As David Cameron's period at the summit of UK politics draws to a dramatic close, historian Dr Robert Saunders profiles the elusive prime minister.
27 June 2016
On 15 June 1988, the telephone rang at Conservative Central Office. It was answered by the deputy director of the Research Department, who was about to interview a fresh-faced recruit named David Cameron. The call was from Buckingham Palace, and contained an extraordinary message:
I understand that you are to see David Cameron. I’ve tried everything I can to dissuade him from wasting his time on politics, but I have failed. You are about to meet a truly remarkable young man.
To this day, the identity of Cameron’s royal referee is shrouded in mystery - partly because there are so many contenders. Was it Sir Alastair Aird, Equerry to the Queen Mother and husband to Cameron’s godmother? Or Sir Brian McGrath, a friend of his parents who was private secretary to Prince Philip? Cameron himself had been at prep school with Prince Edward, and the Queen was sometimes to be seen dropping off her children or enjoying a cup of tea with the headmaster. Did Her Majesty spot the potential in the infant Cameron, as he bustled merrily along the corridors?
It is a tale that captures much of the essence of the Cameron story. No prime minister of modern times has been so deeply rooted in the Establishment. None has been so routinely tipped for greatness. And yet few retain such an enduring air of mystery. David Cameron has been the longest serving Tory leader since Margaret Thatcher. He has led his party for nearly eleven years and his country for more than six. Yet he remains curiously undefined in the public imagination. He has published no speeches, acquired no nicknames and is associated with no ‘project’. It would be difficult to quote anything he has ever said, and the nature of his Conservatism remains almost wholly obscure. As his premiership draws to a close, who is David Cameron? And what does he believe?
From 1965 to 2001, every Conservative leader was of relatively humble stock. Ted Heath was the son of a carpenter; Margaret Thatcher grew up over the grocer's shop, while John Major's parents worked in the music halls. In this respect, Cameron marked the re-emergence of an older tradition of Tory leadership. His childhood, in rural Oxfordshire, had a distinctly ruritanian character: a world of nannies, country houses and afternoons shooting rooks and pigeons. At his prep school, Heatherdown, the parental roster included two princesses, a viscount, an earl and the reigning monarch. Visitors to the school sports day passed through one of three entrances, marked respectively for ‘ladies’, ‘gentlemen’ and ‘chauffeurs’. It was a place of ‘endless pillow-fights and non-stop ragging in the dorm’. Matron patrolled the corridors, and ‘Cameron more than once felt the sting of the clothes brush’.
Yet if Cameron's background appeared quaintly archaic, his entry to Conservative politics was thoroughly modern. Like so many politicians of the Blair era and beyond, he went straight from university to the Conservative Research Department, where he was immediately identified as a star in the making. Maurice Fraser, who worked with Cameron in the 1992 election, was 'totally convinced this guy was going to be Conservative Party leader one day. In drafting or advising on the key point to take, it would just trip off his tongue, the right thing to say in a given context'. Cameron matched an inexhaustible capacity for work with keen political antennae, and he added to this an easy, though apparently selective, charm. Colleagues noted his 'emotional intelligence', his ability to find the right words in dealing with the media, and embattled ministers began asking for Cameron by name.
By the time he left Central Office in 1994, to become head of corporate communications at Carlton, Cameron had worked at every great department of state except the Foreign Office. He had worked closely with John Major, Norman Lamont and Michael Howard, and played a central co-ordinating role in the 1992 election. After seven years in the private sector, he was elected to Parliament as MP for the safe seat of Witney in Oxfordshire. He was still just thirty-four years old.
From the moment he entered the Commons, in 2001, Cameron was identified as a future prime minister. Yet to the proverbial visitor from Mars, it would not be easy to explain why. As late as 2005, Cameron had no legislative achievements, no experience of office and no significant public profile. Though he had entered the Shadow Cabinet in 2004, he had done so in a party role – as head of policy co-ordination – rather than in a leading ministerial portfolio. He declined the role of Shadow Chancellor in 2005, apparently believing that the education brief would better burnish his modernising credentials. For all his obvious talents, Cameron had shown no evidence that he could run a ministerial department or operate the levers of government.
