It was once said that ‘all political lives end in failure’. Theresa May and Boris Johnson would reluctantly agree with that.
The turnover of Prime Ministers has never been higher, with four leaders in the past six years. The position has never looked like such a poisoned chalice, nor has the country ever looked with such disdain and mistrust towards politicians.
Liz Truss will face a public deeply sceptical after her pandering to party members. Keir Starmer, too, is at the front of a party that few particularly like or feel affection towards any more. Instead of purely looking towards party icons such as Margaret Thatcher and Harold Wilson, both can learn more relevant lessons from David Cameron.
Cameron, like those before and after him, is remembered for where it all went wrong: the EU referendum he called and lost. When the parties look back at him, it is usually to criticise his record.
Conservatives did not like him much and see six wasted years of failing to roll back the state. Labour hated him for the effects of austerity on public services and wider society.
Perhaps, though, the views on Cameron never ranged from anything other than slight dislike to outright hatred. That is one parallel to today’s political leaders. He wisely recognised this and declared himself the ‘heir to Blair’, as Tony Blair once had to Margaret Thatcher. By claiming the centre ground, being milquetoast became a selling point.
Even from the start, the Conservatives did not really warm to Cameron. He was wise to move Boris Johnson to London. Other backbenchers and party members regularly sniped at his latest attempts to connect to the electorate – such as adopting a green tree as a logo to show his interest in the environment. The Spectator wrote that he was at his best in coalition.
The Spectator were right; Cameron paired the Liberal Democrats with talented but more right-wing figures, such as George Osborne, Michael Gove, and Iain Duncan Smith. Unlike the constant micro-managing of Blair, he let government get on with the job. It resulted in policies that were controversial but effective.
The debate over austerity continues into this decade. It lasted throughout most of Theresa May’s premiership, while after the pandemic the Treasury repeated several of its measures like capping public sector pay below inflation. Proponents say that relaxing labour laws and offering discounts on national insurance helped employment increase from 70% to 75%.
Cameron’s allies such as David Gauke agree that we needed to put ‘public finances on a sounder footing’, but argue we should have done ‘a little less through [cutting] spending’ and maintained a higher tax base. It is hard to disagree with that, yet Truss does and will be highly unwilling to sacrifice a key aspect of her leadership campaign.
Several academics from LSE write that Cameron was a ‘disjunctive leader’, meaning somebody who inherited an unstable political system and had to use pragmatism at the expense of ideological purity. They argue he did this successfully in spite of the most rebellious Parliament since 1945.
The education reforms of Gove, while chaotic and frustrating for students like me, created a more rigorous academic culture – not only through the new exams, but the definitive turn towards academies over local authorities. The welfare reforms of Duncan Smith encouraged work and, while underfunded, have recently been used to reward recipients for part-time work.
Of course, some things went wrong. Not the contentious topics such as austerity, education, and welfare reform, but disastrous open goals – such as the centralisation of the Health and Social Care Act 2012 which both parties are now committed to reforming. That year’s budget was ridiculed by Ed Miliband as the ‘omnishambles’.
The budget attempted to raise taxes on goods as diverse as Cornish pasties to reduce the deficit and fund its other tax cuts on the wealthiest earners and businesses. Later, the aftertaste of the Iraq War meant Cameron lost his vote to enter the Syrian civil war. Yet, until the very end, these wobbles were few and small. He deservedly won a majority in 2015.
It can only be said that Cameron was a gambler who rose the stakes too high. He became addicted to the rush, having defeated opponents on issues as wide as tuition fees, electoral reform, and Scottish independence. The EU will always be a permanent stain on his record. Additionally, his ‘big society’ philosophy was left as dead in a ditch as Blair’s ’third way’.
Then again, John Major and Theresa May failed even more to leave a mark on the country: most leaders fail to do so. What you make of this is up to you. Ian Kershaw calls Cameron a ‘placater’, and many might agree after the past six years. His biographer, Anthony Seldon, disagrees, describing him as a ‘patriot’ of the kind we will sorely miss.
Whichever view of Cameron you subscribe to, he deserves more appreciation in hindsight. Most people would take back the stability he offered in a heartbeat. This presents important lessons for both Truss and Starmer. Truss will have to prove that she understands why Cameron was able to win and maintain power.
In place of the outsider act, Truss will have to advocate a popular capitalism that reconciles the party’s history with the insecurities of the global economy. Starmer, on the other hand, has shown more willingness to embrace taboos such as praising Blair. His balancing act with the Labour left and the electorate will have to consider the successes of Cameron. But is that a bridge too far to cross?