David Cameron knows how awful his legacy is, and is getting exactly what he deserves: a whimper into obscurity

Nobody knew what this decomposing political corpse stood for until the end, but now we do: all he ever believed in was keeping his job

Matthew Norman
Wednesday 14 September 2016 11:02
Cameron projected a vague One Nation beneficence while leaving it to his enforcer, George Osborne, to punish the poor and disabled for the sins of the bankers
Cameron projected a vague One Nation beneficence while leaving it to his enforcer, George Osborne, to punish the poor and disabled for the sins of the bankers

For David Cameron, the boundary change came early and cost him more than the Oxfordshire seat he has opted to vacate. The borderline between a languid farewell tour as a feted Prime Minister and having to slink away as the most abysmal failure in Downing Street history was drawn in the summer.

With a guiding nudge from 52 per cent of the voting public, he crossed it on 23 June. For him, everything that preceded the EU referendum has been reduced to irrelevant rubble by the earthquake he unleashed, and nothing that could follow it will be more than an afterthought.

Who could seriously care less whether he chose to stay in the Commons as a spectral presence, flitting about the backbenches like Eleanor Rigby’s ghost at her own funeral; or if he preferred, as he apparently does, to seek to tread the US lecture circuit gold-rush trail like his role model Tony Blair?

You could, if you had the gumption, synthesise a little outrage about the vulgar haste of Cameron’s departure, recalling that he promised to stay as an MP, just as he promised to remain Prime Minister if the referendum was lost. You could question the rationale that he doesn’t want to be a distraction to Theresa May on matters which they disagree about, like grammar schools. There may be a shred of truth in that, though there is probably more in reports that feels enormous umbrage about May’s ruthless dismantling of what he once hoped would be known as his “legacy”.

Yet what would be the point when rage is too precious a commodity to be squandered? Criticising him for that, or for rewarding his mates and donors with honours, feels embarrassingly silly. You might as well be driven to apoplexy by the news that Rose West owes £1,379.45 on an unreturned book she withdrew from a Gloucester library in 1984, or that Bashar al-Assad was fined a fiver for dropping litter in Regents Street while he was an ophthalmology student in London.

David Cameron surely understands what his legacy is, and why all else means nothing.

While it is true that he echoed Blair in many ways (recklessness born of arrogance, mistaking politics for a game, and so on), in one way Cameron is nothing like Blair. He is not delusional. Arguably the sanest PM for decades, Cameron never appeared the type to hog a press conference podium for two hours while explaining why, after seven years of exhaustive investigation, a report into his conduct is misguided.

Cameron knows what he did. He gambled his country’s future for immediate political benefit. It worked in the short term. The promise of an EU referendum – the one promise he almost amusingly brags about keeping as if that somehow exonerates him – may have dissuaded enough Tory malcontents from voting Ukip to win the election.

A year later, it proved the most worthless victory a British politician ever won. In fact his only shot at securing a secondary legacy is etymological. One day, maybe “Cameronian” will drive “Pyrrhic” from the OED.

Apparently he means to spend the coming months writing his multimillion-pound memoirs. When these are published next year, politinerds will feast on his reflections on tensions within the Coalition, the relationship with Boris, legalising same-sex marriage, the folly in Libya, and many other facets of his six years in power.

Ordinarily, these would all be intriguing subjects. But what Cameron did to Britain by needlessly calling the referendum, and then shamefully mismanaging the Remain campaign, shrivels them into a withered little ball of meh

In other circumstances, there might be something tragic about the precipitous downfall of a comparatively decent man. With Gordon Brown, there was an element of tragedy in how a capacity for greatness was subverted by the craving for power he couldn’t control.

But Cameron had no such capacity. He had charm and elegance, and a way of radiating quiet authority when required. These political skills he used to project a vague One Nation beneficence while leaving it to his enforcer, George Osborne, to punish the poor and disabled for the sins of the bankers.

What he actually believed himself remained a mystery almost to the end, until he resolved the conundrum by pledging to hold the referendum for no imaginable cause other than to neutralise Ukip and win an election. The one thing he believed in was keeping his job.

David Cameron steps down as MP

Perhaps he regrets that now, and has enough self-awareness to confess to a cataclysmic misjudgement. It will be to discover this, and this alone, that I’ll be in Waterstones flipping through the index the day his memoir is published.

But it doesn’t really matter whether he owns up or borrows from Blair to trot out a painfully bemusing self-justification. Nor will it be worth lacerating him if he spends the years ahead following from “the Master” by filling his boots as a “consultant” (walking contacts book) to merchant banks, treating mineral-rich African nations to his thoughts on governance, or becoming suspiciously close to Jerry Hall.

Kicking a man when he’s down is one thing, and I’m all for that. Kicking a decomposing political corpse is a waste of shoe leather.

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