For the Record by David Cameron
This memoir is both too short and too long. The author tells us too little about himself. The one exception to this rule is the chapter called Our Darling Ivan, about the life and death of David and Samantha Cameron’s eldest child.
It is the best chapter in the book, ending with words written by Wordsworth when his own son died, which are inscribed on Ivan’s grave at Chadlington, in Oxfordshire:
“I loved the Boy with the utmost love of which my soul is capable, and he is taken from me – yet in the agony of my spirit in surrendering such a treasure I feel a thousand times richer than if I had never possessed it.”
No one can read this account, already excerpted in The Sunday Times, without feeling moved. One of the ways in which Cameron coped with unbearable sadness was by talking and now writing about it.
Rather characteristically, he takes the chance to pass on several pieces of admirably practical advice about how to navigate the National Health Service, something most of us have to do at one time or another as the champion of someone who is in no condition to find his or her own way.
No author is obliged to invade his own privacy, but on most other aspects of his family Cameron is frustratingly brief and reticent. His mother’s first cousin Ferdinand Mount, who was head of Margaret Thatcher’s policy unit, relates in his memoir Cold Cream, published in 2008 – the funniest account anyone has written of what it was like to work for her – that one day, while deep in the appalling task of rewriting her party conference speech, he was annoyed to be told his “nephew” was there to see him.
This turned out to be the young David Cameron, who wished to interview him for the school magazine and had rung the office himself to make an appointment after Mount had given a noncommittal but generally rather discouraging reply when contacted by Cameron’s mother. As Mount writes,
“Here he was, my cousin rather than nephew then just sixteen, looking pink and perky, not yet the size he grew to but abounding in self-confidence. He instantly put me at my ease and his genial chutzpah dissolved my ill-humour in a trice…
“It is his audacity – or cheek, to use a homelier word – that has done the trick. It took cheek out of the common run to stand for the leadership of the party after only four years in Parliament, but it took even more to set about transforming the party the moment he won…
“The chutzpah that has propelled Cousin Dave to such startling heights undoubtedly comes from his stalwart and irrepressible father Ian on whom no flies rest…”
David Cameron devotes a couple of pages to his father, a remarkable man who had been “born with a pretty odd deformity”, legs far shorter than they should have been, but who rose, like his father and grandfather before him, to become senior partner at the stockbrokers Panmure Gordon, and who imparted to his four children various rules, some of which expressed an admirably practical morality: “If you’re not sure what to do, just do the right thing.”
Other maxims are described by his son as “obscure”:
“Never sleep with a virgin.” “Don’t get married till you’re 26.” “Never eat baked beans for breakfast.” “Always travel in a suit.”
Cameron the politician succeeded in part because he was heir to a tradition of behaviour. But although he describes his family with affection, he does not convey, or even try to convey, very much of what it was really like.
He has said in the past that when he thinks of home, he thinks of church. His parents lived in an old rectory and attended the church next door, indeed were church wardens and so forth.
We read nothing here of this Anglican upbringing, which seems to me to have contributed in a vital way to Cameron’s ability to strike a moral note, without sounding repellently dogmatic or pious.
Perhaps he thought his religion too hard to explain, however natural the practice of it may be, or perhaps he reckoned we would be more interested in his politics.
But where do the politics come from? In the best biographies, the reader begins to see how a character was formed, what made it original or eccentric – the kind of thing that can be glimpsed in Ian Cameron’s maxims.
Here we are fobbed off with banalities:
“How are the biggest decisions made? They are usually rooted in convictions and beliefs. They tend to be contemplated for a long time, but are often expedited by circumstances. They are frequently influenced by other people’s views, and events that have taken place over many years.
“One of the biggest decisions I would ever take – to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the European Union and then hold a referendum on our membership – was an example of all those things.”
That is how chapter 29, entitled “Bloomberg”, begins. Such evasive management-speak makes the book longer than it should be, and warns us we are never going to get to the heart of the matter.
In January 2013 Cameron delivered the speech at Bloomberg in which he promised to hold an EU referendum by the middle of the next Parliament. He remarks here that “The speech was tricky to land with so many audiences.”
And he gives us an extract from one of the tapes he recorded every month or so with the Times journalist Danny Finkelstein, in which the Prime Minister confided that it was safer to hold a referendum than to hold out against one: “The risks of playing with fire are now safer than watching the fire burn.”
