Prime ministerial legacies are about party, not just country. That might save Daveby David Runciman / October 12, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
How is history going to treat David Cameron? Making snap judgments on a prime minister’s long-term legacy can be a dangerous business. When Tony Blair was cheered out of the Commons he looked set for a dignified, if lucrative, afterlife. It’s proved far more lucrative than anyone could have imagined, but barely 10 years on there’s not much dignity left. Blair is being fitted out for the role of statesman as pariah. On the other hand, some prime ministers have just the reputation their contemporaries might have anticipated. Did anyone wave William Gladstone out of the Commons muttering under their breath that history would cut him down to size? He looms as large as ever. Did anyone say goodbye to Anthony Eden thinking that his real accomplishments would eventually earn their due? Suez was never going to get out of the way, and it hasn’t. Sometimes, what you see is what you get.
The trouble with Cameron is that it’s possible to see his time in office from two very different points of view. From the perspective of the country at large, his legacy looks weighed down with negatives. The UK is as divided as it has been in its modern history, with Scotland only locked in by economic blackmail to a union that lacks political legitimacy. Brexit revealed a nation split by generation, education and region, with neither side able to comprehend the concerns of the other. The political system is broken but seemingly impossible to reform. The economic recovery is fragile and vulnerable to future shocks. The country’s foreign policy is in tatters, scarred by military misadventures in Libya (a disaster for which a recent select committee singled Cameron out for particular blame) diplomatic blundering over Syria and no plan B for Britain’s future relationship with Europe. Cameron has left his successors an almighty mess.
Yet seen from the perspective of his party, Cameron could be considered a conquering hero. The immediate successor he has bequeathed them is a true Tory, who thinks like many of them do. The Conservative Party has not been so comfortable with its leader for a generation—even if she did use her first set-piece conference speech in Birmingham to disown virtually every aspect of Cameron’s own liberal and metropolitan brand of Conservatism. Theresa May inherits from Cameron two faits accompli that would once have seemed impossible pipedreams, even under Mrs Thatcher. Britain will leave the EU, probably before the next election. Meanwhile, the Tories will very likely win that election, because they no longer face a viable party of opposition. On Cameron’s watch, Brussels was vanquished and the Labour Party was effectively neutralised. Many Tories would not have thought such things could ever happen. When Cameron took over the leadership in 2005, with Blair still firmly in place, they would have been fantasy. To borrow from sporting parlance, if you’d offered many Tory MPs, party members and voters the twin prospect of seeing off Europe and Labour within little more than a decade, they’d have bitten your arm off.
“A chilling former PM might be as irritating as a sulking one”
It’s tempting to assume that in the long run, national interest will shape Cameron’s reputation far more than party benefits. That might be a mistake. History gets written by the winners and if the Tories are set on 15 or more years of uninterrupted rule, Cameron will have plenty of padding for his legacy. By contrast, Blair left the country in fairly decent shape; it was his party that looked in trouble, not least because of his irreconcilable relationship with his successor. And it was the party that turned on Blair first. As an ex-PM he lost the affections of his erstwhile supporters long before he lost the admiration of his former opponents, some of whom—including Cameron and George Osborne—still carry a torch for his accomplishments. But it’s a light they increasingly have to hide. Where the party leads, history tends to follow.
A lot depends for Cameron on the attitude he takes. At the moment, he is likely to be thinking more of the national picture. After all, exiting the EU was not the achievement he wished to be remembered for—whatever his personal views about Europe—and it has empowered the people within the party whom he considers his enemies. Equally, though the implosion of Labour is something that any true Tory must relish, it has had the same effect: some of May’s freedom of manoeuvre to banish the Cameroons comes from the fact that she does not feel constrained by an alternative party of government sitting opposite. Early indications from a few people close to Cameron—like his former communications director Craig Oliver—are that he is still smarting at the bruising nature of his exit and the rapid changing of the guard. Were he to nurse those grievances, things might get ugly.
What he almost certainly will not do is repeat the mistakes of his one-time hero. If Cameron makes money, it won’t be on Blair’s brazen scale. If he intervenes in British politics, it won’t be with Blair’s counter-productive preachiness.
Perhaps the biggest danger is that Cameron’s natural instinct to rise above it all will leave him looking a little detached. A chillaxing former PM might be as irritating to his party as a sulking one. If he gives the impression that he is not too bothered while they struggle with the ghastly details of negotiating Brexit, it may reinforce the lingering suspicion that he was never that serious about any of it. Like Blair when he left office, Cameron is still young and he has a long ex-prime-ministership ahead of him. Even if he avoids Blair’s blunders, he has a delicate balancing act to perform, somewhere between party and country, and between saying too much and doing too little. Being prime minister is a tough job. So these days is once having been one.