David Cameron, the worst prime minister since 2010?

All recent British premiers have bad records, but it was Cameron who made the mega-error

June 13, 2024
Image: Abaca Press / Alamy
As if he never left? Cameron alongside world leaders on Omaha Beach, Normandy. Image: Abaca Press / Alamy

There he stood, alongside the statesmen: David Cameron looking prime ministerial, eight years after his sudden resignation. Deputising for the absent Rishi Sunak at the D-Day commemoration, the current foreign secretary looked into the mid-distance, at one with the likes of presidents Biden and Macron and chancellor Scholz.

He left prime ministerial office in 2016. Some might say that since his departure from Downing Street, the quality of his successors has steadily deteriorated: prime ministers as Russian dolls. But there is a case for saying that Cameron was the worst prime minister of them all, if the criterion is which one made the biggest, most consequential unforced error.

Of course, there is a case for the worst premier being Boris Johnson, who somehow went from winning a substantial majority to resigning from parliament in less than three years. Or for Liz Truss, who managed a mere 44 days and tanked the economy. Or even the current premier Rishi Sunak, who has failed to achieve any of his signature policies (Rwanda, the smoking ban and so on) and is hurtling his party towards a likely heavy defeat in July’s general election.

Those three are examples of failures by prime ministers, but they are micro-failures compared to the macro-failure of Cameron. Even the strategic mistakes of Theresa May in insisting on harmful red lines for Brexit and in making the Article 50 notification for withdrawal prematurely, thereby meaning the UK was bested in negotiations by the EU, are lesser wrongs than that one calamity committed by Cameron.

For it was Cameron who had the wheeze of a Brexit referendum without any notion of what to actually do if there was a vote for Leave. He took the future of the United Kingdom and risked it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, and he lost.

The sheer magnitude of that political decision is still becoming apparent. Because no thought was put into the contingency of defeat, the politics of the UK since 2016 have been in a continually unstable state. The bad, mad and sad premierships of Johnson, Truss and Sunak respectively are merely features of this turmoil. The government has often seemed little different from a box of frogs.

And because no thought was given to the shape of Brexit, the UK adopted an extreme form of departure, shut out from the very single market that Margaret Thatcher and her minister Lord Cockfield helped to build in the 1980s. It was also a Brexit that injected needless volatility into the politics of Northern Ireland, even threatening the peace process that John Major and Tony Blair helped to put in place.  

As such, not only did Cameron undermine his own record, he also undermined the real achievements of many of his recent predecessors. His prompt resignation after the referendum ushered in a hectic period of politics which still has not really ended. He could not even stay to sort out his mess.

The referendum achieved virtually the opposite of what Cameron wanted it to achieve. Far from securing the future of the UK in the EU and seeing off Nigel Farage’s insurgent Ukip, in 2024 none of the main three UK-wide political parties dare to propose rejoining. And Farage has certainly not gone away and is again leading an insurgent party.  

The focus on migration and culture-war politics—the populist politics of division, of constantly setting one group against another—have thrived in the post-Brexit climate. Brexit and post-Brexit populism has also distracted ministers from other tasks, and in almost every area of public policy there has been drift and decay, from the courts to the NHS, from the climate to housing. The wreckage of Cameron’s folly is all around, and it grows with time.

Even the centre-right party he once led is being destroyed. The moderates have left or been cast out, and it is predicted to suffer a heavy defeat next month. The Conservative and Unionist party will soon cease to have many Conservative MPs, and the union with Northern Ireland may not last for many years longer. By embracing Brexit, the Conservatives may end up being devoured by the revolution they brought about.

Yet there Cameron poses with the world leaders, as if nothing has happened, as if he has been prime minister continuously since 2010. He was literally standing in the same position he would have been in, had he carried on as premier until now: the one person for whom Brexit appears to have not made any real, ultimate difference.