David Cameron: Britain’s worst post-war Prime Minister so far

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, September 25th 2019

David Cameron has been on our airwaves and TV screens a lot in the past week punting his autobiography ‘For the Record’.

We last saw and heard from ‘call me Dave’ a while ago as he has been away in his shed writing his memoirs and waiting for an appropriate moment in the political storms when they could be published.

It was only three and a half years ago that Cameron was UK Prime Minister, resigning the morning after the Brexit vote, and it already feels like a long time. The politics of Cameron-Osborne, intent of the ‘Cameroon Conservatives’ and the coalition between the Tories and Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems, does seem now like a very different political age, yet we are still living with the many consequences of this period.

‘For the Record’ is a strange book. Its tone is a mixture of arrogance, unsureness and at times apologetic. Cameron wants to give the impression that he is reflective – given the albatross hanging over him that he has left the rest of us with – but he cannot quite bring himself to fully embrace this.

On the defining theme of his government, Brexit apart – austerity – he has no real regrets and no understanding of the pain that his actions caused. It is actually worse than that. Cameron responds to criticism about the scale of the cuts and that he overdid austerity with the opposite sentiment – arguing that ‘we might as well have ripped the plaster off with more cuts early on.’

A significant driver in this is class and privilege. Cameron was born into a comfortable upper middle class background and through Eton and Oxford had an effortless journey through the initial parts of his career, getting his first job in PR aided by his future mother-in-law Lady Astor.

Cameron has no direct understanding of how the rest of the world operates and how most people experience life in the UK. He just does not have the skills, insights and background, or the depth and want to overcome the limitations of where he has come from to surmount the barriers between people like him and the vast majority of the rest of us.

A telling set of comments in the book comes when Cameron recounts Michael Gove’s criticism of the number of Etonians working in No 10. Cameron’s response to this is revealing – ‘With Oliver Letwin and me in the Cabinet, there were indeed a large number of people, who had come from one school. But that was the world we’d inherited – literally.’

Cameron goes on: ‘It was the world we were trying to change with our school reforms, so that one day No 10 would be stuffed with people from free schools and academies across the country.’ He then concludes with the line: ‘Class war was never our thing’, showing that on every level he represented a self-interested, self-serving politics with a limited grasp of reality.

Brexit and Scottish Independence

Then there is Brexit. The fatal set of actions which Cameron undertook on Europe which brought us to the 2016 vote. He is defiantly unaware that by trying to continuously accommodate again and again the ultra-Brexiteers in his party and minimise the electoral threat of Nigel Farage, he was fanning the flames and feeding the monster which grew larger, ultimately devouring him and at our collective cost.

Cameron in opposition took the Tories out of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament. Then in 2013 he made his in/out referendum commitment, attempted his ill-fated renegotiations with the EU, and then held the vote immediately after the summer migration crisis of Europe of the previous year.

Cameron was consciously modeling his action on the EU referendum on Harold Wilson’s success in 1975, negotiating with the then EEC and holding a vote that he won 2:1 for membership. The difference was that Wilson was leading a Eurosceptic party slowly away from its insular delusions; Cameron was feeding Euroscepticism which became more and more dogmatic and intransigent with each concession.

Not surprisingly, Cameron’s appeasement of such people saw him incrementally give more and more ground to hard Brexiteers, and connected to this, in his book, there is not one single positive argument making the case for the EU and British involvement and membership of it. Despite all this, Cameron was genuinely surprised that the UK narrowly voted to leave.

There are two chapters in the book covering the independence referendum that underline what was obvious during and after the campaign: that Cameron and the Downing Street operation had little feel for Scotland or understanding of the strategic terrain that the vote was being fought out over.

Hence, the independence case is caricatured as ‘populism’ with Cameron believing they took the SNP’s argument on and comprehensively defeated it by 55:45, writing, ‘we identified the anti-establishment sentiment early on, we confronted it, and took the necessary risks.’ Ruth Davidson is called ‘phenomenal’ and seen as having a chance of leading the Scottish Tories to becoming the ‘biggest’ force in the Scottish Parliament in 2021 – two judgements superceded by events.

‘For the Record’ is a mammoth book: 732 pages long that could have been even longer had the publishers (Harper Collins) not insisted on it being cut by 100,000 words. That compares with 914 pages for Margaret Thatcher’s ‘The Downing Street Years’ – despite her being in office for nearly twice the time he was: eleven and a half years compared to six years.

