Politicians, Tony Benn used to observe on an all too frequent basis, fall into two categories: they can be either signposts or weather-vanes. David Cameron, it’s fair to say, is a classic case of the weather-vane, his career characterized by a series of U-turns, a repeated bowing to pressure. Benn obviously regarded such trimming as being deeply reprehensible, but there’s something to be said in a democracy for a political leader who pays attention to the opinions of others. And the weather-vane does have the advantage of being built to survive, whatever the conditions; signposts are much more vulnerable to the buffeting of a storm.
That ability to survive seemed to be Cameron’s greatest strength, even at the outset: despite having been an adviser at the Treasury during the horrors of Black Wednesday in 1992, he walked away with his political career intact. He was already being talked of in the press as ‘one of the brightest young men in the party’, and his next job, as adviser at the Home Office, brought him under the wing of his patron, Michael Howard.
He became leader – after a full four years as an MP – when he won over the Conservative Party conference in 2005 with his bravura display of youthful optimism, seeming to be the Tory answer to Tony Blair (albeit ten years too late). That was the angle in the early days: just a regular sort of chap, not a weird obsessive like William Hague or Iain Duncan Smith. Like Blair, he was partial to some pop music – ‘I like gloomy music,’ he revealed; ‘I’m a big Bob Dylan fan’ – and he went even further, hinting at drug use: ‘This skunk is unbelievably powerful,’ he noted, on one occasion. ‘It’s completely different to. . . I think I’ll stop there.’
‘He’s like a songwriter who’s eternally ripping off someone else’s song and just changing the odd line a little,’ observed Noel Gallagher (apparently without irony). Or, according to Martin Amis: ‘He’s a rich pretty boy who’s pretending to give a damn but doesn’t really.’
Then came the credit crunch and the crash, and that entire platform collapsed under him; all the cheerful promises about distributing ‘the proceeds of growth’ had to be abandoned. He needed a new, more weighty image, if he were to neutralize the charge that, up against Gordon Brown at a time of crisis, you don’t send a boy to do a man’s job. But Cameron managed to adopt a look of sufficient seriousness to get into government, even if only as head of the Coalition.
As prime minister, he went on to survive two critical events: he emerged on the winning side of the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, and he increased his party’s share of the vote and its number of MPs in the general election the following year.
He was lucky, many commentators suggested, though viewed from another angle he looked more as though he might just be sure-footed. Not, it should be stressed, in terms of making policy: there, he seemed uninterested in the ideas being generated by his colleagues, and capable on his own account of only the broadest strokes. But when those initiatives went wrong, when he was required to deal with politics rather than policies, he was really very adept at dancing out of the corner into which he’d painted himself. It was as though that experience on Black Wednesday had convinced him that he’d been through the worst that the political world could throw at him, so there was no need to panic too much.
Last night, though, his luck ran out and things got a whole lot worse. The pound suffered an even steeper fall than it had on Black Wednesday, and rather than simply being kicked out of the ERM, the country decided to go the whole hog and withdraw from the European Union altogether.
And so he becomes the third Conservative prime minister in a row to be driven out of office by the issue of Europe: Margaret Thatcher in 1990, John Major in 1997 and now David Cameron in 2016. The party has been savaging itself over the issue for nearly three decades now; by comparison, the Labour Party’s presentational problems with the unions look like a passing phase.
This is, of course, what Cameron will be remembered for. Taunted endlessly by the Hard Right for supposedly reneging on a promise to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, he eventually felt himself pushed into offering an In-Out vote, in a desperate attempt to head off the UKIP threat. And then he managed to get the wrong result. He was the prime minister who took us out of the EU (assuming that it actually happens) and nothing else will matter.
That’s probably as it should be. There aren’t a great many other solid achievements that he’s left us from his six years in Downing Street. There were some good policies: the pupil premium, the massive hike in income tax threshold, the increases to the minimum wage. He did okay. He was, for the most part, a reasonably competent prime minister, who took over the job at a very difficult time and kept the show on the road for six years. Much of that was marking time on the economy in the hope that eventually it would turn up; a bit Micawberish perhaps, but that wasn’t such a bad idea. Certainly he was the most professional of the front-rank politicians in the last few years. Which is precisely why he was disliked by so many, seen as little more than a slick and smarmy salesman. As an electorate, we prefer our weather-vanes at least to pretend to be signposts.
His legacy should have been the rehabilitation of the Conservative Party. That was his primary task. But there were so many of its members and MPs who simply didn’t want to be rehabilitated. And now he’s allowed the Hard Right to score its first major victory since its near-terminal defeat over the Poll Tax. It seems unlikely that his successor is going to be any better at articulating One Nation Conservativism than he was.
‘The tragedy of this prime minister,’ Cameron observed of Blair, in 2006, ‘is that he promised so much but delivered so little.’ The same couldn’t really be said of him, since he hadn’t promised a great deal in the first instance. Anyway, he did deliver, even if he did turn out to be a miscast Moses accidentally delivering us from slavery to Brussels.
And now he’s due to leave office shortly before his fiftieth birthday. Maybe his epitaph should simply be that jibe he famously threw at Blair: ‘He was the future once.’