“Posh boy”, “out-of-touch” and “Tory toff” have been some of the more popular jibes aimed at the incumbent prime minister by the plentiful array of people who count themselves among his political opponents, and while these accusations are at least partially correct (if a bit petty) they rather miss the point (whilst coming oddly close) of what will probably be the most lasting deadweight upon Mr Cameron’s legacy (if he has one). The following observations come a bit closer: “lightweight” (made by President Obama), “sphinx without a riddle” (from one of Gove’s senior advisors) and the indispensable “surrounded by sycophants”, all of which underline just how difficult it will be for this prime minister to fulfil his wish of having much of a lasting “legacy” because his premiership has been characterised chiefly by what can be best described as a nauseating catalogue of mediocrity. David Cameron embodies the essence of what one might call the spoilt-brat career politician.
It should have been something of a warning when, as opposition leader, Cameron responded to a pertinent (and surely foreseeable) question of why he wanted to be prime minister with the reply “Because I think I’d be rather good at it.” If a politician’s motivation is simply wanting a job they believe they would be good at (or think they are entitled to), their leadership will generally be rudderless and nondescript. If they want to be prime minister as a form of wish fulfilment left over from their entitled youth, they clearly don’t deserve the top job. And if they view the role as a hobby and have no plans to actually do anything with it, then we get the tedious, vacillating and contemptible premiership of David Cameron.
At the very first glance, his tenure can be seen littered with examples of wasted opportunities to show meaningful leadership, which he threw away in order to appease either his backbenchers, his cohort of advisers or the rich and powerful whom he so admires. His promised EU referendum was not a bold, principled gesture demonstrating his strength of will against Brussels, but a capitulation to keep his backbenchers sweet (and to see off the UKIP threat) and was clearly not something that he had envisaged marking his premiership – he had earlier implored his MPs to “stop banging on about Europe.” Remember his pathetic whining about the recent Syrian refugee crisis as being unfair on Britain, and that the rest of the EU should shoulder Britain’s responsibility for what is rapidly becoming the most serious refugee crisis since the Second World War? Eventually, after massive public pressure, he U-turned and announced that Britain would let in 20,000 refugees.
In fact, U-turns seem to have become quite a common and noticeable feature of his five year period of “leadership.” Remember when he announced that badgers should be culled to prevent the spread of bovine TB, only to backtrack in 2014 after a hired team of scientists told him what just one scientist could have told him three years ago (that it didn’t work)? Or the decision to sell off England’s rivers, lakes and forests, abandoned after public outrage? Or the immediately disowned proposal to halve the prison sentences of sex offenders who submitted early guilty pleas? Or the plan to allow violent domestic partners to continue living with their spouses? Or what about the “no U-turn” policy? All these embarrassing little reversals do not make it harder to work out what Cameron stands for, as some have claimed. They make it easier. He stands for his own career, and conceivably his “legacy.” And nothing else.
His foreign policy also leaves much to be desired. Senior army officer Richard Shirreff lambasted the prime minister for his “flaccid” response to Putin’s annexation of Ukraine and the rise of the ISIL militants in Syria and Iraq, charges which don’t seem to have ever been repudiated by the PM’s office. Understandable, considering he doesn’t really have much of an impressive record to defend. As well as his pathetic dithering over Libya and refusal to provide adequate post-war reconstruction, which contributed directly to Libya falling into the state of chaos it is in now (and which, to be fair to him, was largely Obama’s fault as well), we have had more recent examples of his five year reign of error. His idea of confronting Putin seems to be blustering at other European leaders to do more to stand up to him, and then charging £160,000 for a game of tennis with one of the rogue Russian leader’s close associates, while telling his cabinet that there should be “no discussion” of imposing sanctions on rich Russian oligarchs who live in Britain and have potential as “wealth creators.” He also refused to authorise the bombing of ISIL militants in Iraq (not Syria, because we voted against that, remember?) until after the Scottish independence referendum.
