BBC One’s The Cameron Years: a parade of entitlement, cowardice and careerism

These highly educated boys, with their Greek and their Latin. How come they can’t find the right words now?

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Some words, though multi-syllabled, can feel far too slight in certain contexts. Take, for instance, “miscalculation”. In the context of David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, it sounds – doesn’t it? – rather pathetic: a discreet burp, when what is called for is some kind of drastically fast-acting emetic. “I do brood,” said the former prime minister in The Cameron Years (26 September, 9pm), a documentary series timed to coincide with his memoirs. Brood: another choice word. According to my Concise Oxford English Dictionary, it means to meditate resentfully. In other words, it’s the kind of thing you do if you’re at war with a neighbour over a hedge – not when you’ve brought an entire country close to the edge of madness.

Semantics, eh? These highly educated boys, with their Greek and their Latin. How come they can’t find the right words now? Personally – and I’m fairly certain this isn’t only wishful thinking – I think Cameron looks haunted in this series, and if some of the stories I’ve heard about him being chased off dance floors and clapped out of posh galleries are even halfway true, it’s not hard to see why; many liberal, metropolitan Tories loathe him even more than the rest of us. Nevertheless, while he was a veritable Edith Piaf when it came to regret, he would go no further. Remorse? No. It was – I can hardly believe I’m writing this – left to his old friend George Osborne to tell it like it is. “I feel responsible,” he says, at the end of the first film. “We held a referendum we never should have had.”

If this series was about Hollywood, you would have to admit that the producers have bagged all the stars. But it can’t be said to be edifying. Here is Nick Clegg, Facebook apologist extraordinaire, telling us of the “complete nonsense” Cameron liked to spout; and here is Andrew “Plebgate” Mitchell, formerly Cameron’s chief whip, asserting that his boss alighted on the idea of a referendum largely for “party management reasons”. Here, too, is Michael Gove going back on his promise to the prime minister that he would make only one speech in support of Leave (in the end, he chaired the campaign); and here, a close-run second in the treachery stakes, is Boris Johnson, casually texting the PM to say that he has decided not to support Remain, though he knows that “Leave will be crushed like a toad under the harrow” (notice that lovely and somewhat archaic word, harrow: in private, the dictionary is ever upon them – it’s just the rest of us who have to listen to their unlovely slogans, their sly incitements, their bargain basement battle cries).

Did the roots of Gove’s seeming perfidy lie in Cameron’s decision to move him from education to the whips’ office, a switch that he tried, in vain, to resist? The idea seems extraordinary, and utterly puerile, given all that was in play – and yet, you can believe it, even from the lips of Cameron, whose pink potato face comes more and more to resemble that of an ageing Queen Victoria (drop a pair of lacy undies on his head, and he’d be there). Gove’s decision to appear at all in this film, given where his energies should be deployed, says a huge amount -–though not, perhaps, quite so much as his increasingly long sideboards. Some of us are getting in a Brexit frame of mind by hoarding candles and insulin. Gove, however, is going the full tonsorial Seventies. He looks like a flying picket – or like a government spy who’s posing as a flying picket.

Is The Cameron Years unmissable television, as the trailers and heavy embargoes tried so hard to suggest? This is a tricky question. You may, when the next episode is shown, just want to go and lie down in a dark room until it’s over – that, or watch a couple of episodes of Friends. I wouldn’t blame you if you did. But then again, since we all, on some level, enabled this parade of entitlement, rank cowardice, careerism and raised eyebrows, the films do have a certain queasy import. “Daddy, we’re losing this, aren’t we?” asked little Nancy Cameron, as the results of the referendum came in. This. Such a small word – and yet, as we have come to realise, it encompasses everything now: the whole, damned lot. 

The Cameron Years
BBC One

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 20 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control