Getty
Show Hide image

David Cameron: The moderniser whose bravery stopped fatally short

Will the former PM soon not just be gone, but forgotten?

Few if any British Prime Ministers have been able to rescue their reputations by publishing their memoirs.  David Cameron had better hope he proves one of the exceptions to the rule because, right now, he’s in danger of being written off – and maybe even written out of history. Not just gone, but forgotten.

Certainly Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, seems bent on proving that almost everything he ever did as Tory leader, whether in opposition or in government, might as well have been written in sand.  The man who made it his mission when he took over in 2005 to drag the Conservatives (kicking and screaming if that’s what it took) into the 21st century has been replaced by someone seemingly intent on taking the country back to the 1950s – a time before mass immigration, entry into Europe, the decline of the Commonwealth, the abandonment of industrial policy, and the abolition of the eleven-plus ruined everything.

Perhaps it was the reintroduction of grammar schools, rather than the lure of the international lecture circuit or his family’s understandable desire to escape the media spotlight and public scrutiny, that saw him go back on his declared intention to stay on in the Commons. It’s one thing, after all, to follow John Major in refusing to conduct a running commentary on one’s successor, but quite another to remain completely silent as that successor does all she can, albeit with icy politeness, to trash your legacy in her desire to differentiate herself, keep the economy ticking over in the face of an inevitable downturn, tickle her party’s tummy, and maybe mop up what’s left of UKIP following Farage’s departure.

Perhaps it’s no more than Cameron deserves.  After all, his willingness to take on the so-called Tory Taliban was always far more limited than he pretended.  True, he got gay marriage onto the statute book – although one could argue that it was an idea whose time had come and was realised in spite of rather than because of a majority of Conservative MPs.

But Cameron’s bravery certainly never extended to taking on those MPs and their grassroots supporters on immigration and Europe.  Indeed, had he confronted rather than continually appeased them by promising what he could never realistically hope to deliver, he might never have been forced into calling the referendum that led to Brexit – apart, maybe, from the gongs he gave his gang in his resignation honours list, the one thing that he’ll always be remembered for, not just by those of us obliged to live through it but also the proverbial "historians of the future".

Yet maybe this is unfair.  Cameron, after all, can claim with some justification to be one of the electorally successful Tory leaders of all time.  He took on a party that had lost – and lost badly – three contests on the trot and was seriously wondering whether it stood much chance of avoiding yet another defeat next time around.  The swing Cameron achieved during his four and half-years as leader of the opposition – admittedly with the help of Gordon Brown and the Great Recession – was huge.  And while it proved insufficient to give him a majority, it allowed Cameron to demonstrate the lightness of touch and quick-thinking creativity required to coax the Liberal Democrats into a coalition that, played right (and, boy, did he play it right) was always going to destroy them. At the same, he provided the Tories (still Thatcherite after all those years) with the "national interest" cover they required to make unprecedented (and many at the time thought impossible) cuts to the apparently "bloated" state that New Labour had supposedly cemented permanently into place.

Even more incredible – although admittedly Cameron was lucky to be facing a far less fluent, fleet-footed performer across the dispatch box – he and George Osborne managed to push through five years’ worth of (probably unnecessarily harsh) austerity measures and yet, notwithstanding all the much-trumpeted targets missed on the economy and immigration and the absolute mess they helped make of Libya, bag their parliamentary colleagues an overall majority at the next general election. Even better, by holding and winning the first of his three referendums at the height of Nick Clegg’s unpopularity, Cameron killed off the prospect of electoral reform for at least another generation.  

All that might not count much to a man who, claiming to be motivated above all by the spirit of public service, aspired to be a statesman. Cameron always looked and sounded the part – especially, it must be said, when dealing with Northern Ireland.  Yet it constitutes no mean achievement for what, at heart, he always was – a politician. As such, when defeated, he knew he had to resign the job he loved doing.  And who can blame him when, faced with life on the backbenches supporting a woman determined to portray herself as a very different kind of Conservative, he simply couldn’t bear to stick around.

 

Tim Bale is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.  The second edition of his book, The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, was published in September 2016 by Polity Press.

Arsène Wenger. Credit: Getty
Show Hide image

My biggest regret of the Wenger era? How we, the fans, treated him at the end

Arsenal’s greatest coach deserved better treatment from the Club’s supporters. 

I have no coherent memories of Arsenal before Arsène Wenger, who will leave the Club at the end of the season. I am aware of the Club having a new manager, but my continuous memories of my team are of Wenger at the helm.

They were good years to remember: three league titles, seven FA Cups, the most of any single manager in English football. He leaves the Club as the most successful manager in its history.

I think one of the reasons why in recent years he has taken a pasting from Arsenal fans is that the world before him now seems unimaginable, and not just for those of us who can't really remember it. As he himself once said, it is hard to go back to sausages when you are used to caviar, and while the last few years cannot be seen as below par as far as the great sweep of Arsenal’s history goes, they were below par by the standards he himself had set. Not quite sausages, but not caviar either.

There was the period of financial restraint from 2005 onwards, in which the struggle to repay the cost of a new stadium meant missing out on top player. A team that combined promising young talent with the simply bang-average went nine years without a trophy. Those years had plenty of excitement: a 2-1 victory over Manchester United with late, late goals from Robin van Persie and Thierry Henry, a delicious 5-2 thumping of Tottenham Hotspur, and races for the Champions League that went to the last day. It was a time that seemed to hold the promise a second great age of Wenger once the debt was cleared. But instead of a return to the league triumphs of the past, Wenger’s second spree of trophy-winning was confined to the FA Cup. The club went from always being challenging for the league, to always finishing in the Champions League places, to struggling to finish in the top six. Again, nothing to be sniffed at, but short of his earlier triumphs.

If, as feels likely, Arsenal’s dire away form means the hunt for a Uefa Cup victory ends at Atletico Madrid, many will feel that Wenger missed a trick in not stepping down after his FA Cup triumph over Chelsea last year, in one of the most thrilling FA Cup Finals in years. (I particularly enjoyed this one as I watched it with my best man, a Chelsea fan.) 

No one could claim that this season was a good one, but the saddest thing for me was not the turgid performances away from home nor the limp exit from the FA Cup, nor even finishing below Tottenham again. It was hearing Arsenal fans, in the world-class stadium that Wenger built for us, booing and criticising him.

And I think, that, when we look back on Wenger’s transformation both of Arsenal and of English football in general, more than whether he should have called it a day a little earlier, we will wonder how Arsenal fans could have forgotten the achievements of a man who did so much for us.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.