Do I even need to mention the appalling and lamentable response he made to the News Corporation phone hacking scandal in 2011? After it emerged that the gutter press had been playing havoc with the emotions of a murdered schoolgirl’s parents (as well as the relatives of deceased British soldiers), David Cameron, who had earlier insisted that handing over control of the British media to a man notorious for his corporate intimidation and thuggery would be a great idea, found himself confronted by a reality check. Yet he still felt the need to add a little sweetener to his friend Murdoch (or possibly his own backbenchers), saying that this sordid little episode proved that no media company, “not News Corporation, not the BBC, should be allowed to get too powerful.” (My italics.) When Lord Leveson finally presented his recommendations on how to prevent this sort of thing happening again, Cameron, who had earlier committed himself to taking heed of the committee’s findings, gave the contemptible and cringe-inducing excuse that he was “not convinced” of the need to find a body to regulate the press that was more reliable and independent than the press! So, to keep everyone happy, the ineffectual Press Complaints Commission, whose drawback was that it had been regulated by the press, was replaced by the Independent Press Standards Organisation, which was regulated by… the press! What bravery.
To be fair, it’s not just the media barons and Russian (and Arabian) oligarchs to whom our leader kowtows on a regular basis: the civil service has also been imbued with far more de facto power than it ever had under Thatcher or Blair. I suppose this is to be expected of a prime minister who has no real ambition in life; of course he would just let the civil service run everything for him while giving the impression of being in control himself (PR is his forte, after all). In one particularly illuminating episode, Cameron asked the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood “Remind me, Jeremy, do you work for me or do I work for you?” That was probably meant as a joke, but it was even funnier than intended.
I really am struggling to think of anything definitively “brave” or courageous that David Cameron has done during his self-indulgent five-year dance with power. I suppose his shake-up of the NHS might be considered “courageous” (in the Yes Minister sense of the word) because it destroyed his party’s reputation for handling the health service responsibly and tainted his self-proclaimed image as a “compassionate Conservative” forever (another criterion he won’t be able to add to his “legacy”). However, it is worth remembering that when the full scale of the unpopularity of this bill became apparent, Cameron immediately stopped defending it and dumped all the blame onto Andrew Lansley, trying to score political points by “pressuring” the Health Secretary to dilute his bill. His hypocrisy, and cowardice, can be astonishing sometimes.
Cameron also likes to claim that he is making “brave” choices about spending cuts, knowing that it is unpopular but continuing because it is “the right thing to do.” Leaving aside the observation that his belief in what is economically “right” has undergone quite a few U-turns recently (to the point where his government has added more to the National Debt in five years than Labour did in thirteen), it seems the mastermind behind this wholesale shrinking of the state that we are seeing is George Osborne, a man from a similar background and upbringing, but who does at least seem to have a political aim and purpose (if not necessarily the right one). Bear in mind as well that Cameron became the Conservative leader in 2005, when the economy was growing and everyone assumed that the country had only more prosperity to look forward to. Cameron just wanted to be the next Tony Blair, riding high on a wave of economic benevolence and lapping up the credit for it. The Great Recession of 2008 may have been a boon for his party, but it was a great inconvenience to him personally, as he would now have to sit atop a contracting economy while his coterie of admirers bustled around him trying to sort it out, not gaining him much popularity. By 2010 he had already committed to spending cuts as part of his electoral strategy, so he would have looked even more of a fool than usual if he hadn’t imposed them.
In January 2015, Cameron declared that legalising same-sex marriage was one of his proudest achievements. It’s rather telling when one of his “proudest achievements” is an Act initiated and pushed for the hardest by Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, which Cameron decided not to whip his own MPs into supporting, and which therefore only made it through parliament with opposition help. Additionally, in 2003, Cameron voted against the Labour government’s bill to repeal the infamous Section 28, accusing then-Prime Minister Tony Blair of the “promotion of homosexuality in schools” and of being against family values. The rationale behind one of his “proudest achievements” does not seem to have been of great concern to him for the majority of his life.
David Cameron has not shown himself to have the makings of what we might generously call a great character in history. He will not come close to being compared to Churchill or Thatcher, even Harold Macmillan seems too generous a comparison. Another John Major, perhaps, or another Stanley Baldwin, or more likely Warren G Harding. He is just a vacuous nonentity, a spoilt-brat career politician who only won a parliamentary majority in 2015 because his opponent just happened to be even more of a lightweight than him (or rather, was not as well-versed in PR and was thus less able to conceal his inability to be a strong leader.) But I do have to wonder, why did Cameron want to win that election so badly? He demonstrated quite sordidly that he was prepared to stoop to any level to get re-elected, hurling slander at his opponent, hilariously ducking out of televised debates that he himself had advocated five years earlier, even displaying few qualms at using his own deceased son as an electoral propaganda tool. What was it all for? What did he stand for? What was at stake here? I think a further clue can be found in his famous heartfelt and impassioned speech that he gave on the campaign trail (“This is a real career-defining election…”). Sphinx without a riddle indeed.