The question I hear asked most about David Cameron is “How does he feel about the mess he has created?” It’s a question asked by triumphant Brexiteers as much as disappointed Remainers. The answer is: it’s complicated, and just how complicated will emerge when his political memoir is published next week.
In 2006, Francis Elliott of The Times and I wrote a biography of David Cameron. We spoke to more than 300 people, on and off the record, about the man who was to transform his party’s fortunes. We updated the book twice, and were gratified to be told weren’t a million miles from painting an accurate picture. But by and large, that was when the going was good.
Since 2016, Cameron has said little. The nation built a picture of a lonely, slightly bored figure grimly tapping away at the keyboard in his shepherd’s hut, emerging occasionally to cross the globe and collect a hefty cheque from a speaking engagement. But even then he was at the mercy of events. He didn’t want to be unhelpful to his successors and, as Brexit was delayed, so too was his version. But now the book is upon us.
And the biggest interest will be in that shattering referendum result. He had called the 2016 vote on Britain’s continued membership of the EU in the expectation that the Remain side would win. It was an expectation shared by most of the London media bubble. The story went that the “sensible”, centrist voters would do what they did in the 1975 referendum, namely take their cue on a hugely complicated issue from the sensible centrist MPs and support the status quo.
But Cameron, and many others, didn’t realise how few people outside London had a stake in the status quo. They felt omitted and disenfranchised. Migrants were taking people’s jobs, or so they felt. English wasn’t being spoken on the bus. Brussels was doing Westminster’s job. Why should they do what the Establishment wanted?
For Cameron, of course, the result was cataclysmic. Even someone of his extraordinary buoyancy and optimism would struggle. He had been in No 10 for six years, had made the Conservative Party electable again, and given it an aura of competence once more. He was within reach of being able to say he had won two elections, three referendums and that he had left office at a time of his own choosing. No Prime Minister for 40 years had been able to claim the last of those, let alone all three.
And I believe that that – leaving office soon after a referendum win – was his intention. Not only would Europe cease to be an issue for the Tories, but he was exhausted. Contrary to popular belief, he worked extremely hard. In our biography, we quoted a colleague as saying that he was brilliant at “chillaxing”. The term was intended in admiration of Cameron’s ability, no matter how grave the decisions he was having to make, to zone out, to switch off and give himself to his family. Yet it was seen as a mark of idleness.
But, that said, being Prime Minister takes an enormous toll. “Dave is knackered,” I remember one of his friends telling me, “and I do worry for him.” In short, Cameron was running out of steam, and with that glowing legacy in prospect, why hang around and keep his friend and neighbour George Osborne waiting for the top job? He had young children and no desire for them to spend any more time than necessary in Downing Street’s gilded cage.
And, perhaps most importantly, his wife had had enough. She never enjoyed the accoutrements of power, and had put her career on hold for him. Already in 2015 she was designing clothes for the fashion line she planned to launch. The writing was on the wall. Those who accuse Cameron of cutting and running after losing the referendum will find further ammunition here – he was planning to go all along – but I think that is only because he believed, having won, there would be no shame in leaving. On the contrary. Besides, the attacks on him for “walking away” look wide of the mark, given how hard “the mess” has been to clear up. Would his critics really want him to still be there?
His feelings about that defeat will make riveting reading. He takes public service seriously, and the UK was leaving the EU by accident. Unsurprisingly, friends talk of him being “devastated” and of feeling a great sense of guilt. Those who accuse him of wantonly committing to holding the referendum without considering the consequences will claim vindication. That argument will go on for ever. As one close friend puts it: “It was not a reckless gamble, it was a calculated one: the trouble was, he got the calculation wrong.”
His critics will say that when the stakes are that high, you shouldn’t take any risks at all. And that would have meant not promising a referendum and probably losing the 2015 election. Was it worth it, for a man who says he loves his country more than his party? Would Ed Miliband really have been worse than what we have now? How thoroughly he answers that question will be a test of the book’s candour.
Cameron insists he does not regret calling the referendum, only its outcome. He believes the referendum was a necessity, rather than the hubristic punt that his opponents claim. In the interests of securing re-election in 2015, he wanted to buy off those tempted to vote Ukip. In that respect, he was more successful than he expected, winning an overall majority. (His book should answer Donald Tusk’s claim that he planned to rat on that pledge under pressure from his expected coalition partners, the Lib Dems.) It is generally forgotten, though, that – knowing what damage splits on Europe had done to successive Tory governments – he had first mooted a referendum on the EU as early as 2013.
Cameron’s view is echoed in a forthcoming book by Martin Westlake, which shows that not only was an In-Out vote being taken seriously in senior Tory circles nearly 20 years earlier, largely for reasons of party management, but that Cameron felt the referendum was a necessity for the country. In 2013, Cameron cited the main spur as neither migration nor sovereignty but problems in the eurozone, which were “driving fundamental change in Europe”. “Democratic consent for the EU in Britain is now wafer thin,” he said, and needed strengthening.
