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13 September 2016

David Cameron: The moderniser whose bravery stopped fatally short

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

By Tim Bale

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he took over in 2005 to drag the Conservatives (kicking and screaming if that’s what it took) into the 21st century has been replaced by someone seemingly intent on taking the country back to the 1950s – a time before mass immigration, entry into Europe, the decline of the Commonwealth, the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”.

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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.

 

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