Yet these were not the attributes his party required. Cameron’s talents lay in marketing: he knew how to package a product for public consumption. It was Greg Barker, a fellow member of the 2001 intake, who spotted Cameron’s own ‘marketability’:
I had come to the view that the Tory Party needed to skip a generation. We needed telegenic, charismatic, modern – not in a grumpy, tortured, Portillo way, but in a relaxed, effortless comfortable-with-themselves sort of way. And he seemed to fit the bill very closely.
Cameron was of the same opinion, and within two or three years of entering Parliament had quietly constructed a leadership team. Yet when Michael Howard resigned in 2005, his support within the party remained thin. When The Sunday Times polled 100 MPs early in September, it found only nine who favoured Cameron. Recruitment foundered on a perception that Cameron ‘had been over-keen on impressing his seniors’ and ‘aloof and dismissive towards … his peers’. For most of the summer he had fewer than 14 supporters, at least four of whom were fellow Etonians. This wasn't a leadership bid; it was a high school reunion.
But as Cameron himself understood, the parliamentary party was no longer the critical audience. If Cameron could establish himself as the frontrunner with the public - and if he could present himself as a potential election winner - the party would reposition itself accordingly. Even in the early days of the campaign, when Cameron's parliamentary support was in single figures, Barker recalls that ‘We were getting by far the best media profile’. The fresh, young and personable candidate came across well on camera; and as some journalists acknowledged, he simply offered a better story than his rivals. As one reporter told the political scientist Tim Bale: David Davis: we were used to him; we were bored with him; he’d been quite high-handed and arrogant with lots of journalists. Dave: we didn’t really know – young, modern; there’d be all sorts of interesting stories about cocaine and drugs … he was attractive, and his picture looked better on our front pages.
For the campaign launch, Cameron spent £20,000 on a media event pitched far beyond the parliamentary party. On arrival, journalists were handed strawberry smoothies and chocolate brownies. As they settled in their seats, they took in the room, white and circular, and the ambient music – “lots of little chimes and bells”. It was all very different from David Davis’s launch in the fusty oak-panelled surroundings of the Institute of Civil Engineers. Davis’s message might have been “Modern Conservatives”, but that was just a slogan: this was modern.
Having redefined ‘modernity’ as fruit smoothies and groovy music, Cameron engineered a brilliant piece of theatre at the party conference. His media-savvy team managed to reserve the front seats for their own supporters, ensuring that TV footage recorded their muted response to Davis and enthusiastic ovation for Cameron. They were boosted by controversial pollster Frank Luntz, whose Newsnight focus group revealed extraordinary levels of enthusiasm. With successful appearances on Question Time and Newsnight, Cameron overhauled the frontrunners to secure a thumping victory, first in the MPs’ ballot and then among the party membership.
Cameron had established himself as a brilliant public performer, who both looked and sounded like a leader. What was less clear was the direction in which he intended to take his party. Cameron has never laid claim to an ‘ism’ and he wears his convictions lightly. ‘I’m not a deeply ideological person’, he told Andrew Rawnsley; ‘I’m quite a practical person’. Even as a student, his tutor recalls, Cameron ‘didn’t lose sleep over philosophical problems’, and he acknowledges a preference for instinct over introspection. As he once asked Dylan Jones, ‘Is that entirely logical? Not really, but it’s what I feel’.