Cameron, Leadership and the Politics of Judgement

A thread running through Cameron’s book is that for all his undoubted advantages, confidence and intelligence, he just isn’t that good at doing politics at the top level and in particular, is very poor at reading and interpreting individual political relationships.

Time and again he misreads situations and people, and then is surprised at the consequences. This is still a character trait in Cameron with, in some of the media interviews on the book, him indicating that he had been happy to ask the Queen to intervene in the last stages of the indyref. On the weekend the Yes campaign went briefly ahead in the polls Cameron found himself at Balmoral and asked the Queen’s Private Secretary if there could be some soft intervention by the Queen such as ‘a raising of the eyebrow, even you know a quarter of an inch, we thought would make a difference’.

This caused the Palace last week to state they had ‘an amount of displeasure’ as a result of Cameron’s indiscretions. It is typical Cameron at his worst, bringing the Queen into political controversy at an acute point in the history of the UK as Brexit reaches its climax and the Queen’s constitutional role is being widely debated with regard to prorogation.

This misjudgement can be seen in how Cameron was thrown by the decision of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to campaign for leave in the 2016 campaign. This was naivety in the extreme from Cameron. Gove had a long history of intellectual Euroscepticism, while Boris Johnson in his period at ‘Daily Telegraph’ European desk notoriously fed Brexit sentiment with a constant drip of anti-Brussels stories, many of which were made up.

A phrase Cameron uses to describe his teenage years seems unwittingly a description of how he approached leadership of the party and country, writing that he had ‘a weakness for going with the crowd, even when the crowd was heading in the wrong direction.’ I doubt he has any sense of what a fitting description of the adult Cameron this is.

It would be easy with a book like this just to blame David Cameron’s shortcomings, or indeed that of his privileged class and vested interests. But that is really too easy and too obvious, and the phenomenon of Cameron and his leadership and what it says about the Conservative Party and British politics, is an indication that something is deeply wrong in our society.

It isn’t an accident that political leadership is so poor and inadequate across and within all the UK mainstream political parties. The reasons are complex – the rise of a professionalised political class, the demands of a 24/7 media, the power of corporate capitalism, and the intricate nature of many public policy issues beyond simple soundbites.

As critical is the nature of British society – fragmented and divided with the scale of inequality, poverty and insecurity alongside the self-aggrandisement and insouciance of the new super rich with their evangelical certainty that their self-interest is what the rest of us have to bend and kneel to. This after all has been the landscape that mainstream politics – whether Tory, Labour, Lib Dem or SNP – has compromised with and the background in which political messages, constituencies and leadership have had to make their case.

David Cameron’s place in history is assured. He is the Prime Minister who produced Brexit, just as Tony Blair will be remembered for Iraq, Anthony Eden for Suez, and before that, Neville Chamberlain for appeasement. In this Cameron’s failure ranks in long-term damage to the wellbeing of the people of the UK, the geopolitical standing of the country, and its relationship with our nearest friends and neighbours, as only being exceeded by Chamberlain and appeasement in its long-term consequences.

Cameron is by far the worst post-war UK Prime Minister we have ever had; his only consolation is that it looks likely he will be very quickly surpassed by the calamitous and very short lived premiership of Boris Johnson – who has in two months broken about every single convention and constitutional norm possible.

Cameron’s odyssey from seeing himself originally as the leader for the good times who was the ‘heir to Blair’ to presiding over brutal austerity and the Osbornomics to shrink the size of the state to its smallest size since the 1930s, underline that this is a politician who travelled lightly, had little real core ideology and was capable pragmatically of adopting any position if he thought it was in his or his party’s short-term interests.

David Cameron was both a politician created out of the divided times we live in and the self-belief that our elites have, and singularly unsuited to lead a country needing to make difficult choices and embrace radical reform confronting both the old and new establishments. Instead, he brought one issue: Brexit to the fore, barely understood its resonance, engaged in a spectacular miscalculation, lost and ran away.

Cameron might not like it but his child-like actions of complete irresponsibility and immaturity are the exact opposite of leadership and statesmanship, and a fitting tribute to the culture of entitlement that the worst of his class has practiced. The lessons from Cameron should be used to make sure that the likes of him, George Osborne and Boris Johnson, can never again in the future inflict such damage on society and that their vision for this country is comprehensively defeated and routed for good.