I’ve been having dreams about David Cameron.
Actually, they’re more like hot, angry night thoughts, that ragbag of disjointed memories that visit you half-waking in the small hours. They go something like this: I’m playing tennis against Cameron – the one game, in real life, that we ever played – and his phone buzzes as we’re knocking up. It’s 2006 and he’s not quite a year into his leadership of the Conservative party. His office is calling because what passes for a story in Westminster is about to break about his controversial friend and adviser Steve Hilton. Cameron listens and does nothing. He returns to our tennis match – to his unstylish but stolid game of dinky chips, undercutting backhands and reliable, safety-first forehand returns – and he wins. The story is bound to be embarrassing, even damaging. But he doesn’t fret or fume, nor leap into action. He lets things run. I find myself admiring his composure.
Then I’m back at the beginning, when he burst onto the political stage with such brio. His candidacy for the Conservative party leadership in the summer of 2005 isn’t so much a dark horse as a Shetland pony: he’s a 39-year-old former PR man for a TV company who has been an MP since just 2001. And yet, here he is, romping home. He holds the party conference audience in rapture with a message of modern, compassionate Conservatism. And he trounces David Davis in the final round, winning the support of his party members two to one.
Suddenly – as is the way with the 4am thinks – it’s eleven years later and EastEnders star Danny Dyer comes barging in on my thoughts, calling Dave something unspeakable, talking about him being on permanent holiday since his resignation “with his trotters up” (a disturbing link, whether Danny intends it or not, with the porcine allegations that provided the most lurid headline of his leadership) and things take a darker turn.
Cameron is calling an in-out referendum on the European Union in 2013 to silence the Euro-obsessive wing of his party, scotch the over-estimated threat of Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party and secure his own re-election as Prime Minister. He chooses to play out the Conservatives’ long-running European psychodrama on the country. In doing so, he surrenders the British debate to Farage’s politics of immigration and identity, nostalgia and new nationalism, handing the microphone to an angry chorus that features so many Little Englanders, foreigner-bashers and racist dog-whistlers. Then, after years of bitching about Brussels, he makes a grudging argument for EU membership, issues arid arithmetical warnings against Brexit, runs a self-indulgent campaign with more of an eye on Conservative party cohesion than on victory.
And he loses. He inflicts a singular act of self-harm on the prosperity of the British people, he marginalises the UK in the world, vandalises the institution forged to keep peace in Europe and robs the next generation of many of the opportunities enjoyed by his own. He sets young against old, pits Parliament against the people, invites mockery of British democracy and makes markedly more likely the break-up of the Union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Having asked Whitehall not to make contingencies for a Leave victory ahead of the vote, the British government is unprepared for Brexit and he promptly quits the scene. Uh-oh, Danny’s back and snarling: “So where is he? Where is the geezer!”
Now my sleep is full of the raucous voices of the 16.1 million people who voted to remain. And the 17.4 million who voted to leave don’t give him much credit either. To them, he epitomises the metropolitan liberal, out of touch with the citizens whom, as prime minister, it was his job to understand. He socialises in a world that had dined out so lavishly on the City’s success in the heady Noughties; now his Government metes out the cost of the financial crisis on ordinary people, dressing up austerity as fraternity with the slogan “We’re all in this together”.
By now, as though I’ve eaten a wheel of Stilton before bed, the images won’t stop coming and all I see in his premiership is an unforgiving catalogue of mis-steps and half-measures: the blood-letting in Syria, the chaos in Libya, the Big Society that didn’t happen, Andrew Lansley’s erratic health reforms, Iain Duncan-Smith’s bungled welfare revolution, the hollowing-out of local government, leaving Nancy in the pub.
At this point I wake up, the pillow damp, mouth dry. As the room gets lighter, so does my perception. It’s not just that the list of furies seems ungenerous; it’s unfair.
I look around at the Bolsonaros and Trumps, Salvinis and Orbans who have monstered what was once the centre-right and I am reminded of Cameron’s decency and honesty. It’s just over 1,000 days since he left office, but it is already easy to be wistful for a lost age of compromise, responsibility, seriousness and magnanimity in high office. It’s easy to forget that Cameron’s coalition with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats was itself a grand, deliberate act of give-and-take that, at its inception in 2010, all savant commentators doomed to failure by Christmas. In fact, it lasted five years.
As the effects of the global financial crisis took hold, Cameron’s government saw off the spectre of a brutal recession, a sterling crisis and the evisceration of the City of London, each of which looked likely when he took office. He took on the Keynesian orthodoxy amongst the economic commentariat and brooked unpopularity by cutting public spending and services. This was the Big Decision of his premiership. His Government chipped away at the deficit, new jobs were created and the British economy’s growth outstripped its European neighbours. Cameron took the reins of the Conservative party with an agenda to mend Britain’s broken society, but, by force of circumstance, his premiership was defined by the economy. He resuscitated it.
He expended Conservative political capital on progressive causes. This was a prime minister of the Right who – more than his predecessors over nearly two decades on the Left – enshrined in law the rights of gay women and men in marriage. He championed a green agenda: aggressive targets for carbon emissions, a step-change in investment in renewables and nuclear power, a steep reduction in the use of coal and the protection of marine reserves. He put an end to the taboos around mental health, showed an unprecedented sensibility to the private torment of lives derailed by dementia and stigmatised sugary drinks and the businesses that profit from obesity. He was at his most statesmanlike when he showed how a politician can, as in the case of Bloody Sunday, stand before his country and its history and apologise.
Tory modernisation did not come entirely easily, or even naturally, to him. When his climate activism waned at times, people questioned whether it was really authentic. But it wasn’t politically expedient, either. It didn’t play well with much of his parliamentary party nor with the constituency associations. For most of his time leading the Conservatives, he was much more popular than his party, precisely because his values were at odds with theirs.
Even if you blame him for holding the referendum and losing it, which I do, Brexit didn’t need to be like this. He scuttled off, only to be succeeded by worse. Theresa May was, at best, pitied in high office. In just the last fortnight, Boris Johnson has purged party members, questioned the rule of law and shelved parliamentary sovereignty all in the name of “the people’s priorities”, the definition of populism in power. Cameron opened the door to Brexit; it’s been Boris Johnson’s choice to trample on British democracy to try to get there.
All of which is to say that feelings towards Cameron – mine and, I suspect, those of many others – are still raw. There has not been the passage of time to soften the reflexive judgments we make of politicians of the day.
But, with the publication on 19 September of his memoir, For the Record, David Cameron is inviting us to give serious consideration to his premiership. The book, like the memoirs of any prime minister, will tell us things we did not know about people in the public eye. It should help us appreciate how speeches get made, people are hired and fired, decisions taken – or not taken. But what can Cameron say now that illuminates our understanding of the fork in the road where Britain finds itself? What can he offer to people looking for more than just his record, who are looking for our future?
Cameron will, no doubt, explain the political realities that forced his hand: Farage’s UKIP had a great showing in the 2012 local elections; the fact that other parties had, in different ways, made the case for EU referendums over the years; the very real prospect of a Conservative leadership challenge in 2014 if UKIP were to storm the European elections that year. His argument has always been that Britain was set for a reckoning with Europe. A referendum was coming, one way or another. The European Union, particularly after the financial crisis, kept taking steps towards further integration but without putting them before the British people in a general treaty.
But the question is whether he can give himself up for examination, whether he can see how his personality and personal relationships determined the outcome. Because they surely did. As David Miliband, the former Labour foreign secretary, told me knowingly of Cameron, just months after he became prime minister: “He is very good at being prime minister; what we don’t know yet is whether he will be a good prime minister.”
George Osborne, the former Chancellor and right-hand man in the Cameron project, likes to offer his theory that, in politics, the personal qualities that make you often end you. Margaret Thatcher’s singular will and uncompromising nature made her the Iron Lady who eventually came to be seen by her own MPs as a stubborn, arrogant and tin-eared leader who had to go. John Major was the local bank manager, a welcome, safe pair of hands, until he started to look like a tired suit in middle management. Tony Blair started out as an inspiring communicator who became distrusted as a messianic spinmeister and thrown out. After him, Gordon Brown was, in the words of the Labour Party’s own poster, “Not flash, just Gordon”, until just Gordon began to feel ordinary and lacking in charisma.
The same was true for Cameron. His greatest strength – his colossal self-belief – proved a liability. It clouded his judgment. Cameron made a series of calamitous calls: the decision in 2013 to commit to holding a referendum, perhaps in the risky and wrong-headed belief that he would end up in another coalition government and that the Lib Dems would block it from happening; the choice to make it a binary in-out referendum, much against the advice of friends and colleagues who believed that, if there had to be a referendum, it could be on the next EU treaty, as legislation passed by Cameron’s own government already allowed; the insistence on pressing ahead with the referendum in 2016 rather than taking the time he had at his disposal – another year – and working to get a better deal from Angela Merkel and the EU, as, again, many of those around him were urging him to do.
When challenged about the wisdom of these choices, Cameron would say that he understood the risks. He knew losing was terminal. But, as he put it, “I am a winner.” And, to be fair, from his election as an MP in 2001 to the general election in 2015, via two successful referendums, he had been. Like a gambler on a winning streak who believed he could make his own luck, he didn’t reflect on the fact that dice have no memory.
When he called the referendum, the private polling the Conservatives had done said voters were 60-40 in favour of Remain. And his confidence made him generous. For his Eurosceptic colleagues in the Conservative party, he wanted to make sure it was a fair fight. He was happy to set the question in the language of “leave” and “remain” that, if anything, benefitted his opponents.
His 2015 general election campaign had been professional and ruthless. Lynton Crosby, the Australian political consultant, oversaw a strategy to carpet-bomb his coalition partners, the Lib Dems, in the south-west of England; Jim Messina, the US campaign strategist, fired countless rounds of targeted social media messages.
For the EU referendum, on the other hand, Cameron turned to the Home Guard, a Dad’s Army of characters who had never actually led a political campaign before. Craig Oliver, the press secretary who lacked the trust and confidence of his colleagues in the Downing Street team, was a former BBC News at Ten editor who had never run a candidate for county council, let alone a general election race. To make his life more difficult, this wasn’t a general election but a referendum. The campaign models in British politics were built for 650 first-past-the-post constituency races, not a UK-wide contest to win 50-plus per cent of the vote. And the Remain campaign itself was a hodge-podge of competing party interests, personalities and organising committees of people who had not worked together before and didn’t trust each other. By comparison with the 2015 election, the Referendum was a bigger challenge and the campaign operation was amateur. Two days before the poll, Cameron’s team was saying Remain would win by 55-45.
Such was his confidence that Cameron fought the referendum campaign with half an eye on the aftermath for his party. He refused to allow “blue-on-blue” arguments in the media. If Leave had a senior Tory on the BBC, Oliver, on Cameron’s instructions, would not allow a Conservative minister to go on to put the Remain case. Cameron’s team railed that the Leavers were going unchallenged on air, but they wouldn’t put their best people up to make their case.
That may seem a quaint thought now. In the three years since, the divisions within the Conservative family have become a long and bloody shouting match. The break-up of the Notting Hill set – the circle of David and Samantha Cameron’s friends who together forged his political project and shared in the parenting of their young children – has been less visible but more painful. At the heart of it was the rupturing of the relationship between the Camerons and the Goves.
For the Camerons, both David and Sam, Michael Gove’s decision to back Leave was considered The Betrayal. They counted the Goves not just as professional friends, but family ones too. Sure, David and Michael had created the Cameron project together. But, much more than that, Michael and his wife Sarah Vine had supported the Camerons when their son Ivan died. They were babysitters for each others’ children. Michael was a Cabinet minister. David believed that he had an understanding from Michael that he was not pressing for a referendum and would sit the argument out. Michael not only chose to join the Leave campaign, but he ushered Boris Johnson into it. This changed the calculus, creating a much more formidable problem for the Remainers.
But does Cameron see that he had himself reset the terms of friendship when he sacked Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Education in 2014? It was Cameron who had deemed that friendship with the Prime Minister operated on two levels – and that the political could trump the personal. Gove had been an energetic reformer of schools in England. He was putting the backs up of thousands of teachers, who, in turn, were bad-mouthing him and the Tories to millions of parents. Lynton Crosby, planning for the 2015 election, was clear he had to be moved. And Cameron, to the surprise of Gove and many of their friends, moved him. It was professional and logical. He was the Leader of the Conservative Party with a general election to win. But the lesson drawn by Gove and Steve Hilton, another friend and former adviser who later chose to fly over from California to campaign against his former boss and for Leave, was that if Cameron could operate with them on two tracks, then they had every right to do the same.
Pretty much everyone who is fond of Cameron will tell you they adore Samantha. Their marriage is much admired. Their close friends say that when the two of them got together, it was generally judged that he’d won life’s lottery ticket, not the other way round. To her credit, she was not in love with the life of the Prime Minister’s wife. She didn’t start out that enthusiastic about losing weekday evenings and weekends at Chequers to schmoozing wayward Conservative politicians and potential donors. Over time, she became even less so. She prized their privacy as a couple and a family and, through a decade in public life, she has kept him happy and decent, open-hearted and whole.
Cameron and his wife had come to an understanding before the 2015 general election that, if he was returned to office, he would not run again. Although he never publically set a date for his departure, the calculation inside Downing Street was that he would most likely step down in 2018, or 2019 at the latest. That meant that Cameron was in a hurry to get the referendum out of the way, so that he could push through the social reform agenda that he hoped would be his legacy. There was an official timetable for calling the referendum, namely within two years of the General Election. But, for Cameron, there was a personal one, too.
His determination to hold the referendum in June 2016, rather than the summer of 2017, was unwavering. He was already planning the timing, content and choreography of his referendum announcement ahead of the crunch weekend for UK-EU talks in Brussels in February 2016 – and regardless of its outcome.
There were, to be sure, political arguments for getting on with it. There was the fear of another summer of mass migration across the Mediterranean, stoking anti-EU sentiment. There were French and German elections coming up that might make it harder for Berlin or Paris to offer London any more.
But the political arguments to hold out for another year were stronger. The UK had not got a deal from Angela Merkel; she needed more time. The EU had not offered anything substantial on immigration, the one issue that he knew mattered with British voters. The Remain campaign was not prepared.
All this the conscious mind knows and no doubt will be dwelt on, explained, rationalised, justified, pleaded for in For The Record. In the coming weeks, there will be plenty of parsing of his account of the Brexit referendum. It will, I suspect, land like a Sinatra sorry – “regrets, I have a few, but then again too few to mention”. It will be part justification, part explanation, part apology.
So the chaos of the night-time seems to fit his legacy better than the logic of the day. These days, he feels like a footballer, red-faced and bewildered, whose own goal has cost his team the match. It’s caused more pain to his own players than joy to his opponents. It’s his fans, the people that he brought into the Tory tent – the modernisers and internationalists, gay and black Britain, the environmentalists and the tech entrepreneurs – whom he has let down. Brexit has wiped clean the slate of Team Cameron’s achievements. And he surely knows it.
Cameron came to personify how the centre ran out of ideas. He appears now like the last centrist, the third generation of the Third Way, inspired by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, inheriting their gifts of communication and triangulation, but lacking the radicalism or urgency they represented at the time. Cameron positioned himself as a compassionate Conservative. He ended up the complacent centrist. He allowed others to set the terms of the debate.
In this, Cameron is a failure unto more than himself. He raises the alarm for today and tomorrow, too. The danger is that his record justifies a retreat to the rebooted ideas of 20th-century socialism or nationalism. It may stoke the self-belief of the Jeremy Corbyn Left; and, for the Right, it adds to the seductive appeal of Steve Bannon’s mix of social conservatism, fiscal opportunism and jingoism. We ask our leaders to find the words to define our changing times and to shape our collective action to meet them. In this, Cameron failed to fill the space. He was overrun by others who did.
This is the lesson of the Cameron years. One that’s not really about him at all. Nor about Brexit, either. It’s that his modernisation didn’t modernise nearly enough. This is not just to point the finger at Cameron, but at myself, too. I feel party to that complacency. When I was at The Times, we endorsed Cameron in the 2010 general election. Compassionate Conservatism was a rebranding of the centre-right, when it needed a fundamental rethinking. The radical centre wasn’t radical at all; rather, it was competent and reformist. Cameron and his equally well-educated, if too like-minded, team were intelligent and diligent, they took decisions rather than ducked them, they crafted policies after weighing the expert analysis, the policy options and the political implications, they governed deliberately rather than instinctively, honestly rather than expediently, responsibly rather than charismatically. And it wasn’t enough.
The Cameron centre had no answer to the big question of immigration. It set bold targets, but then failed to deliver them. Over the course of the decade, it has surely become clear that the times ask more of our politics than that. Politics, at its best, is a feat of imagination. Cameron didn’t take a stand like Merkel on migration. He didn’t seek to remake France’s politics at home, in Europe and the wider world like Macron. He didn’t, like Obama, take his moments to articulate the arc of history. As a result, his centrism looked as though it had no core. In the face of the financial crisis and the inequality gap, the climate emergency and the technology challenge, we need imagination, vision and ambition from our politics that just wasn’t there in the Cameron years.
To dream bigger. Cameron’s record is – or at least should be – Exhibit A in the case for a new politics, the necessity of big, radical ideas and the price you pay for not having them.
Public confidence in politicians, even our system of democracy, is ebbing. Enthusiasm has drained out of the party system. Sure enough, Cameron has left us even deeper and nastier divisions within politics and society than the ones he aimed to mend. But that’s not to say politics is short of energy today. He has, unintentionally, helped usher in a new age of activism. Suddenly, we are in the market for new people ready to have a go at the big problems.
This is not the Big Society that Cameron had in mind. A new wave of social action, unexpected leadership and impassioned networks has taken its place. When he addressed the House of Commons for the last time as Prime Minister, in the summer of 2016, he signed off with a certain sangfroid: “I was the future once.” In fact, the future hasn’t proved to be his at all.