At first glance, this locates Cameron within a healthy tradition of Tory scepticism; a line of descent stretching back to David Hume and beyond. Yet scepticism is itself a philosophical position, founded upon a relentless questioning of established truths. Cameron, by contrast, has tended to drift along behind the conventional wisdom of his ‘set’. Like most Tories of his generation, he believes in lower taxes, less regulation and a smaller state. He has an almost religious faith in markets and competition, which he has applied indiscriminately to the forests, the National Health Service and the education system. Even on gay rights – a subject on which he was ‘surprisingly squeamish’ in the 90s – his position has evolved largely in step with fashionable, metropolitan opinion.
From this perspective, Cameron seems guilty not of ‘scepticism’ but of what his biographers call a ‘heroic incuriosity’. He takes no interest in the arts; has only the haziest grasp of history; and cheerfully admits that he ‘doesn’t really read novels’. Far from liberating himself from ‘ideology’, he has simply ceased to ask meaningful questions of it.
In an incautious remark to newspaper executives in 2005, Cameron presented himself as ‘the heir to Blair’; another leader who was scornful of ‘ideology’. By a pleasing irony, earlier generations of Camerons lived in ‘Blairmore House’; and one of the more endearing sights of Cameron’s leadership came at Blair’s final appearance in the Commons, when the Tory leader leapt to his feet to lead the ovation. Yet the comparison is less compelling than it appears. Unlike the Labour leader, Cameron is not temperamentally drawn to change. He surrounds himself with familiar faces from his past; likes hunting, shooting and other country pursuits; and is openly affectionate towards his old school. He enjoys ceremonial, and one of the few subjects on which he admits to becoming ‘furious’ is the ban on hunting to hounds. As his friend, Nick Boles, once noted, ‘The fundamental difference between David and Tony Blair … is that David is absolutely, cut right through him, a total Conservative. He was born into it, he loves it, it’s embraced him, he’s not the outsider’.
In this respect, Cameron is not by temperament a ‘moderniser’. Though he accepted that his party must change, he was a reformer by necessity, rather than conviction. The result was a curiously ambivalent message. In 2001, for example, Cameron urged his party to ‘change its language, change its approach, start with a blank sheet of paper’. Yet there followed a remarkable caveat: Anyone could have told the Labour Party in the 1980s how to become electable. It had to drop unilateral disarmament, punitive tax rises, wholesale nationalisation and unionisation. The question for the Conservative Party is far more difficult because there are no obvious areas of policy that need to be dropped.
In 2005, again, he insisted that the party needed ‘fundamental’ change, not just ‘slick rebranding’. But what was change to mean, if the policies remained the same? The dilemma was sidestepped, rather than resolved, by ‘the politics of “and”’ - a strategy that sought to pair Thatcherite policies on tax cuts and Europe with more fashionable positions on the environment and social justice. Declaring war on Britain’s ‘broken society’, Cameron promised to be ‘as radical a social reformer as Mrs Thatcher was an economic reformer’. He visited the Arctic to see the effects of global warming, and promised ‘the greenest government ever’. Yet these were rhetorical positions, not policy platforms. When Nick Clegg made his own pitch for the green vote in 2008, Conservative staffers were scathing. ‘He can have that’, an advisor joked; ‘we were doing youthful vigour a couple of years ago … we’re on to flags and fireplaces now’.
Cameron had secured for his party ‘the right to be heard’. But having cleared its throat and stepped up to the microphone, it appeared to have nothing much to say. The ‘Big Society’ was a slogan in search of a policy. ‘Broken Britain’ was a protest, not a programme. The mood was summed up by Rupert Murdoch, in an interview before their relationship turned sour. Cameron, he told the New Yorker, was ‘charming, he’s very bright, and he behaves as if he doesn’t believe in anything. He’s a PR guy’.
It was in this context that the financial crisis erupted in 2008. Despite his period as a Treasury advisor, economic policy was not an area to which Cameron had devoted much thought. He had declined the post of Shadow Chancellor in 2005, and made no reference to the economy in a list of ‘the big questions facing our country’ in 2008. Amidst justified criticism of Labour, it almost went unnoticed how chaotic was the Conservatives’ response to the crisis. Likening Gordon Brown to Castro, Osborne warned that nationalising Northern Rock would take Britain ‘back to the 1970s’, while Quantitative Easing was ‘a cruise missile aimed at the heart of recovery’. ‘Printing money,’ he intoned, was ‘the last resort of desperate governments’.
