All political lives, Enoch Powell observed, end in failure, and in this he was exceptionally well-versed, having squandered a promising future on the altar of racist bigotry. His remark could also be applied without further qualification to David Cameron, who has now quit not once, but twice, in less than three months, first as Prime Minister, and now as a member of the House of Commons.
JOLLY POOR SHEOW!
As with so much of today’s politics, how Cameron is judged depends on where those judging sit on the political spectrum: those who willingly cheer for the Tories have already heaped praise upon his alleged achievements, while those more independently minded pundits have done no such thing, and rightly so. David Cameron, let me put this directly, is the worst Prime Minister in living memory - and then some.
There were plus points to Cameron’s leadership of the Tory Party, but not many: he tried to give The Blue Team genuine appeal across the voter spectrum, although whether much of that appeal was backed by any genuine sincerity is doubtful. He brought a ruthless opportunism to his side of the Commons that had been sometimes missing since the departure of Mrs T all those years before.
And when it came to Coalition Government, Cameron “got” what that entailed. There had to be a smoothing of ruffled feathers, a constant need to gently remind his own side that they could not tell those awful Lib Dems to shove off and know their place, an expectation that there would have to be compromise, that even in Government, there would be disappointments. This he achieved.
We are told that Cameron made the Tories electable again, but in 2010 his party was in such a poor state that he could only govern with the Lib Dems’ cooperation, and last year’s Parliamentary majority was only achieved by bending the election rules beyond the limits of elasticity. There may even be prosecutions as a result.
Cameron is being hailed as some kind of revolutionary, yet his tenure has seen the rolling back of social programmes out of sheer meanness and manufactured intolerance. On his watch, hate crime increased, disabled people were targeted and victimised, local Government was decimated, and debt spiralled as if out of control.
He oversaw a vast expansion of those forced to accept zero hours contracts, or self-employed status, both giving convenient avoidance of minimum wage legislation which so many in and around his party despise. Far from being strong, he weakly allowed the small state lobbyists to make the running.
Cameron was in charge as the Tory Party was subjected to infiltration by the fundamentalist right, as was revealed when it was discovered groups like the Young Britons’ Foundations were training its activists. YBF followers meant, like so many of the transatlantic small state brigade, a visceral hatred of the NHS. The entryists proliferated; the ranks of SpAds are now littered with them.
Along the way, Cameron became embroiled in the phone hacking row - an entanglement entirely of his own making. He was warned about employing Andy Coulson, whom we now know had presided over a borderline criminal enterprise at the late and not at all lamented Screws, yet he brought him into Downing Street. When the scandal finally broke over the hacking of a dead schoolgirl’s voicemail, he had little alternative but to provide the diversion of the Leveson Inquiry. For this, the press have held him in deep mistrust to this day.
The Leveson discomfort was compounded by his closeness to the Murdoch empire, and especially Rebekah Brooks. Again, he failed to choose his close associates wisely, and allowed some of those associations to be closer than was good for his reputation, his party, and rather more importantly, his country.
Having failed to think through his actions on Leveson, he deflected and prevaricated over the recommendations, leaving it to the hapless Oliver Letwin and then later hiding behind the fatally compromised John Whittingdale, rather than honour his promises to the victims of press intrusion and follow through on what is known as “Leveson 2”. Once again, he made himself scarce when he needed to face up to responsibilities and commitments.
On the domestic front, Cameron oversaw a stretching of NHS resources that meant A&E waiting time guidelines were consistently missed, first only in winter and then all year round. He failed to stop a precipitous decline in industrial relations there, meekly leaving matters to Jeremy Hunt (the former Culture Secretary).
Any belief that Cameron was keen to stress his environmental credentials evaporated when this suddenly became denounced as “green crap”. Commitments on renewable energy were watered down. And as exceptional weather events gave every appearance of becoming more frequent, flood defence budgets were cut back.
Voters were repeatedly told that there was a “Long Term Economic Plan”. There was no such thing - not, at least, beyond the regular deployment of that phrase. Tax receipts regularly fell short of the levels needed to prevent yet more debt being taken on. The recent fall in the value of Sterling was therefore inevitable.
