© Sudhir Pithwa

Politics

David Cameron’s premiership encompassed much more than Brexit

Judging by David Cameron’s memoir For The Record, his premiership encompassed much more than the referendum

Look, somebody’s got to say it: David Cameron was a good prime minister. And maybe I’m way off beam here, but I’m guessing that not many reviewers will say that when his memoirs are published this month. So, before the storm of invective begins, allow me to argue the “Case For Dave”.

The debit side of the ledger is so familiar that it requires only a swift recapitulation: he sacrificed his early passion for environmentalism on the altar of electoral politics, turning his back on “green crap”; he stuck remorselessly to a meaningless net annual immigration target; and, of course, he threw away the first Commons majority to be won by the Conservatives in 18 years by calling the EU referendum, losing and handing over to Theresa May. Self-evidently, it is this final, catastrophic sequence of events that will dominate the reception of Cameron’s book, For The Record, and I understand that the chapter dealing with the former PM’s decision to hold an in-out referendum – announced in January 2013 – was the most contentious within his circle. Those expecting a full apology will find themselves disappointed.

But pause before you pick up a pitchfork and join the anti-Dave mob. How easy it is to forget the dangerously high deficit that Cameron and his chancellor, George Osborne, inherited in 2010 and the scale of their achievement in implementing a politically perilous strategy of relentless fiscal conservatism.

By November 2017 (a year and a half after they had gone), the state’s current budget, which covers day-to-day spending, finally went into surplus.

David Cameron resigns as prime minister the morning after Britain votes to leave the European Union, 24 June 2016

© Dan Kitwood

Second, Cameron managed a coalition for five years with a party that, before it entered government, was the sworn enemy of the Conservatives. Much of the credit for this unlikely achievement is owed to Nick Clegg (also, for now, out of public favour). But it was Cameron who found his unexpected calling as the manager of a bipartisan administration that, according to the odds, ought not to have lasted a month, let alone a full parliament.

Third, it was Cameron’s government that passed legislation that brought about marriage equality – much against the wishes of many grass-roots Tory activists. Say what you like about the rest of his record, but this was straightforward statesmanship.

Fourth, he saved the Union – now looking somewhat more precarious – by winning the 2014 independence referendum in Scotland. He also saw off the absurd idea of electing MPs by the alternative vote method in the first referendum of his premiership in 2011. And as for that other referendum, in which, to Cameron’s surprise, the public rejected his advice and embraced Brexit? Well: nobody can pretend that the consequences of his original decision and his determination to press ahead with the referendum so soon after his 2015 general election victory have been anything other than disastrous.

Trust in the political process has been further eroded; parliament has been the scene of a three-year rolling shambles; the pathologies that mobilised the Leave vote have been compounded, not assuaged. What has been almost completely forgotten is why Cameron took the decision that he did. For more than a decade, the demand for a referendum on Europe had been growing – first, on the single currency, then on the (doomed) EU Constitutional Treaty, then on its successor, the Lisbon Treaty, and, finally, and definitively, on membership of the EU itself.

Did Cameron’s premiership end in failure? Of course. But his six years in office included many successes

It was not just the electoral surge of the UK Independence Party under Nigel Farage’s leadership that compelled Cameron’s hand. The Tory party and – to an extent that has been conveniently airbrushed from the account – the voters themselves had been agitating for a referendum on Europe for more than a decade.

The pressure grew especially strong when it became clear that Cameron’s government would not take office in time to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. By the end of 2012, it was overwhelmingly clear that there would have to be some kind of reckoning: the issue could not be postponed indefinitely.

Whether Cameron was right to bet the farm on EU membership remains moot – there were other options for the question on the ballot paper. But the notion that his decision to hold a referendum was, in and of itself, capricious, irresponsible or even egomaniacal is to ignore the years of political pressure that lay behind it and the specific context in which he was operating.

Did Cameron’s premiership end in failure? Of course. But his six years in office included many successes. And, when it comes to the hurricane of Europe and the wretched saga of the past three years, he is less the villain of the piece than the fall guy.

Now read:

David Cameron’s memoir was ten years in the making and involved more than 50 hours of MiniDisc recordings

Jo Swinson: ‘We are moving to an election. The question is whether it is in weeks or months’

Ten GQ rules for surviving the party conferences

Rory Stewart: ‘There is a huge power in the centre that hasn’t been unleashed’

GQ Recommends

Cars

The new Lexus LF-30 electric concept is so futuristic it looks like it might gain sentience

Culture

Hannah Gadsby's song of the self

Culture

The very best Netflix watches in October (goodbye, social life)

Edition