John Major gave us a golden Olympics – what will David Cameron’s legacy be?

Some credit should be reserved for Tony Blair, who won the 2012 Olympics for London, boosting the prestige and motivation of British sport, but I’m not generally allowed to mention him

John Rentoul
Saturday 20 August 2016 17:46
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Could the success of the Brownlee brothers be attributed to John Major's Lottery funding initiative?
Could the success of the Brownlee brothers be attributed to John Major's Lottery funding initiative?

The Olympics would be a great chance to take a break from politics, except that one reason Team UK, as I prefer to call it, is doing so well is John Major. His decision to set up a National Lottery and to designate some of the profits for sports funding was one of those ideas that took 22 years to come to fruition.

He takes the main credit, although some should be reserved for Tony Blair, who won the 2012 Olympics for London, boosting the prestige and motivation of British sport, but I’m not generally allowed to mention him.

In any case, the August pause is a good chance to take the long view, to catch breath after the Brexit vote, the biggest disruption of British peacetime politics since the rise of the Labour Party a century ago.

It is a chance to look ahead to the new political season, which starts with a short overspill session of Parliament next month, followed by the party conferences.

Rio 2016 Day 14 highlights in 60 seconds

There will be two sessions of Prime Minister’s Questions, on 7 and 14 September, in which the difficulty for Theresa May is to know whether to criticise Jeremy Corbyn for suggesting “proximity talks” with proxies for Isis, or for saying he would respond to an attack by Russia on a Nato ally by “dialogue” to “ask them and support them in respecting borders”. The danger for her is that she crushes him so completely that people think she is a heartless monster.

The party conferences are equally likely to contrast May’s sure-footed competence with Labour’s continuing crisis. It doesn’t help that Labour has not yet arranged a security contract for its conference, having decided to boycott G4S, one of the main security companies.

The other feature of the new political season is the publishing boom: September and October are peak months for political books. That means that, as we look ahead to the new Brexit era we will also be looking back on David Cameron’s time as Prime Minister that was brought so abruptly to an end on 23 June.

I am looking forward most to reading Ed Balls’s memoir, Speaking Out, published on 6 September. It will be the first big account from Gordon Brown’s side of the Blair-Brown rivalry of the New Labour period. But it will also offer a view on George Osborne’s economic record, which is one of the big questions in judging the Cameron years.

Then there will be Nick Clegg’s Politics: Between The Extremes, on 15 September, that will remind us that, for most of his time as Prime Minister, Cameron led a coalition government. Then, at the end of the Conservative Party conference, will be Craig Oliver’s Unleashing Demons. Subtitled The Inside Story of the EU Referendum, this will be the first defence of Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on Europe, by the former Prime Minister’s director of communications. The main title suggests that the referendum inadvertently let loose forces that Cameron couldn’t control, so it will be intriguing to see how Oliver, and therefore Cameron himself, justifies that mistake.

Because of it, Cameron will be remembered as a provisional Prime Minister who dealt with a fiscal crisis but who had little else to show for his efforts, and who took us out of the EU by accident. A bit like John Major, who actually served as Prime Minister for three months longer than he did. Like Major’s crisis, when Britain came out of the European exchange rate mechanism in 1992, Cameron’s was a personal failure but a national success. Leaving the ERM laid the ground for the long economic boom that followed; while leaving the EU was what the British people wanted.

Cameron came close to the conservative triple, of holding three referendums and winning each of them for the status quo. When I put this to him last year he said, “Well, two,” having completely forgotten the 2011 referendum on the voting system. Which was not surprising, because that was Clegg’s idea and, although I supported the Alternative Vote, I think the vote probably returned the right result. (There is an entertaining chapter in More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford, also published next month, about how little voters understand the simplified AV system used in mayoral elections.)

I thought Cameron was, on balance, a good Prime Minister. The bedroom tax, the cut in the top rate of income tax, the refusal to consider a mansion tax and the cuts to tax credits for the working poor (which are still in the Treasury plans for the next four years) were worse than a mistake – they reinforced his image as an out-of-touch rich boy.

His foreign policy, beyond Europe, was inconclusive. The air campaign in support of the rebellion against Gaddafi in Libya was justified, but he ended up defending the chaos and bloodshed that followed in the same words and phrases that Blair uses about Iraq.

On public services, his record was mixed: the top-down reorganisation of the NHS was a terrible waste; welfare reform (Universal Credit) has hardly started; and while the academies programme was accelerated, it has hit the law of diminishing returns.

But he did a lot of good things, too, such as gay marriage. And it is hard to dislike someone who calls the Mail on Sunday “the Hate on Sunday”.

Then there is the National Citizen Service, a volunteering scheme for teenagers. It is the kind of Majorish policy upon which we might look back in 22 years’ time and say: he was a better Prime Minister than we thought.

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