Foreign policy was equally disastrous for the UK on Cameron’s watch, and that is before we get to relations with the EU. The intervention in Libya was not followed through, with the result that after Muammar Gadafy was deposed, the country very quickly became a failed state, a lawless breeding ground for terrorism. Urging bombing of Syria - as if hurling even more high explosive upon a civilian population was a kindly or humanitarian act - was the height of foolishness, and here I do not exempt the Labour politicians who were equally foolish in going along, ultimately, with the adventure.
But Cameron’s greatest failure has been, as with so many Tory leaders, over Europe. He allowed the drip-feed of lies about the EU to become the received wisdom, promoted journalists with zero ministerial ability - like Michael Gove - and helped inflict the ludicrous figure of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson upon Londoners. Johnson is one of the chief culprits when it comes to EU misinformation. Gove is not far behind.
Cameron allowed himself to believe that he alone could overcome the hostility to the EU that he had allowed to fester unchallenged, using it when it suited him and then unable to tame it when it mattered. He was utterly deluded in this regard. Having already established themselves as liars of no discernible principle, those opposed to EU membership had no qualms in putting a flagrantly dishonest prospectus before the electorate.
Cameron believed he could, almost single-handedly, haul back this initiative, unable or unwilling to take on board that the lies, having gone unchallenged for so long, on occasion by him, became believed, and that his own Government’s obsession with austerity was in so many voters’ minds confused with the effect of EU membership. He had won his gamble with Scottish independence; this time he overplayed his hand and lost.
After the humiliation of losing the referendum, Cameron appeared unable or unwilling to face his own party, the baying and slavering media beast, or indeed those fellow European leaders whose patience he had so sorely tried for so long. He threw in the towel rather than face the music. But he would remain an MP. Now he has reconsidered even that decision and run away, his surrender as complete as it is abject.
So how does David Cameron compare to all those other Prime Ministers in living memory, and indeed before then? Sadly for his fans, not at all well. The litany of failure is unsurpassed, not even going back through the last century. Consider those who went before and who were vilified after they departed: all had some kind of tangible and unarguable achievement, whatever their shortcomings.
Gordon Brown: every revision of Pa Broon’s premiership is upwards: his handling of the financial crisis has been seen to be right. The path to economic recovery, a classically Keynesian response to a shortage of aggregate demand in the economy, was bringing recovery until Cameron took over and needless austerity was imposed.
John Major: his premiership ended in cynical ridicule amid shouts of “sleaze”, but his unexpected victory in 1992 gave the Tories a fourth term in office, and he more or less held his party together despite it being riven over Europe (again).
James Callaghan: “Sunny Jim” was bequeathed a terrible hand by a departing Harold Wilson, and might have won a General Election had he gone to the country in autumn 1978. Labour did not manage too well in the immediate aftermath of his departure.
Ted Heath: vilified for taking Britain into the (then) EEC, which is now retold as some kind of treason. History will revisit Sailor Heath’s time in Downing Street more favourably - starting with the realisation that life outside the EU will not be the cakewalk promised.
Alec Douglas Home: he hardly had time to be vilified, and in the event ran Harold Wilson surprisingly close in 1964. The Tories might have done even better had Macmillan not conned the Queen into sending for The Right Kind Of PM, rather than Rab Butler.
Anthony Eden: he fouled up royally over Suez, but in his defence, Eden had effectively run the show during the early 50s as Churchill was increasingly indisposed. He gave sterling service to the wartime Government, too.
Neville Chamberlain: ridiculed over Munich, at least he bought Britain some time to re-arm. Even then, we were in no shape to take on the Nazis, which he well knew, but we had a commitment to defend Poland.
David Cameron compares miserably to any or all of them.
Why should that be? Cameron was someone who rather fancied being PM and persuaded both himself and a fawning press that he was rather good at it, both of them mistaking his dispatch box manner for greatness, rather than the overbearing, bullying, privileged behaviour he truly represented. His greatness, such as it was, was manufactured, his sincerity utterly transparent.
For him, there will be the comfort of inherited wealth and the diversion of directorships. There will be none of the discomfort suffered by so many out there on the margins of the economy. The world will continue to be truly excellent. He will be able to look back on a country ill served, an economy on the brink, international relations in tatters, but a press persuaded that they have somehow brushed against greatness.
But then David Cameron was always the consummate salesman. It was all about PR. Real achievement was incidental and accidental. The rest of us are thus diminished as a result.