During the 2005 Conservative leadership election, David Cameron originally trailed the field. But he came from behind to win the contest, aided by a brilliant campaign, superb presentation, and a vulnerable opponent.
In 2007, Gordon Brown threatened to call a snap election which he might have won, but Cameron and his unshakeable friend and ally, George Osborne, turned the opinion polls round by pledging tax cuts.
In 2010, Cameron failed to win the general election outright, but got into Downing Street via a coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
In 2011, it looked at one point as though a referendum might endorse AV – a result which would have pitched him out of Number Ten – but he put his back into opposing it and the proposal was voted down.
In 2014, a late poll showed Scotland on the verge of voting to leave the United Kingdom, but on the day Scots chose to stay, and a calamity for Cameron (not to mention the rest of us) was averted.
In 2015, the consensus of the polls and the pundits was that the Conservatives couldn’t win the general election. Cameron was returned at the head of the first majority Tory Government for over 20 years.
If you or I had a record like that, dear reader, would we not begin to believe our own propaganda? I can’t blame Cameron for a moment if he started to think he was immortal.
Cameron’s tragedy is that he was one leap away from winning the political equivalent of the Grand National, but fell at the final fence. He was on the verge of not losing any general election he’d fought, and winning three referendums.
Historians will record that he was the most successful Conservative leader at the polls in a hundred years, with the exception of three-times election-winning Margaret Thatcher.
They will also write that he bet the house on calling an EU referendum and then winning it, relying on his presentational talents, the disarray of opponents, and the natural caution of the British people.
But he lost the vote and lost the house – literally. Today, he exits Downing Street as Prime Minister and Theresa May enters.
The confluence of this buoyant election record and late referendum disaster – for him, that is – confirms, as Andrew Gimson wrote yesterday on this site, that Cameron is a very hard Prime Minister to get right.
My own punt is that those historians will judge his foreign policy to have failed (it never fully recovered from the rebuff of the Syria vote) and his economic policy to have succeeded – in terms of rescuing Britain from recession, anyway.
It didn’t transform the economy into a high-productivity, high-export, deficit-free success story, but much sweat and spadework was expended on trying to ensure that we get there.
The schools reforms, the welfare overhaul, the drive for apprenticeships, the start of Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse – all these helped to lay the foundations for long-term change.
Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove, Francis Maude and May herself: these were reformers of real substance, often assisted by bloody-minded SpAds who learned from experience to keep Downing Street in the dark.
But it was Cameron who appointed these Ministers, Cameron who had enough self-confidence not to seek to control them (all the time, anyway) – and Cameron who can thus take credit for a record of radical reform.
His handling of his Party has been rather poor. He never quite recovered from his self-proclaimed start as the “heir to Blair”. Ian Birrell recalls being asked: “Have you not got anything that will annoy the right a bit more?”
This modernisation drive had its origins not only in three successive election defeats, but a deep nervousness at the heart of the Cameron project about what voters would make of another Old Etonian Tory leader.
At any rate, modernisation led some of his critics to claim that he isn’t a Conservative at all; others that he put style ahead of substance. The first charge is risible. Cameron is a classic One Nation Tory in the Macmillian mode.
The second is worth pondering. It is true that he morphed from the heir to Blair via the voice of Lynton to the Life Chances Prime Minister. It is a loss for him and for Britain that he wasn’t able to further this last phase.
But if Cameron was in a chameleon in one sense, he was consistent in another, deeper one. Here’s a way I put it before and it may be worth repeating:
“…His frantic paddling below the water is matched by an unruffled elegance above it. Cameron is not exactly serene. He can be hot-tempered – hence his outburst about “terrorist sympathisers” last week. He bears grudges: no colleague who supported another candidate in 2005 has been admitted to his circle. He gets himself into trouble – as over Syria in 2013: indeed, his EU referendum gambit is regarded by some of his friends as a gamble too far. But his character is solid and his judgement sound – when it comes to tactical escapology, at any rate. His family life is settled and he has known real pain, in the form of the life and death of his disabled son, Ivan. He is highly intelligent without being gripped by ideas. He can cook. His tastes are middlebrow. Though revengeful in particular instances, he is decent in general outlook. Though he can lose his temper, he never loses his head. The voters pick all this up and like it”
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“Cameron has been a Steve Hilton-type optimist, the stern overseer of austerity and a persuasive voice for Lynton Crosby’s plain values. Since the election, his One Nation bias has revived. Before it and since 2010, intervention-scepticism abroad has given way to a more activist stance, and a real grasp of the menace of Islamist extremism. High marks to him for that. But it may be a mistake to search for consistency. Being human, we seek it: to unearth patterns where none perhaps exist. If Cameron has unity, it is one not so much of ideas and beliefs as of instinct, reflex and tone. He is a power-politician in the classic establishment mode. His presentational powers, detachment, cunning and lightness on his feet come together in a coherence of character and purpose. The electorate knows it – and knows him. Knowing someone can be halfway to trusting them. Which is why, after ten years as leader, he’s still here.”
Except he isn’t – for much longer, at any rate. He deserves to be honoured as a great reforming domestic Prime Minister, undertaking even more public service change than Margaret Thatcher. There hasn’t been such sweeping change in the public services since Atlee.
But memories often deal in shorthand, and he is more likely to have a Mary Tudor legacy. Except that the word engraved on his heart will not be the name of a French coastal town. It will instead be that of the continent in which that port is located: Europe.