Stop this anti-Cameron cacophony
Published by The Mail on Sunday (18th September, 2016)
A year ago, David Cameron was being hailed as a political colossus after pulling off a shock Election victory. Now he is slinking from Parliament, his achievements dismissed and his reputation in ruins.
There is no doubt Brexit was a disaster that will tarnish his place in history. And the sorry style of his departure, spraying honours around pals and breaking promises to stay in Westminster, has done him no favours.
Yet as his successor seeks to airbrush away his successes in office, cheered by backbenchers who once crawled to Cameron for favours and commentators hastily changing their tunes, the demeaning of his legacy has already gone too far.
I remember when I first met him when he was a fresh new MP, and being struck by his smart brain, his self-deprecating humour, his natural optimism and, above all, his ease in the modern world, a trait shared by few Tory contemporaries.
When he told me he was standing for leader in 2005, I was not surprised. And I was impressed by his determination to reshape a party that seemed stale and stuck in the past, on the ropes after three successive defeats by Tony Blair.
He was admirably open to fresh ideas over how to attract new voters. But when I once raised public perceptions over the plethora of old Etonians in his inner circle, he brushed aside my concerns.
We discussed the lessons learned from having disabled children and he was defensive of the NHS thanks to his experiences. Cameron espoused a clear vision of compassionate Conservatism that planted the Tory flag in the centre ground, rejecting the tired obsession over Europe that had previously caused such divisions in the party.
Yet 11 years later it is that same fractious old issue – which wrecked the tenures of two previous Tory Prime Ministers and already overshadows his successor – that has caused the rapid dissolution of such a stellar political career.
Now he is leaving Parliament under a cloud, and few will remember the remarkable statistic that 11 of his 15 years in Westminster were spent as party leader.
He might have been a brilliant Prime Minister in boom times. Instead his leadership and liberal modernisation project was knocked off course first by a financial crisis, then by the rise of a populist force on his right flank.
Ultimately, his pragmatism proved his undoing, too many concessions to the Right leading to that dreadful referendum defeat. Yet it is wrong to write him off as a dismal failure, as suddenly seems fashionable.
Although a former aide, I never shied away from fair criticism, such as attacking his absurd aid giveaway and flawed immigration targets. But he also banked big achievements.
Cameron oversaw an economy that cut taxes for the lowest-paid, created millions of jobs, opened up and outgunned international rivals – which is, after all, why so many Europeans flocked here to work.
He speeded up successful education reforms, defeated Scottish nationalism, devolved power from Westminster, led a stable coalition during a fiscal crisis and drove through gay marriage despite fierce criticism from traditionalists.
And just look at the political landscape he left, gifting Theresa May dominance at Westminster. Contrast this to Cameron’s own inheritance, the fourth leader in as many years of a party shattered by three defeats.
The Conservative Party in 2005 was an outmoded institution that had lost touch with a fast-changing nation. Bereft of fresh ideas and seen as the ‘nasty party’, it had just 17 female MPs and two from ethnic minorities. Now the party reflects modern Britain. There are four times more women MPs and 17 from ethnic minorities.
Cameron departs having driven Labour down a hard-Left blind alley and devastated the Lib Dems. Party finances were transformed by his friend Lord Feldman, who raised an astonishing £250 million and cleared £28 million debts while serving as main fundraiser.
Yet May, who courageously coined the ‘nasty party’ tag in 2002, seems to have gone out of her way to wipe all trace of Cameron from the party. First she banished his supporters from front benches, which, given her slim majority in the Commons, may have serious repercussions. Now she seems set on laying waste to his legacy.
Already she has weakened sugar tax proposals, watered down plans for city mayors, revived state protectionism and shied away from crucial prison reforms. These are all regressive moves. Even worse is her idea to expand grammar schools, a concept so flawed that even hopeless Jeremy Corbyn managed to run rings around her at Prime Minister’s Questions.
Instead of turning back the clock, she should have examined the unlikely success story of non-selective London schools, triumphing thanks to academic freedom, investment and, yes, immigration with an influx of motivated families.
Cameron felt strongly about his school reforms. After all, he made his name as education spokesman and repeatedly faced down Right-wingers by ruling out such a grammar school revival.
Hopefully the grammar school plan will be defeated and May can instead start to flesh out her laudable desire to spread social justice. So far, sadly, she seems only interested in protecting her right flank from Ukip rather than appealing to the centre.
May is not alone in trashing Cameron’s tenure. Last week the Foreign Affairs Select Committee savaged his intervention in Libya. Yet this was a poor report, reliant on shoddy research and shockingly ignorant of realities I saw before and during the revolution when reporting from the ground for this newspaper.
Libya was very different from Iraq. It was not a foreign invasion ripping apart a nation, but air strikes backed by the Arab League in support of a popular revolt against a savage dictatorship, one already guilty of atrocities.
After Gaddafi’s overthrow, there were fair elections. The West, scarred by Iraq, was too reluctant to become involved, while those in charge resisted help and made mistakes, such as not disarming militias.
Yet now Cameron is singled out for blame over the subsequent calamity. Is it just coincidence the Tory-dominated committee behind this inept report is chaired by a man he once sacked as Minister?
Our political system is diminished when people who once professed undying loyalty to their leader start kicking him the second he loses power. Little wonder so many voters have lost faith in tribal party politics.
Cameron did not turn out to be a great Prime Minister who transformed his nation, as I hoped. Ultimately he tried to be too tactical, spooked into jettisoning his core strategy and enabling Nigel Farage to become the most influential politician of our age.
Yet despite the tumult of Brexit and cacophony of critics dismissing his premiership, Cameron did a decent job in difficult times. Do not be fooled into suddenly thinking he was a disaster.