Yet the financial crisis temporarily resolved the central dilemma of Cameronism. With the bail-out of the banks and the escalation of national debt, a failure of the private sector was transformed into a crisis of public expenditure. The need to ‘pay down the deficit’ finally gave Cameron the direction he required. It also allowed the party to reactivate its preference for shrinking public expenditure, without having to make the ideological case for a smaller state. As his biographers put it, Cameron was
in a sense lucky with his economic inheritance since it gave him a ready-made definition. “If the Fates hadn’t handed him that hand, and he didn’t have the deficit, what would he be doing instead? I don’t think people have got any idea”.
The failure to win a majority in 2010 came as a shock – and posed a graver threat to Cameron than was acknowledged at the time. Cameron had won the party leadership on the strength of his electoral appeal; but faced with an unpopular government and a widely derided opponent, he had failed to deliver. Lacking any particular personal following, Cameron’s leadership depended upon restoring the Conservatives to government. As a colleague put it, Cameron’s ‘bollocks were on the line. He had to think very quickly how he and George were going to get out of this alive’.
The solution, of course, lay in coalition. With his ‘big, open and comprehensive offer’, Cameron played a difficult hand with considerable skill - and the results offered rich rewards. By pooling responsibility for the cuts, coalition actually strengthened Tory claims to be acting from necessity rather than zeal. The alliance shielded Cameron from his own right-wing, while shutting down the Liberal Democrats as a repository for disaffected voters. The scale of the deficit – and the willingness of both parties to blame Labour – established a common purpose that went beyond the formal coalition agreement, and which enabled it to hold together despite inevitable tensions.
Cameron was also lucky in his opponents. After Tony Blair resigned in 2007, the Labour Party chose three leaders in a row who were unlikely ever to win an election. At a time when economic competence was the central battleground of British politics, it never shook off the perception that it had caused the crisis in the first place. The party had naively assumed that it would benefit from the collapse of the Liberal Democrats; instead, it was the Conservatives who prospered, vacuuming up Tory/Lib Dem marginals where the Labour Party barely existed.
Facing an opposition party that was collapsing in its Scottish heartlands, lead by a man whom few voters could imagine anywhere near Downing Street, Cameron succeeded in 2015 where he had failed five years earlier. With victory at the general election, he became the first Conservative leader for 23 years to win a parliamentary majority; the first since 1900 to increase his share of the vote after a full term in office. Standing on the steps of Downing Street, he told journalists that 'I truly believe we are on the brink of something special'.
Yet nemesis was lurking with the frying pan. Like Thatcher and Major before him, Cameron has seen his premiership destroyed by the European question. No issue has been more toxic for the Conservative Party or more corrosive of party loyalties. It has been especially destructive for Cameron, because it played to none of his strengths and all of his weaknesses.
The first was the shallowness of his modernisation project. Cameron famously said that he wanted the Conservative Party to stop ‘banging on about Europe’ – but this, as ever, was a change of tone, not of policy. There was no question of challenging the Eurosceptics in his party, or of restating what had once been the Conservative case for Europe. Instead, he fed their appetite. He pulled the Conservative Party out of the moderate EPP bloc in the European Parliament, in favour of a ragbag alliance of unsavoury populist parties. He promised a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, then dropped it shortly afterwards. He introduced the referendum lock, vetoed treaty change on the Eurozone, and repeatedly assured colleagues and voters of his Euroscepticism. Since he kept giving, the sceptics kept asking. And after ten years of speaking their language, his almost missionary zeal for the EU during the referendum campaign rang strangely on the ear.