He is pleased by the way The Times comments on the speech: “Mr Cameron has not caused a problem, but elucidated one.”
All this is fine, but we are not even told who wrote that Times leader: was it Finkelstein?
A friend of mine, a German journalist, who heard the Bloomberg speech happened to be sitting directly behind the German ambassador, at whom Cameron looked repeatedly while delivering it.
There is very little of that kind of thing in the book. For most of the time, the author gives us no sense that he is taking us into his confidence. He is instead fobbing us off with a plausible, lucid, official version of how he tried to keep Britain inside the EU, by renegotiating the terms of our membership and then obtaining popular consent for the new deal:
“The strategy failed. I failed. And that strategy has had some serious consequences for the UK and Europe. But it all flowed from an attempt to do the right thing.”
That is a very Blairite apologia. Cameron acted in good faith. He was, however, dependent on the Germans if he was going to get a meaningful renegotiation.
And one of the things he needed them to do in 2014 was to block the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker, “a European integrationist to the core”, as President of the European Commission, a figure who would have a key influence on Britain’s ability to change the terms of membership.
At first, there seems some hope that Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, will block Juncker. The last chance comes in June 2014 when Cameron, Merkel and the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, visit the Swedish Prime Minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, who for the benefit of the cameras takes them out in a rowing boat.
Now, unusually, Cameron gives us a small amount of detail:
“The four of us sat up after dinner, drinking red wine, this time until 2 a.m. I was tired, but didn’t dare leave in case they cooked something up without me. We were waiting for those magical words from Merkel – ‘It’s all right, we’ll block this guy together.’ She got close, but they never came.
“By the next morning her team had got to her, and she said she was going to have to vote for Juncker.’
Even by Cameron’s account, the chances of Merkel doing what he wants seem remote. She had already warned him, at a meeting a week earlier at the British ambassador’s residence in Brussels when they “sat up drinking until about 1.30 a.m.”, that “I think I’m going to have to let you down”. Even her own mother has rung her “to tell her to vote for Juncker”.
By page 655 of this 703-page book, Cameron’s own colleagues are having to decide which side to back in the referendum campaign, and he is finding it surprisingly difficult to persuade Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and others to stay with him:
“Perhaps that is one of the biggest pitfalls in politics. Thinking that others, particularly those you know well, think like you. Often they don’t. In the weeks to come I would repeatedly be surprised by MPs, friends, local party members and councillors who I had never heard express the view that we should leave the EU waxing lyrical about how it was their passion. I don’t mean to say that they were all opportunists, more that I had given them the chance to think about the issue afresh, and they had decided to take that position…
“The latent Leaver gene in the Tory Party was more dominant than I had foreseen.”
On the evidence of this book, Cameron spent little time talking to Conservatives who disagreed with him about Europe. Many of them are omitted altogether from this account, or mentioned only fleetingly.
It was understandable that Cameron should ask his MPs to stop banging on about Europe, to the exclusion of other subjects which mattered more to most voters.
But this suppression of the subject led him grievously to underestimate the vitality of the Eurosceptic tradition. He became lost in the politics of endless negotiation with the Liberal Democrats and the EU.
He was so good at this, and the country was in many ways so well run by the coalition which he, George Osborne, Oliver Letwin, Ed Llewellyn and others conducted from 2010, that in 2015 he won an overall majority for the Conservatives, the first time the party had managed that since 1992.
This was a major achievement, and one which would probably have proved beyond any of the other contenders for the leadership in 2005, when with the audacity identified by Mount, but seldom visible in this unexciting book, Cameron came through the field and won.
As a moderniser he inspired confidence in part because he was from such a traditional background. Many people liked that.
And he was a professional: his early training in the Conservative Research Department, about which he says nothing of interest here, had given him a precocious mastery of the techniques of government, and a coterie of able colleagues who could help him to wield power.
But what was power for? Here the Cameroon trumpet gave an uncertain sound, and still does. As a manual of technique, and of how to find a way through various tricky problems, this book is of considerable value.
It also, however, shows a man oblivious to the strong emotions which would be awoken by the referendum, and unable, when the time came, to make more than a prudential case for his side of the argument.