Dick Leonard has written about prime ministers going back to Robert Walpole. Now the dust has settled, he assesses David Cameron’s recent memoirs
There have been 55 prime ministers – so far – and all but two of them have been the subject of full-length biographies, the best known of them by numerous different authors. Of these, perhaps a dozen (mostly recent ones) have published their own memoirs. Almost all of these I read during the seven years or so in which I was involved in writing my own weighty volume, A History of British Prime Ministers: Walpole to Cameron. How does Cameron’s effort stand up against those of his predecessors?
Technically, it scores quite highly. It is a well-organised book, clearly written, not particularly vainglorious, moderately phrased, and – with a few notable exceptions (mainly concerning his preposterous claim that the policies of the Blair and Brown governments were the prime cause of the world-wide financial crisis of 2008-2010) – relatively honest.
Unfortunately, this claim – strongly supported by Nick Clegg and George Osborne – was widely believed, and for this Labour itself was largely to blame. The new leadership, under Ed Miliband, was so keen to dissociate itself from New Labour that it did not attempt to rebut the Tory claims before they had achieved wide acceptance.
For some, Cameron’s book will come as a disappointment. There are few new revelations, and not much humour. An exception is his account of his failure to appoint a new ambassador to the Holy See. He writes “Who better, I thought, than Ann Widdecombe, a former Tory MP and one of Britain’s most prominent Catholics? But when I called her from my office in No.10, she didn’t believe it was me, and said ‘I think this is a hoax call’. On and on I went, trying to convince her. When she finally conceded that it was probably the PM she was speaking to, I began to tell her about the appointment I had in mind. But just as I thought I was winning her round, she apologised and said she couldn’t – she had committed to take part in Strictly Come Dancing.”
Cameron starts by coming clean about his privileged background. His father, Ian, a wealthy stockbroker, came from a long line of Old Etonians, while his mother, Mary, numbered baronets and Tory MPs among her ancestors, and was related to the well-known cabinet minister and close associate of Churchill, Alfred Duff Cooper, later Lord Norwich. He does not mention his royal connections – both he and his wife, Samantha, are descended from British monarchs – albeit through illegitimate lines, he from William IV and she from Charles II. Both are thus distant cousins of the Queen.
Cameron grew up in the idyllic Berkshire village of Peasemore in a spacious former rectory with its own swimming pool, tennis court and live-in nanny. At the age of seven he was sent to a prep school, where schoolmates included Prince Edward and the Duke of Bedford. Learning by rote and a generous use of the cane were its most conspicuous features. Here Cameron was regarded as a bright and amiable boy, but failed to distinguish himself in his studies.
This pattern was repeated at Eton, where, aged 16, he narrowly escaped being expelled from the school for smoking ‘pot’ and, by his own account, repeatedly lying about it to the school authorities. This shook him up, and he resolved to buckle down and take his studies more seriously, and did well enough in his A-levels to win a place in Oxford, where he went up to study PPE (philosophy, politics and economics) at Brasenose College.
Both at Eton and Oxford, Cameron found himself in close competition with Boris Johnson. Both were members of the Bullingdon Club of wealthy delinquents notable for their drunken behaviour and vandalism, though Cameron was notably more restrained in his conduct. Johnson outshone ‘Dave’ in every way, until their final examination results were revealed, when Cameron got a ‘First’ and Johnson did not, an apparent cause of lasting resentment to the current prime minister.
Despite this, Johnson was one of the very small group of supporters who backed Cameron for the Tory leadership in 2005, when David Davis was seen as the hot favourite and Liam Fox as his main challenger. Cameron outflanked Fox by exaggerating his own Eurosceptic credentials, and then proceeded to rout Davis with a stupendous address to the Tory conference.
Like most of his fellow Conservatives, Cameron had been unnerved by Tony Blair’s long run of successes, and his feat of winning three successive general elections, two of them landslide victories. Cameron consciously modelled himself on his Labour opponent, presenting himself as a progressive modern leader, with a liberal approach to social issues. He even went so far as claiming to be “the heir to Blair”. But by the time of the 2010 general election the shine had come off the Labour leadership, and the party was led by the much less popular Brown. His feat in mobilising an international response to the financial crisis had not translated into success at the polls.
Disappointed at not winning an overall majority, Cameron lost no time in offering what he described as “a big, open and comprehensive offer” to the Liberal Democrats to form a coalition. Dazzled by the prospect of office, Nick Clegg was quick to respond to the offer. He appeared not to reflect on the fact that this was the sixth time since 1794 that Liberals (or their Whig predecessors) had entered into coalition with the Tories, and that on every such occasion it had been a disaster for them, while the Tories had prospered.
This time was to be no different. At the ensuing election, in 2015, the Lib Dems slumped from 57 seats to eight, while the Tories rose from 306 to 331, gaining an overall majority, which Theresa May threw away two years later, when she unwisely called the 2017 general election. The last 600 pages of Cameron’s memoirs recount the story of the coalition government, for which he claims a long list of achievements, including record job creation, the raising of the tax threshold for millions of low earners, the protection of the NHS, education and overseas development from expenditure cuts, the legalisation of same-sex marriages, education reforms, the creation of hundreds of ‘free schools’, the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and numerous more petty reforms.
Yet the two main features of this government were its austerity programme, which decimated public services and increased inequality, and Cameron’s progressive plunge down the slope of giving way to UKIP demands, culminating in his decision to concede an in-out referendum, and his largely abortive efforts to negotiate a ‘reform’ settlement with the EU.
Cameron thought he had secured sufficient concessions to ensure victory in the referendum, but his failure to keep Johnson and Michael Gove onside was to prove fatal. Their lying campaign, and widespread public concern over immigration, trumped the over-rational arguments on which Remain relied.
It did not dawn on Cameron at the time that he was the wrong person to head up the Remain campaign. He had a long record as a severe critic of the European Union dating back to his school days, as his earlier biographers, Francis Elliott and James Hanning, relate in their book, Cameron: Practically a Conservative, published in 2012.
As an MP he characterised himself as a Eurosceptic, and for years as PM made a point of criticising the Union after each summit meeting he attended. His sudden change to lauding the institution he had attacked for so long strained the public’s credulity. In his concluding remarks, he reveals some realisation of this, and confesses his responsibility for the failure. He refuses however, to regret his decision to hold the referendum.
Much has been said about Cameron’s evident sense of entitlement, and this has been blamed for his various failures. Yet he is a man of some sensibility, as is shown by his moving account of the life and sad death of his disabled son, Ivan.
He is a talented, conscientious and well-intentioned man, and like Neville Chamberlain and Anthony Eden before him, began his premiership with the highest of hopes, and ended it as an acknowledged failure. Some now regard him as the worst prime minister of modern times. His two successors, however, have been offering strong competition for that dubious honour.
For the Record, by David Cameron, is published by William Collins
A revised and up-dated edition of A History of British Prime Ministers, by Dick Leonard, will be published, in two volumes, in 2020
Dick Leonard was the Labour MP for Romford from 1970 until 1974