung on for a few days in Downing Street (his disparagers accused him of “squatting”), Cameron made his “big, open and comprehensive” offer to Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats and the coalition government was formed – the first since the Second World War. We had entered the age of austerity, which would devastate the public realm and degrade public services, as well as create a sense of mass disaffection that contributed in no small part to the vote for Brexit.

Cameron’s next “victory” was in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, which did not settle the Scottish question for a generation, as had been promised, and instead merely strengthened the hegemony of the SNP. After which, in the general election of 2015, Cameron defeated his Labour rival Ed Miliband (who, in truth, was largely the author of his own misfortune), winning a surprise majority. It meant that Cameron was obliged to honour the pledge to hold his fateful referendum.

But as Michael Portillo, a former Conservative minister and Brexit supporter, wrote in 2016, “David Cameron’s decision to promise a referendum on British membership of the EU will be remembered as the greatest blunder ever made by a British prime minister. There was nothing inevitable about it. It was a calculation made when he led a coalition and had little hope of gaining a majority at the election that loomed in 2015… But in any case, if he seriously thought that leaving the EU would be calamitous for Britain, there is no defence for taking that national risk in an attempt to manage his party or to improve its chances of election.”

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David Cameron’s book is called For the Record. A more appropriate title would have been A Legacy of Chaos, our cover line this week. Cameron believed that he could remake the Conservatives in his own image, as a moderate party of centre-right liberalism: pro-market, tolerant and cosmopolitan. But like Ed Miliband, he misunderstood the present and misread the forces in play after the financial crisis, seeking to govern a country that did not exist. He could not or refused to understand the effects of prolonged austerity on the small cities and towns. Nor did he understand why Nigel Farage’s anti-immigration rhetoric appealed to so many working-class voters. And so he held a referendum during the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War and was appalled by the xenophobia it encouraged.

As Michael Ignatieff wrote in his biography of Isaiah Berlin, the institutions of the high British establishment – the elite public schools, Oxbridge, the Inns of Court, the gentlemen’s clubs, Albany, Whitehall, Westminster, the Bank of England, the country estates – have a family resemblance. This is Cameron’s milieu. This was the social environment into which he was born and from which he acquired his considerable poise and confidence. “He [Cameron] worked his way up from the inside, floor by floor,” his old friend Nick Boles said.

Once asked what it was like to work on the parliamentary estate, Cameron likened the buildings to a great school. I suppose this must be how it feels if you went to Eton and Brasenose, Oxford: but it resembles no school I ever attended.

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In their excellent biography of Cameron, Francis Elliot and James Hanning suggested that he suffers from “slight and extremely well-concealed intellectual and social insecurities”. As I understand it, Cameron is deeply distressed about the plight of the country today and is haunted by the failures of the 2016 referendum. He cares what people think about him and he cares about his legacy. His distress is naturally well-concealed: the mask is fixed. For the truth of the matter, we will no doubt have to read Cameron’s book against itself, as it were, seeking meaning in what is not said; in the gaps, omissions and absences of the narrative. Because the reality of what his referendum did to the country is horrifying.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article appears in the 11 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron’s legacy of chaos