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Leader: David Cameron's tarnished legacy

The former prime minister will be remembered for losing the EU referendum. But this was far from his only failure. 

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 first appeared in the 15 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation

Arsène Wenger. Credit: Getty
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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.