“The second most electorally successful Conservative leader in the last hundred years”. Three post-war Tory leaders have won a Conservative majority in each general election they contested – Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and the most potent winner of all, Margaret Thatcher. On that measure, David Cameron comes fourth, because he didn’t win a majority in one of two contests. However, Macmillan and Eden fought only one election each, and on Matt Smith’s measure for ConservativeHome – which takes into account seats gained; vote swing; the amount of time spent as leader; the number of election victories, and that same number as a proportion of all the elections they contested – Cameron emerges as the second most successful Tory leader in the past hundred years, outscoring Stanley Baldwin, who comes third. Only three-times-a-winner Thatcher clearly outpolls him. P.S: He has also been on the winning side of the AV and the Scottish referendums.
Chairman Cameron, Chief Executive Osborne. His partnership with George Osborne is so settled and tranquil that there’s a danger of forgetting how unusual it is. The Chancellor managed Cameron’s smash-and-grab leadership election campaign and has been the force behind him ever since – usually attending Cameron’s 8.30am and 4pm daily team meetings, even after he assumed his present post in 2010, and serving in the Coalition as the only other Conservative in the Quad. Osborne is embroiled in nearly everything Cameron does, from shaping political strategy through handling crises to whispering lines in his ear at PMQs. There is a sense in which Cameron’s Governments have really been Osborne Governments. No Tory leader in modern history, perhaps ever, has had a deputy both so loyal and integral. Chancellors with a mind of their own can undermine governments. Osborne has helped to make both of Cameron’s.
Changing strategy (if any)… “Austerity”, the Northern Powerhouse, Help to Buy, the rebranded minimum wage – it is easy to reel off a list of policies that are the Chancellor’s creation, and he has retained an unvarying profile as a metopolitan-flavoured, liberal-minded Conservative. It is far harder to pin down a series of ideas that are Cameron’s own – and those that might be so described, such as the Big Society, have been as swiftly downplayed as suddenly highlighted. The study of his conference speeches on this site by Peter Hoskin gives a flavour of his shifting case. First, there was the NHS-focused, green-coloured, sunshine-wins-the-day rhetoric of early Cameron. Then the shift to post-Lehman collapse starkness in 2008. Then came the balacing act of government, with the health service less prominent, the environment featuring barely at all, and tougher talk on welfare and immigration. If steadfastness of approach is all, Cameron is a hole in the air.
…But consistent character. None the less, this 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.
A troubled Party manager… Cameron is a traditional Tory of the old school: Old Rectory, father a stockbroker, mother a magistrate, cousin head of Thatcher’s Policy Unit, Eton, Oxford, Conservative Research Department, SpAd, MP, front-bencher, leader. Few Conservative leaders’ CVs have been as straightforward. Why, then, has his relationship with his Party been so strained? Partly because of the legacy of Thatcher, and the desert Tory years that followed. Partly because he wasn’t a winner – outright, anyway – until that election of earlier this year. Partly because of that enduring mega-splitter of an issue, Europe. And partly because he has been determined to change the Conservative Parliamentary Party by bringing in more women, ethnic minority members and people new to politics. This last venture has been successful, at least up to a point – see Cameron’s Children, our assessment of the 2015 Commons intake. Its quality is high.
…And a reforming Prime Minister. There is another reason why Cameron’s relationship of his Party has been unsettled. His management approach is centralist. He trusts very few people (which is comprehensible enough) and they are often old hands: Osborne, Ed Llewellyn, Kate Fall, Liz Sugg. His experience with Andy Coulson will have scarred him. Conservative Campaign Headquarters has become an extension of Downing Street, with consequences that are baleful for the Party’s future. The focus on short-term success has damaged long-term capability, of which the Mark Clarke saga is a terrible warning. But the exigencies of Coalition left him unable to apply this approach to his Ministers. There has thus been an extraordinary flowering of public service reform – far more than in any of Thatcher’s terms save her last. Though some Ministers claim that this has happened as much despite Number Ten as because of it, Cameron must take a big slice of the credit.
Confusion of aim, continuity of purpose. 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.