A second problem was his tendency to deal with short-term problems by kicking them down the line. The Bloomberg speech, in which he promised a referendum in 2013, got him over a temporary difficulty with his backbenchers, but there would always come a time when they banked the cheque. His opponents used that time to prepare; Cameron, it appears, did not. It was clear from the outset that he had little idea what he wanted the renegotiations to achieve, and they duly played no part whatsoever in the campaign.
Thirdly, and most importantly, Cameron was peculiarly vulnerable to the anti-establishment strategy of the Leave campaign. The politics of austerity have restored distributional issues to prominence, which in turn has refocused attention on class. Cameron affects to disbelieve in class; yet his whole career is a testimony to its continuing power. When, as a teenager, he wanted experience of national politics, he did an internship with his godfather, the Conservative MP Tim Rathbone. A post in Hong Kong was arranged by his father, who was an old friend and stockbroker to the chairman of Jardine Matheson. His entrance to Conservative politics was smoothed by a reference from Buckingham Palace, while his position at Carlton was arranged by his future mother-in-law. Cameron had the talent to make the most of these opportunities, but they hardly support the thesis that class is dead.
Cameron has sought to neutralise his privileged upbringing by presenting himself as a classic ‘everyman’, in touch with the concerns of ‘ordinary’ men and women. He parades his middle brow tastes – Virgin FM, James Bond, I’m a Celebrity – and, during Gordon Brown’s premiership, persistently contrasted himself with ‘that strange man in Downing Street’. His criteria might surprise some – ‘Samantha’, he once protested, is ‘very unconventional … She went to a day school’ – but in Opposition, at least, the message was broadly successful. During the leadership election in 2005, 42 per cent of Conservative voters agreed that Cameron was in touch with ordinary voters. Only 15 per cent thought that of David Davis, who had grown up on a council estate and went to grammar school in Tooting.
Yet the more that governments are seen to be responsible for the allocation of resources, the more voters become interested in the economic background of their leaders. The perceived unfairness of the budget in 2012 refocused attention very strikingly on the wealth and privilege of senior ministers - something that was exacerbated by the crisis over tax credits and disability benefits in 2016. Interestingly, it was a Conservative MP (and Eurosceptic), Nadine Dorries, who led the assault, labelling Cameron and Osborne ‘arrogant posh boys who don’t know the price of milk’. The charge was particularly dangerous to Cameron because it eroded two of his strongest assets: his likeability, and the perception that he is in touch with ordinary voters. Once the referendum turned into an assault on ‘elites’, ‘metropolitan liberals’ and the wider ‘political class’, Cameron became a walking advertisement for the Leave campaign.
This was not wholly his fault. He had assumed, quite reasonably, that the Labour Party would carry the message to working class voters. Instead, it sat on its hands for the opening weeks of the campaign, and then proved incapable of communicating with its traditional supporters. The disintegration of the left was supposed to have benefited Cameron; instead, it left him running a one-man show in front of audiences to whom he was wholly unsuited.
Ironically, it was in the referendum campaign that Cameron at last found definition. For the first time in his premiership, he embraced a cause and argued it with passion. He stumped the country like an itinerant preacher, challenging his opponents within the Conservative Party and abandoning his usual preference for caution and ambiguity. The result has destroyed his premiership, jeopardised the very existence of the United Kingdom and overturned the whole course of British policy since the 1960s. As he picks over the rubble of his premiership, he will know that the worst of it is that this was a wholly self-inflicted wound. David Cameron once said that he wanted to be prime minister 'because I think I'd be good at it'. Sadly, it is a judgement that history now seems unlikely to share.
(1) Unless otherwise indicated, quotations are taken from the excellent biography by Francis Elliott and James Hanning,Cameron: Practically a Conservative (London, 2012). Additional material from T. Bale, The Conservative Party From Thatcher to Cameron (2011); Dylan Jones, Cameron on Cameron: Conversations with Dylan Jones (London, 2008); and Dispatches: Cameron Uncovered, Channel 4 (2010).
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