He is the man many blame for Brexit. So how is David Cameron coping with the infamy, asks JANE MERRICK?
At the Remembrance Sunday service in Whitehall earlier this month, David Cameron joined his fellow ex-Prime Ministers to commemorate the war dead by laying a wreath at the Cenotaph.
It was a rare public appearance by the man who resigned as PM over Brexit and then as an MP more than a year ago to avoid becoming a ‘distraction’ to his successor, Theresa May.
The annual Remembrance Sunday event is the only occasion when former prime ministers from opposing parties come together, and it is fitting that party politics are put aside as they pay their respects. But the image of Cameron next to other former premiers John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown was also a reminder of how each of them has battled to control their own post-Downing Street legacy.
For the most recent incumbent, his legacy is still in draft form. Cameron has taken on a few jobs, both charity and corporate, and has joined Blair and Brown on the cash-rich American after-dinner speaking circuit. But it is his memoirs, due out next year, which will give him the opportunity to shape his own legacy – as the youngest UK Prime Minister in two centuries and the first in two decades to win a majority for the Conservatives.
Whether the autobiography, for which he has received an advance of £800,000, will be used by Cameron to express regret for Brexit and all of its shattering consequences is another thing entirely.
A friend of Cameron says it is not in his nature to endlessly self-flagellate, that he does not have the sense of ‘Gordon Brown paranoia’ that leads to self-doubt or self-criticism about his premiership style and decision-making, to wrestle with the things he may have got wrong in office.
In Brown’s own memoirs, published last month, Cameron’s predecessor at No.10 agonised over his inability to be ‘touchy-feely’ as Prime Minister and at ease as a communicator in the social media age.
For Cameron, who had his own YouTube channel, WebCameron, back in 2006 long before the term vlogging was widely in use, there is no such self-doubt, no desire to have done things differently.
Cameron out of office, say friends, is identical to the one in office: self-confident, with few hidden depths – he does not spend hours worrying. So, while he took immediate responsibility for the referendum result by resigning as Prime Minister within hours of its confirmation on the morning of June 24 2016, he is not spending his time hand-wringing over what has followed since – including the ongoing difficulties of his successor as she struggles to maintain Cabinet unity.
Another friend believes Cameron, whilst not hampered by self-doubt, nevertheless ‘must have regrets’ about the referendum when he sees the way it has progressed towards a Hard Brexit or even the prospect of a no deal.
But the same friend cautions: ‘It is very difficult to put yourself in a Prime Minister’s place. He was under huge pressure and really the awful chimera that is UKIP was absolutely the reason that he had to have a referendum.’
Cameron’s former colleagues on the Conservative benches in the Commons are divided over whether their former leader should carry the blame for Brexit. At a recent event held by the backbench 1922 committee, where Cameron was the guest speaker, Tory MPs banged the desks in approval as he joked about his old rival Boris Johnson.
Some Conservative MPs believe Cameron has already paid the price for the referendum by resigning so swiftly, and prefer to direct their anger over the government’s current problems, including the glacially slow progress of the Brexit talks, at the PM who lost them their government majority: May.
One MP says that Cameron had little choice other than to hold a referendum, or else he would have been turfed out as leader and forced to watch the party lose support to UKIP. But there is also a view among some Tory MPs – admittedly those who backed Remain – that they will never forgive Cameron for what they see as pushing the country to the brink.
While Brexit continues to cause turbulence in Westminster, Cameron has started to pick up lucrative work in the private sector, including up to three days a month as an adviser to the electronic payments firm First Data Corporation, providing ‘international, contextual and geopolitical advice and analysis’.
He is also lining up a role with a planned £500 million investment fund which will focus on UK-Chinese business and relations. Cameron lobbied the Beijing government on behalf of the fund during a trip to China in September.
It is seen as supremely ironic among May’s allies that the man who was effectively the architect of Brexit stands to make money out of British-Chinese links that will surely be strengthened after the UK leaves the EU.
But the planned job also takes Cameron into the realm of another man standing near him at the Cenotaph: Tony Blair. Friends of Cameron say he is ‘absolutely determined not to be another Tony Blair’ – in the sense of scooping up so many lucrative directorships and advisory roles.
The dividing line, as Cameron’s friends see it, is the nature of the jobs he accepts, that they should be on reputable boards for decent companies – a veiled reference to some of the more controversial posts Blair took up, including as an adviser to the repressive government of Kazakhstan.
Cameron does not want his legacy to be tainted by money, says a friend, and is ‘deeply committed to public service’: he has two high-profile charity roles, as president of the Alzheimer’s Research UK and as chair of the board of patrons for the National Citizen Service.
As a former PM who is still only 51, Cameron might be considered for a major global public role such as the head of NATO or United Nations Secretary General. Yet while he does not carry the baggage of a foreign war on the scale of Blair with Iraq, Cameron’s role in the downfall of Gaddafi in Libya was severely criticised by the Foreign Affairs Committee, who said his government had failed to stabilise the country afterwards, giving rise to Islamic State.
In any case, says a friend, he is not desperate for a major public job as he enjoying spending time with his family, which has given him a ‘contented’ work-life balance; he also enjoys ‘gossipy’ lunches and suppers with political friends – although he has not mended fences with one couple who were closer than most to the Camerons: Michael Gove and Sarah Vine. Cameron was furious when Gove took a leading role in the Leave campaign, and there has been no contact between the two couples since the referendum.
While Cameron’s wife Samantha runs her own fashion label, Cefinn, her husband is able to do the childcare he was unable to enjoy while in office. Perhaps it is this domesticated contentment which means, it is understood, that Cameron has not yet broken the back of writing his memoirs, based on 50 hours of taped conversations with the Times columnist Daniel Finkelstein.
At the Camerons’ countryside home in Oxfordshire, where he has a £25,000 shepherd’s hut as a writing studio, and his wife’s family estate in North Yorkshire, the ex-Prime Minister has certainly had the breathing space away from Westminster to get perspective on his legacy. In case he needed more headspace, he has just bought a £2m bolthole, overlooking the sea in Cornwall, from Gordon Ramsay.
Yet as he writes his memoirs, how will he portray his role in the most monumental event to happen in Britain since the Second World War? Will Brexit haunt Cameron just as Iraq haunts Blair as they pause for reflection at the Cenotaph in years to come?
History will always judge leaders through the eyes of the public, and while Blair took a proactive choice to join in the invasion of Iraq in defiance of public opinion, Cameron can square his conscience – even use as a defence – his decision to hold a referendum in response to public demand, which resulted in a democratic choice to leave the EU.
Yet if Brexit turns out to be the disaster that many fear, Cameron will have little control over his post-Downing Street legacy.
Jane Merrick is a freelance journalist and columnist; follow her @janemerrick23