David Cameron is dipping his toes back into political waters – supporting more cash for dementia research here, visiting the odd think-tank there, mulling which other causes to back as a former Prime Minister and, above all, writing his memoirs, which are expected to be published next year. Right from the off as party leader, he had an eye for his image: remember those pictures of him cycling to work. What picture of himself does he want to linger in the minds of voters? How should he want to be remembered?
First things first. The snap headline summary of historians will be that he is the man who chose to fight a referendum on Europe, and lost. Cameron will know that well. There is nothing he can do about it. He might well reply that he also never lost a general election: indeed, Matthew Smith and Peter Hoskin calculated for this site that only Margaret Thatcher had a better record at the polls than any other Conservative leader of the past century. That’s not bad going at all.
What else can he project in his memoirs about his time in Government? His foreign policy collapsed after the Syria vote. The economic recovery engineered by him and George Osborne is a bettter candidate. But my choice would be the Coalition’s remarkable record of public service reform. Thatcher didn’t push education and health reform until her third term, putting Kens Baker and Clarke in charge of the effort. Cameron got down to it right from the off – in the happy days when he and Steve Hilton were a band of brothers.
Their work on transparency in opposition delivered for the taxpayer in government. Think of Theresa May’s crime maps, Michael Gove’s overhauled Ofsted, Jeremy Hunt’s MyNHS data information service, Francis Maude’s Contract Finder site, Eric Pickles’s publication of spending of over £250 online. Hilton’s confrontational edge and energy were invaluable. But the Cameron Government’s work on value for money was only a part of a much bigger story.
A key to Cameron was that he appointed heavyweight Ministers with dedicated SpAds who delivered Grown Up Government. Philippa Stroud, who now heads up Legatum, helped Iain Duncan Smith to drive through the welfare reform which helped to create Britain’s “jobs miracle”. Maude had Simone Finn and Henry Newman as he took up civil service reform. May had Nick Timothy – later our columnist – and Fiona Hill with her as she set about making the police more efficient and accountable on a slower-growing budget.
Pickles had Sheridan Westlake at CLG (once joking that it was the other way round – or perhaps he was in earnest). Gove had Dominic Cummings. The rolling-forward of academies, more free schools and an exams overhaul wouldn’t have happened without both of them. Cameron and Hilton once bit off more than they could chew: in their enthusiasm for reform they left Andrew Lansley alone to restructure the NHS. The Liberal Democrats took against his original plans, and the result was a debacle.
A few of these SpAds were actively hostile to Cameron. (Cummings isn’t a fan.) Others made a habit of not letting Downing Street know what they were up to. But the long and short of it is that those ministers were Cameron’s ministers. He chose them – bringing Duncan Smith back from the backbenches, for example. And since he did so, he is fully entitled to bag his share of the credit. Nor did he simply leave reform to his Cabinet. Compulsory academisation and the seven day NHS became personal causes once he had a majority to work with.
You may not care for either, and the first came to grief. But you cannot reasonably complain both that Cameron was uninterested and an interferer. The Economist produced a front cover during that early Coalition period which portrayed him as a radical punk, complete with red white and blue mohican. He would doubtless balk at the idea of slapping it on the cover of his memoirs – rightly, on balance. None the less, he could do a lot worse than let its spirit animate the book. No Tory Prime Minister has been a more energetic reformer.