Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership, and was founding director of the New Schools Network.
Stefan Zweig’s autobiography – the World of Yesterday – captures the extraordinary intellectual and artistic world of Vienna and Europe before WWI and its total destruction. The early part of the book is a Who’s Who of great figures – from Rilke to Rodin – that he encounters and befriends on his journeys.
I was reminded of Zweig this week because – in a much more insular, limited way – I have witnessed a political world destroyed. I have had three political bosses in my career: Boris Johnson; Michael Gove; and David Cameron. The other two people I’ve worked for in politics are Dominic Cummings and Nick Timothy. There was a brief moment when all were united in trying to deliver a Conservative government in the UK and in London.
Now Cameron’s career is over. He will be judged, possibly forever, on Brexit. I hope that Gove and Johnson will be able to deal with Brexit and establish their domestic legacy before they retire from public life. But whether that happens or not, the political project they were all part of is gone.
That project had flaws. But there were also great achievements.
When I was a child, I was never taught my times tables. I wasn’t taught to read using phonics. My local London secondary schools were terrifying no-go areas and no one from my local primary school went to one. That won’t be my children’s experience, and a lot of credit should go to Cameron. He was willing to allow the Department for Education – under Michael Gove and Nick Gibb – to put through often unpopular reforms. Yes, he needed their talent – but he actually let them get on with the job. I don’t think his successor, Theresa May, was capable of the same.
The welfare reforms that Iain Duncan Smith introduced under Cameron faced relentless opposition. They still do – Labour has recently promised to abolish them. They are also popular, morally, with working class and lower-middle class voters across the country, who see the consequences of unemployment and low incentives to work. Partly because of them, we have record employment rates, and have almost halved youth unemployment since 2010. Were Duncan Smith and Cameron natural bedfellows? Obviously not – but again Cameron helped cabinet ministers with a clear vision do their job.
There are other reforms, though these are the ones that I think will make the biggest difference to people’s lives. They deserve to be remembered. So, I think, does the positive character traits of the Prime Minister under which they happened. I don’t think they would ever have been possible under May: she wouldn’t have been willing to relinquish enough control, and give enough trust, to her Cabinet.
I have played a very small part in reforming public services in the last ten years. New Schools Network – the organisation that supports Free Schools, and which I founded in 2009 – was one piece of the last decade’s education reforms. I am conscious that neither the organisation nor the schools could have existed without a Prime Minister who wanted change. For that, he has my gratitude.