David Cameron: A Prime Minister of Broken Promises

The Guardian, 12.07.2016
  • He seemed to offer a modern version of Conservatism but no strategy to achieve it. Now he will go down in history as the man who took Britain out of Europe

The ceremonial removal van arrived, as tradition demands, early this morning, the British constitution’s first visible symbol of a change of prime minister. It drew up at the back of Downing Street as David Cameron chaired his 215th and final session of the cabinet. Afterwards, ministers paid public tribute to the man who has led the party for 10 years and been prime minister for six. They left the impression that Mr Cameron had been awarded something less than a hero’s send-off by colleagues as they bade farewell to the man who led them back to power after 13 years in the opposition wilderness.

Mr Cameron was never much loved by his own MPs. He was elected overwhelmingly by party members, but with less enthusiasm by his Commons colleagues. It is easy now to see his election as the first sign of the disconnect between the political elite and the party activists that now threatens to shatter the Labour party. Failure to win a majority in 2010 and his bold decision to form a peacetime coalition with the Lib Dem enemy eroded even that support, despite the skill with which he managed it. Yet for a time he offered a new version of Conservatism: compassionate, green, blind to gender and sexual orientation. Had he been able to go in his own time, he clearly hoped to construct a legacy that would have fulfilled his early promise. Instead he has thinner fare to his credit: gay marriage, radical schools reform, a bitterly contentious and resolutely maintained commitment to international development, and a graceful apology for Bloody Sunday. History will remember him for the one huge failure of Brexit, the greatest foreign policy reverse since Suez; and perhaps, when the dust has finally settled over this catastrophe, for the many smaller retreats. He morphed from a politician of promise, with an appeal that went beyond traditional Tories, to a prime minister of broken promises who finally betrayed even the best interests of his country.

Mr Cameron’s besetting weakness was his instinctive preference for short-term tactics over long-term strategy. He came to office in difficult times, at the head of a fractious party, inheritor of an economic disaster that was not of his making (nor one he foresaw). Yet he rarely acknowledged that his chancellor’s slash-and-burn approach to public spending was hurting the very people he had promised to help, and there was too much talk of the ideological desirability of shrinking the state to sustain belief that the cuts were merely a short-term necessity. Soon compassionate Conservatism had given way to a ferocious squeeze on welfare, the introduction of the bedroom tax and the slashing of disability benefits. The greenest government ever that Mr Cameron promised on the steps of the Department of Energy and Climate Change sank into a swamp of contradictions as industry and consumers complained about the impact of paying for carbon-free generation.

He damaged trust in politics: he pledged to cut migration to the “tens of thousands”. Instead, it steadily rose. His ill-judged response to the victory in the Scottish independence vote did more to damage the union than the referendum itself. The pledge to pay off the deficit, meant to happen by 2015, was delayed until 2020 and then, after the Brexit vote, abandoned for good.

But his political headstone will carry only a single epitaph: the man who took Britain out of Europe. Here was a Tory crisis that dominated his adult years. It destroyed Margaret Thatcher, then her successor John Major. It rendered the Tories ungovernable, and then unelectable. Yet Mr Cameron’s approach was to tackle the symptoms without ever beginning to treat the underlying neuralgia. He told his party to stop banging on about Europe – then failed either to tackle entrenched prejudice at home or to build alliances among partners in Europe interested in reform. He promised a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, and then retracted the promise. Once the rise of Ukip had persuaded him that he must commit to an in/out referendum, he knew his best hope of avoiding it would be to enter a new coalition with the Lib Dems. But in the 2015 election campaign, he drove them, the party that had sustained him in office for five years, almost out of the Commons. The referendum became unavoidable, support for major reform in Europe unachievable. He leaves office with one record to his name: not yet 50, he is the youngest prime minister in modern times to resign and leave office. He will have a long time to ponder the consequences of his decade at the top.

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