To those of us who have followed David Cameron’s political career since it was in the womb, his sudden decision last week to leave politics altogether (he resigned as an MP, having said after resigning as prime minister that he would stay on the backbenches for the indefinite future) came as no surprise.
I first encountered Mr Cameron a quarter of a century ago, when he was special adviser to the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont, during Britain’s ill-fated membership of the exchange rate mechanism of the European Monetary System. I used to write weekly about the disastrous effect this attempt to fix the exchange rate was having on our supposedly free-market economy; Mr Cameron would telephone me most weeks and tell me what an idiot I was. Of course, he didn’t believe in it either, and it is the mark of people who believe in nothing that they never consider the consequences of anything they advocate, because if it goes the wrong way it is no matter to them. When Britain ignominiously left the ERM on 'Black Wednesday' in September 1992, Mr Cameron was on the phone to tell me what a great outcome it was, and how it was something of a triumph for his humiliated boss.
Fast forward 24 years and we reach his own humiliation in the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. The promise to hold the referendum was made without any regard for the possible consequences; when campaigning was underway the Remain effort (of which Mr Cameron was the figurehead) appeared almost calculated to end in catastrophe. Whether he likes it or not, taking Britain out of the EU (entirely inadvertently, in his case) is going to be his main political legacy, and it deserves to be engraved on his tombstone when the time comes. That Cameron has no better legacy than Brexit is due to the arrogance and lack of conviction with which he conducted his whole career.
Once Mr Cameron left Whitehall, and put his days as a special adviser behind him, he went to work as a public relations man for a television company. To say he made a great reputation for himself in that calling would not be accurate: but the glib, truth-lite demeanour of the PR spiv accompanied him into politics, when he won a safe Conservative seat at the 2001 general election. His party was in dire straits, that election being the second successive one it lost by a landslide to the Labour party of Tony Blair. A third, almost as large, defeat in 2005 catapulted Mr Cameron to the leadership. He was young, just 38 at the time, fresh-faced, had a pretty wife and children, and promised to be all things to all men. He kept using the word 'change' in his leadership campaign, a word pregnant with meaning if attached to certain other concepts, but meaningless if used on its own. Many in his own party started to fret about what that undefined 'change' might be, not least because they discerned from his various pronouncements that he was not really a conservative at all.
He didn’t win the next election he fought, in 2010, but his party ended up the largest in parliament, and he formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. That was not a special achievement: they were as desperate for office as he was (the last time they had had a sniff of power in peacetime was in 1914) and so they formed a convenient pact of ambition. After the disastrous conduct of the economy by Labour, which had left Britain uncompetitive and massively in debt, the coalition did, to its credit, do what was necessary to put the economy back on a sound footing, and cut public spending; though not in real terms, just by letting the rate of its increase rise less than usual. Unemployment fell, sterling increased in value, and business gave every sign of booming.
But Cameron achieved little else. He tried to cut the welfare state, but cut even more from the armed forces, leaving Britain vulnerable. His education reforms were aborted when the teaching unions cut up rough. He failed to put Britain’s unwieldy National Health Service on a steady course for a future that will be shaped by a rapidly ageing population and, in the same vein, failed to prepare Britain for a crisis that is coming in caring for the elderly. He made wild promises about controlling immigration into a country whose infrastructure is buckling and whose housing stock is inadequate, but could not keep them: all 450 million citizens from the EU’s other 27 countries have a perfect right to settle in Britain visa-free.
He promised a referendum in the 2015 campaign to prevent people voting for the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party. In that, he succeeded, but again he did not consider the consequences. He did not expect the Conservatives to win the election outright, and he knew that so long as he was in a coalition, the Liberal Democrats would not allow him to keep his promise. However, his party did win outright, and he had to follow through. He then expected to secure concessions from his fellow EU heads of government that would allow him to persuade the British people to vote to stay in. He secured virtually nothing. When he returned from the final summit in February to say he had not secured an end to unrestricted immigration from the EU, some of us knew he had lost. To him, apparently, it came as a shock.
After so catastrophic a failure of judgment he had no choice but to resign. And, as befits a man who has always given the impression of being in it for himself, there was nothing to persuade him to stay in politics, hence his decision to quit last week. It isn’t the first undertaking he has broken: he is that sort of man. And since he left high office, his Conservative successor has sacked most of the cronies he put into ministerial jobs, and is setting about reversing substantial aspects of his policies to make the Conservative party more conservative. Apart from the fact we shall soon be out of the EU, it is almost, already, as if Mr Cameron never happened.
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