As prime minister, David Cameron was derided for his U-turns. It was fitting, then, that his time in parliament should end with one. Having vowed after leaving No 10 that he would remain the MP for Witney for the duration of the parliament, he resigned on 12 September.
Mr Cameron’s decision was understandable. At the age of 49, he is the youngest former prime minister since the Earl of Rosebery in 1895. He has no desire to be limited by the Commons. But his departure completes a remarkable denouement. Only 16 months ago, Mr Cameron became the first Conservative leader in 23 years to win a parliamentary majority. History will more often record him as the first to lose a national referendum. Despite decades of anti-EU sentiment, Mr Cameron wagered that he could win a vote on UK membership of the EU. That fatal misjudgement – Michael Portillo called it the “greatest blunder ever made by a British prime minister” – will define his legacy.
In his six years in Downing Street, Mr Cameron achieved some things of which he can be proud. He introduced equal marriage, in opposition to most of his party, agreed to spend 0.7 per cent of our GDP on foreign aid and oversaw record levels of employment.
But, in most respects, his record is deplorable. After the financial crisis of 2008, he made it his defining ambition to eliminate the UK’s current deficit. But his premiership ended with government borrowing having only halved. Austerity starved the economy of investment, reduced growth and penalised future generations. Housebuilding stayed at its lowest level since the 1920s. Having vowed to make the Conservatives “the party of the NHS”, Mr Cameron imposed an expensive and botched reorganisation on it. Today’s underfunded and overstretched health service is the consequence.
The promised transformation of the welfare system through Universal Credit was barely begun. After six years of Conservative government, the programme is not due to be completed until 2022. As Iain Duncan Smith finally recognised, “welfare reform” became a façade for cuts to the benefits of the poorest. Though he often spoke of social justice, Mr Cameron’s policies were frequently regressive. The “bedroom tax” and benefit cap penalised the vulnerable in return for paltry fiscal gains.
After forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, Mr Cameron spoke of forging a “new politics”. He pledged to reform party funding to “remove big money from politics”, to create a “wholly or mainly elected upper chamber” and to fund 200 open primaries in safe seats. Not one of these promises was kept. Mr Cameron’s administration ended in tawdry fashion with his doling out of honours to donors, cronies and friends.
Once asked why he wanted to be prime minister, Mr Cameron replied: “Because I think I’d be good at it.” At times, such as his response to the Bloody Sunday inquiry, he was. He was always fluent and composed, but he never settled on a larger purpose for his premiership. He was an incoherent fusion of soft Thatcherism, shire Toryism and modish west London liberalism. Theresa May, who has broken with her predecessor in several respects, can learn more from his failures than his successes.
Not yet 50, Mr Cameron has ample time to redefine himself out of office. He should put his talents at the service of those causes ill served while he was in it
This article appears in the 14 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation