Friday 20 December 2019

The state of the nation

A dismal legacy

The new British government will have its hands full dealing with the failings of David Cameron

By Chris Cook

There are plenty of traditional Conservatives taking no pleasure in the victory of Boris Johnson. He was a journalist whose dishonesty got him fired by the Times and – once he learned how to harness it – promoted at the Telegraph. He is a politician who rose to office in London by touting his liberalism but then rose to the highest of stages by leading a sometimes-nativist campaign to leave the European Union.

Some may dread the idea that he will implement his pledge to leave the EU – and maintain a great distance from it afterwards. Others will be appalled that he plans to retool the state. But even if you cannot be persuaded that he will be a good prime minister, it may be some comfort that he cannot be the worst. And that any prime minister would need to take action on these things. That is because David Cameron’s shadow is so long and so dark. His loss of the Brexit referendum will dominate his place in history – but the problems he has bequeathed to his successors go well beyond that. Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s consigliere, has said: “Pundits have wasted millions of words on what they regard as [Cameron’s] ‘mystery’ but he is exactly what he seems… a ‘sphinx without a riddle’… He does not dig into the details of policy.” But even this scathing verdict understates Cameron’s failure. Indeed, it has taken Cameron himself to reveal how poor he was at his job. His recent memoir is intended as a defence for his career. It is, perhaps characteristically, an accidental guilty plea to much more serious charges. The consequences of them will hang over this new government and the UK for years to come. For The Record is not one of the great pieces of political writing, even if Cameron is reasonably engaging company. He never quite says “needless to say, I had the last laugh”, but it is there between the lines a fair few times. The book’s formulation also shares something with Cameron’s speeches, which had the curious feature of rarely pursuing an argument. Rather than being a logical progression to a conclusion, they were often strings of assertions. His speeches sometimes broke into Tory beat poetry to turn awkward corners (“We have got to fight this mood with all we’ve got. / Not just because it’s wrong for our economy / because we need growth and jobs”). What is now clearer is the reason for his difficulty in mounting an argument: he is a man whose politics is all gut and no brains. This, itself, is no slight. There is a strong tradition of Conservatism that rejects cold “rationalism”; Michael Oakeshott’s writings provide a framework for a Toryism that is felt in your bones rather than following explicable rules. Cummings wrote: “Cameron regards his job as like a steward in charge of the ‘ship of state’ – his job is not to crash it into the rocks.” Cummings presumably does not know it (he is yet to turn down a chance to boast of reading a book), but this is a paraphrasing of Oakeshott. The revelation of For The Record, however, is the extent to which Cameron never really tested whether his understanding of the country around him was true – let alone whether the reforms he proposed would work. You always assume politicians know when they are stretching the truth. But this book rattles with sometimes-astonishing revelations of his ignorance. He really seems to have believed those Tory press releases. He was a conviction politician – it’s just that his convictions were written by a load of 23 year-old press officers. He acknowledges not understanding the NHS reforms which ate his government for months on end. Andrew Lansley’s mammoth Health and Social Care Act was just too difficult to get to grips with. “The jargon he’d use was baffling… It was like an artist unveiling a piece he’d spent years on, and everyone wondering what on earth it was.” More alarming, though, are the places where he parades vast holes in his knowledge unwittingly. He gives an account of Black Wednesday, when Britain crashed out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992. He was, at the time, an adviser in the Treasury. But he does not seem to understand what happened – and how exchange rates interact with interest rates (“Even if we had joined at a lower exchange rate, those high interest rates would still have been necessary”, he wrote). On education, he says that he was glad Michael Gove “took our fight to the failure-preserving, status-quo-defending teaching unions”. He believed that “town hall bureaucrats had been calling the shots” in schools. But this does not show familiarity with events in English schooling since the 1980s. The country’s teaching unions in England in the 2000s were internationally unusual for their weakness; split into a handful of shards, they had never managed a co-ordinated strike and were not even involved in negotiating the national teachers’ pay framework. Furthermore, one of the curiosities of English education was how little local government could do. The OECD described head teachers in England as then having near-unique freedom “not only in allocating resources but also in making decisions about curricula and assessments”. One of Cameron’s better-considered reforms was to the state pension system. But his account reveals that he doesn’t know which bits he was abolishing or keeping. He appears to have confused pension credit and the second state pension. Steve Webb, once Cameron’s pensions minister, told the Institute for Government after leaving government that, on pensions, “as soon as you go into a tier of detail below the headline, you’ve lost everybody”. It now appears he was referring to the prime minister. On benefits, Cameron was even more baffled. Tax credits, he said, had introduced “bizarre incentives” which meant that “many low-paid people who received it would be financially better off working less or not at all”. There were problems with tax credits, but their basic premise was that they should make it better off to work – and to work more. He seems to have introduced Universal Credit, in part, to correct a problem that did not exist. Foreign policy is the part of his book that he clearly took most seriously. But take the section on the intervention into Libya. It runs for 18 pages. Everything is going fine and enjoys Cameron’s firm leadership until the 16th page, when suddenly the verbs run passive as Libya descends into chaos over two pages. And then onto the next thing. At one point in the book, he says he wanted “one of Britain’s most prominent Catholics” to become the Ambassador to the Holy See – a real diplomatic job, dealing with a statelet with a surprisingly active foreign policy. Considering Anne Widdecombe, a former MP and current crank, for the role shows what a thin grasp he had both of diplomacy and British Catholicism. Please, try harder. But that hole is perhaps unsurprising given his lack of interest in Northern Ireland. Still, at least he shows he knows where it is. He also knows there’s a Scotland – that was the place with the independence referendum. But Carwyn Jones, the First Minister of Wales throughout his tenure, is never mentioned. The only substantive references to Wales are to him trying to move the politics there “away from the constitutional question”. “Wales was about more than Cardiff, and more than devolutional wrangling”. On austerity, he explains that decisions needed to be made in 2010 – when the UK thought it had a budget deficit of 11 per cent of GDP. But the decision to persist with austerity in the years that followed are much harder to defend than the initial plan. The world would benefit, for example, from knowing why he ploughed on in 2013 and 2014, when public services were beginning to fall apart. The answer seems to be that he did not notice. His account of the NHS is rather remarkable:

“Waiting times for consultant-led treatment fell in our first two years. The number of people waiting more than a year for operations halved. Hospital infections halved. Mixed-sex wards were all but abolished. There were almost 10,000 more doctors, over a thousand more midwives, and fewer managers.”

But look at the service’s key targets. He does not mention that, for example, by the time he left office, long waits in English emergency departments spiralled from 2.7 per cent to over 9.5 per cent of the total – from 40,000 a month to 174,000. He took over an NHS where 8 per cent of the 2.5m people on the waiting list for treatment had been waiting for longer than 18 weeks. When he left office, the list was at 3.3m – and the situation was deteriorating fast. Today, 15 per cent of a 4.4m person waiting list are waiting more than 18 weeks. There is no hint of how an already-fragile British state was deskilled on his watch. Experience was expensive, so was disposed of without a second thought. Part of the reason why the British state struggled with Brexit so dismally was that the British state now struggles with everything. There were problems before, but it is striking how much went wrong on his watch. The Cameron reforms were ham-fisted and run on skin-and-bones budgets, but lots were also botched by over-stretched officials running on empty. The English schools system is fractured. The health service is coping by quietly ignoring the laws Cameron passed. The benefit system is creaking at the edges. Social care remains in crisis. Local government is a wreck. Starting from here, it is not clear how it can cure itself. Cummings has plans, we are breathlessly told, to reform the civil service. Who knows what that will look like, but he is surely right that something must be done. So all of this makes it a bit of a surprise when Cameron describes catching himself acting at one point like a “difference-splitting, circle-squaring policy wonk”. He also reports that he would “shock” his staff with “my eagle eye for detail”. Whatever his gifts may be, he is not a man blessed with tremendous self-knowledge. How, then, did he do so well politically? Cameron is a cheery fellow, easily flattered and happy to flatter. The Cummings verdict is that he was “superficially suitable for the job in the way that ‘experts’ often judge such things – i.e. basic chimp politics skills, height, glibness etc, so we can ‘shove him out to give a statement on X’. That’s it.” Certainly, he is a posh charmer and an easy presence. His political skills derived from his casualness. But he shows you can have too much of a good thing. Clare Foges, a long-serving speech-writer, wrote in The Times last year about the key skills you needed in his orbit: “Lightness is essential and earnestness the worst crime. It doesn’t do to be too serious. Far better to be jolly and vague than earnest and right — marking you out as someone who doesn’t really get it.” His distance from reality was only permitted by living in a warm bath of like-minded fellows. According to the book’s index, the most-referenced person is Samantha Cameron, his wife. Excluding foreigners, nine of the next eleven places are held by Cameron’s near-contemporaries at Oxford. The two exceptions are Gordon Brown (Edinburgh) and Nick Clegg (Cambridge). But there is more. For all the talk of modernising the party, the index entries show that, of the names in the book, 531 are men and 117 are women – it is 82 per cent male. A third of all the mentions of women are taken by the Queen, Margaret Thatcher, his wife, his daughter, and mother. But that understates the maleness: even when they are mentioned, it is striking how little women in his orbit seem to speak. Cameron says he valued Kate Fall’s “emotional judgment and intelligence” more than anyone else’s. His operations chiefs Liz Sugg and Gabby Bertin “got me from A to B, fended off the press and made everything happen”. Along with Foges, they account for almost one tenth of the 439 mentions of women in the index – 42 of them. But Fall is only quoted once actually saying something. Bertin once urges him to hurry up choosing a name for his new son. And Sugg is cited once telling him that him forgetting what football team he supports looks bad. Foges, his “long-time wordsmith”, never actually utters one. This is a book where the chaps do the talking. They don’t talk well, though. Cameron never sets out a coherent theory of the state, nor a clear view of Britain’s strategic posture. There is no view about what Britain is good at or bad at. There is no sense of limitation, or meaningful thoughts on how the state needs to adapt to differing threats. His extended discussion of “the Big Society”, the closest he comes to a theory of the state, is almost performance art in its banality. Compare his book to Anthony Eden’s memoirs. Both are Old Etonians remembered for foreign policy failures: Cameron for Brexit and Eden for Suez. These two errors are not very alike – and nor are the men. But comparing their seriousness is not flattering to Cameron. Indeed, Eden’s account is partial, but you can see he was a man out of his time, not out of his depth. The closest we get to a statement of what Cameron thinks a national posture should look like is cliche about our national character. There are moments when the book appears to have been written by a “Keep Calm and Carry On” tea towel. Soldiers joking about sunburn while under fire in Afghanistan is “wonderfully British”. Number 10 being “slightly improvised” and “rickety” is “brilliantly British”. People who riot offend British values, of which the “most” British are “duty, tradition, stoicism”. And that elite listing was best symbolised by the royal family standing during the jubilee celebrations on a boat on a rainy day – sorry, in “profoundly British weather”. The Olympic team showed “what being British was really about”. And when he met the people who’d gone to Africa to combat Ebola: “I thought to myself: that’s Britain. We are defined by a quiet, practical, compassionate dedication to doing the right thing…” He will write to future prime ministers, he promises: “Britain is the greatest country on earth. Our greatness is derived not from our size, but from our people – their decency, their talent, and that special British spirit.” Eden’s memoir, for the record, ends with him resigning on the second-last page, and then getting on a boat to leave the country on the last. He makes no appeals to posterity, and no threats to impose twee patriotism on his successors. On Europe, Cameron elects not to join any dots. At the start of his tenure as Conservative Party leader, membership of groups such as Better Off Out was banned for front-benchers. The party was within the continent-wide European People’s Party. It is only under his leadership that Brexit went mainstream. He bought off eurosceptic MPs with a promise to leave the EPP, the party of Sarkozy and Merkel, for a new group with no such heavyweights. That this party eventually oversaw the UK’s decision to leave the EU must be seen as his personal failure. At each moment when he had the chance to start sticking up for the EU, he declined to do so. He went for the easy applause line, and made concessions to his right. Even now, he does not know what the EU is and what it did. In his history of the British economy, he credits Thatcher’s reforms with enhancing economic growth, but does not mention joining a growing and deepening free trade zone on our doorstep. It may be true, as he says, that the Conservative party would have demanded a referendum eventually. But he had diligently cultivated its euroscepticism. On his watch, no-one ever got passed over for being too eurosceptic. But when I was a reporter at the FT, one MP once rang a colleague in a panic asking us to drop the adjective ‘europhile’ about him – for the sake of his career. Cameron talks as though he were not the person in charge of leading this institution. The Tory turn was a force of nature, like the tides or the winds. There was no point resisting or guiding it. “The latent Leaver gene in the Tory Party was more dominant than I had thought.” Goodness, if you plant those seeds and water that soil, plants seem to grow. Furthermore, the failure of his attempts at renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership is perhaps unsurprising, given that he was wholly incapable of understanding the EU. Having left the EPP, he seems amazed to be excluded from EPP discussions. He objected to the EPP candidate for Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, being appointed after the EPP won the European elections. It was, he said, “a backroom stitch-up”. Maybe – but he could have been in the room. This misunderstanding of the EU also means he also seems not to see when he is being played. Before the referendum, Boris Johnson had, he reports, “become quite fixated on whether we could sort the issue of declaring in legislation that UK law was ultimately supreme over EU law”. This was a demand that could not be met. In any meaningful union with 28 states, the individual countries cannot wield vetoes over bits of community law. But Cameron wrote that “instead of pragmatically pushing the boundaries in order to make the EU’s legal order more tolerable, our officials were determined to play strictly by the rules”. They kept, he said, “watering down the wording” on a plan Oliver Letwin had cooked up to let eurosceptics claim that this was true. The officials were, surely, right. In this, as elsewhere, he comes across as a dupe. He reports straight-facedly that Angela Merkel, an East German-trained chemist, tells him she used to admire British science from behind the Iron Curtain. And he seems to take seriously that Hamid Karzai, then Afghan president, tells Cameron “that, because of our history, we had a greater understanding of the situation in Afghanistan than did the United States”. At the moment this was said, the US had 100,000 troops on the ground. Ah, but we had our feted ancestral wisdom about the Hindu Kush. A soft-headed man, even at the very height of the referendum campaign, Cameron would not allow the Remain campaign to attack the credibility of the men at the head of the Leave campaign: “Every time I was shown a mocked-up poster like one of Boris in the pocket of Farage… I vetoed it… passing up the chance to savage these ministers because I was leader of the party.” So having allowed the right of his party to become fevered with the promise of freedom from the EU, he was too feeble to put them in their place – even as they tore lumps out of him. As the book progresses, you start to realise why Britain is in such an unholy mess: a posh fellow with a degree from Oxford is assumed to know what he’s up to. There is something sweet – almost – about his solipsistic verdict on the Middle East Peace Process: “I have to be frank: in the six years I was in Downing Street we made no progress.” We currently have an even less serious person as prime minister. You can see a recurrence of the disease that afflicted the media under Cameron – treating a lightweight like a statesman. The dignity of office and the size of his majority will imbue banality with solidity. And, given the seriousness of the task ahead, this is a grave danger – especially for a state as weakened as the post-Cameron UK. Cameron writes, at the start of the book, about being taught by someone who was a student of the “Great Man” school of history – the notion that history is best understood through a chain of biographies of the great men who shaped it. There’s a cruel irony to it for him. It is a daft way to conceive of history. But in Cameron’s case, it works. Britain is diplomatically weak, suffering anaemic economic growth and underpowered public services. The country may fracture in the coming years; the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland may have had its last general election. The country has little capacity to act, yet is tasked with remaking itself and carving a new strategic posture. This state of affairs is largely his personal failure.

Further reading