Cameron has said that populism cost him his job. He also knew that the Remain campaign had been a shambles. The brilliance and cynicism of the Leave campaign left Cameron’s team horribly outgunned. He would be justified in crying foul, but is too knowing a politician not to accept responsibility. His chief regret, surely, will be the failure over many years to advertise the merits of Europe. For a politician who benefitted so much from avoiding policy definition, in a divided Tory Party that would have been asking a lot. Maybe there’s a lesson there.
Just as Cameron’s record has been overshadowed by Brexit, his book will be too. But he takes politics seriously, and there will be plenty for the think tanks, constitutionalists and historians to chew on. There will doubtless be a good deal of explanation and self-justification – on austerity, the coalition, the failure to clean up party funding, the unseating of Gaddafi, the non-intervention in Syria, his frustrations with the Whitehall machine, the non-resolution of press regulation – and I hope he will say something about the 24-hour pressure placed on a PM, the resistance of his party to change and the burdens he placed on himself. For example, he felt he owed it to the victims and to the country to watch in full the videos of jihadist beheadings, at considerable personal discomfort and distress.
The saltier material will be about the personalities. A schoolfriend talks of his sweetness of nature – which essentially he has retained, despite everything – but clearly a number of former colleagues now lie several miles outside his affability zone.
His former friend Steve Hilton is one. The brilliantly creative salesman of compassionate Conservatism let it be known he thought his former boss was too cautious in office. Don’t be surprised to read of Hilton’s increasingly unworldly schemes, high-handedness with colleagues and “eccentric” behaviour.
Lord Ashcroft, a Tory donor to whom William Hague was close, is another who caused Cameron headaches, and who ended up writing a critical biography, with Isabel Oakeshott, of the then PM. The former PM told friends he would have preferred not to mention Ashcroft at all, because almost anything he wrote might cause trouble. But of one thing we can be sure. There will be no admission of Ashcroft’s claim that at a university party Cameron had placed his penis in the mouth of a dead pig (a claim that caused Cameron’s mother to call him at Downing Street – “just checking, David”). The source of the tale has never been revealed. But we can live in hope.
Cameron has delayed publication of this book because he didn’t want to make Theresa May’s job any harder. He knows how difficult the job is, which is why, when she was at the Home Office, he didn’t think she was up to it. But she did replace him, prompting him to say to one friend: “At least it is not Boris.”
Oh dear, and now it is. The Johnson campaign was keen to present its candidate as the One Nation Tory, as the natural home for those who had supported Cameron. In a number of cases it succeeded, but few real Cameroons took the bait. On the other hand, the disdain that for a long time prevented Cameron endorsing Johnson for the London mayoralty has lessened. The two former rivals could now be useful to one another, so don’t expect this book to tell you the whole truth about Cameron’s opinion of Boris.
More likely to receive both barrels is Michael Gove, whose surprise decision to back Leave in the referendum was taken extraordinarily badly by Cameron, who, despite his removal of Gove from the Department of Education, had seen him as a last-ditch ally. The hostility is intensified by the former exceptional closeness between the men’s wives. Cameron is good at magnanimity and disdains small-mindedness, but he may think such generosity of spirit would be wasted on his former ally. He may think damning with little or no praise does the trick.
The people I would like to read most about, though, are Rupert Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson. You will remember that it was Rebekah Brooks who persuaded her boss Murdoch to switch sides and support Cameron’s Tories in the 2010 election. She also persuaded George Osborne and Cameron that her clandestine lover, Coulson, though recently unseated (and later sent to prison) from the editorship of the scandal-hit News of the World, would be a suitable person to run Cameron’s communications.
She would say that, wouldn’t she, you might think. But surely Cameron and his people were savvy enough to do the due diligence? Not due enough, seemingly. In all Cameron’s six years in office, by far his most uncomfortable time in public was his session in front of the Leveson Inquiry, when a pink-faced Prime Minister protested to Sir Brian that he remembered very clearly how important it was to secure an assurance from Coulson. But of what? That he hadn’t known about the hacking, or that it was unlikely to resurface and cause embarrassment?
It would be good to have a fuller and franker account than Cameron has so far offered. Coulson – the tabloid counterweight employed to tell the posh boys what real people think – helped get Cameron into Downing Street. Does Cameron truly regret hiring him, or merely the bad publicity when he was finally exposed? How does Cameron regard Coulson now? And Rebekah Brooks? Are they in touch? She made Cameron look very good and then very stupid. He must have feelings about that.
We are unlikely to read about that, though. Because after slow bidding for the rights to Cameron’s memoirs, the deal was reportedly sealed with a hefty £800,000 offer from HarperCollins, owned by News Corp, whose UK division is News UK. Its chief executive, need I remind you, is Rebekah Brooks.
A version of this article appears in The Gentleman’s Journal. For the Record, by David Cameron, is published by William Collins on 19 September