In his poignant and moving wartime drama 40 Years On, Alan Bennett took a moment to submit the former prime minister Neville Chamberlain to the court of history, where his entire premiership was roundly condemned by popular opinion for signing the Munich Treaty with Hitler and the policy of appeasement. In Bennett’s story, the deceased prime minister provides a long list of domestic achievements which improved the country. He even pointed out he was the first premier to fly by plane. All to no avail.
That fictional trial is a harsh reminder for David Cameron that more often than not it is foreign policy successes and failures which define the legacy of the holder of Britain’s highest political job. So it is that despite the poll tax debacle, Margaret Thatcher is defined by standing up to Argentina in the Falklands War and even more for helping to bring the Soviet bloc crashing down to end the Cold War.
At the other end of the scale, Tony Blair’s great domestic successes with devolution, the minimum wage, freedom of information, the social chapter, helping bring the 2012 Olympics to London and the rest are completely overshadowed by the ignomy of the Iraq War.
Few people remember that Winston Churchill was an abysmal peacetime prime minister when considering the magnitude of his leadership during the Second World War.
Poor Anthony Eden will be forever condemned for the ill-fated Suez Crisis, while John Major may have “Europe” and “Maastricht” written on his tombstone.
There are exceptions to this rule – Jim Callaghan is branded with the winter of discontent, while Clement Attlee is lauded over the creation of the welfare state – but they are few.
So, as Mr Cameron plans his departure, he may be looking at his achievements in office and thinking of that Cameron legacy – he would like to be remembered as the prime minister who saved the economy, reformed schools and health, detoxified the Conservative Party and saved the United Kingdom from breaking up.
However, the reality is that it is likely to be Europe – the very subject he wanted his party to stop obsessing about – which will define his place in history.
And as the days tick down towards an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, which has to happen in 2016 or 2017, it is not the time for Mr Cameron to be seen to be losing control of his foreign policy. This is why this week’s report by the foreign affairs select committee warning Mr Cameron against pushing for military action in Syria was of such significance. The Prime Minister wants to be allowed to bomb Islamic State bases in Syria as well as Iraq, but is now facing a coalition of interests against him, in the shape of the SNP and Labour, plus Tory rebels.
While the SNP may wish to push their importance in this debate, the part of this coalition that will start to give Mr Cameron sleepless nights is the Tory rebel section. This is because it is not made up of “peaceniks” or political opportunists, but right-wing idealogues who have a very different world view to him.
So while the message this week is that Mr Cameron will struggle to get a vote through on bombing Syria, the message beyond is that he also faces a hard job to get their support on staying in the EU. In fact, many of the awkward squad – led by figures like former frontbenchers Bernard Jenkin and Owen Paterson – are already forming the core of the exit campaign and they have widespread support on the Tory backbenches.
The rather frank interview this week with the newly elected Conservative MP James Cleverly saw him – in between admitting to wanting to snog Home Secretary Theresa May, smoking dope and watching porn – sum up the view of many Tory backbenchers. He said: “Let’s give David Cameron a chance to come back with his deal” but “at the moment I would vote to leave”.
The problem is that at the moment nobody believes that Mr Cameron is asking for anything very substantial from Europe in terms of concessions. Even Jean-Claude Junker, the European Commission president, is struggling to work out what the British Prime Minister actually wants. And time is running out, which is fuelling the view that Mr Cameron has lost his grip on foreign policy and is no longer leading.
And where there is a political vacuum, somebody usually steps in to take control. Cue Chancellor George Osborne’s arrival in Berlin this week to lead the talks on the EU membership renegotiation with the Germans, whose government will be decisive in whether it is a success or not. Meanwhile, Mr Cameron went off to Iceland for a comparatively obscure conference with Nordic nations to talk about the same subject and sign some deals.
What that tells us is that Mr Osborne, who already has an iron grip on domestic policy as Chancellor, has now in effect taken over the lead role in foreign policy. Not even Tony Blair surrendered foreign policy to his empire-building chancellor Gordon Brown, but where Mr Brown failed, Mr Osborne has succeeded.
The Chancellor, of course, wants to be the next Tory leader and Prime Minister, but while the outcome of the referendum may decide whether he succeeds or fails in this objective it will nevertheless be part of Mr Cameron’s legacy – one he appears to have lost control of.
Both Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne are still trying to keep their options open. While they are talking about the British-German axis as being at the heart of Europe, neither has so far committed to telling voters to stay in the EU.
The calculation is clear. Obviously both men would rather the UK does not leave the EU – only party politics forced them into agreeing to a referendum. However, they also want to be on the side of the winners. If the renegotiation is not enough to persuade the party faithful, and the polls appear to show a vote to leave, then they will be willing to make that recommendation through political necessity rather than a belief of what is right for the country.
And this perhaps is the nub of the judgment of the court of history. It does not matter whether a prime minister has completely lost control of the agenda, or about the actions he takes to reach a certain point. What defines his or her legacy is that in the end, their final judgment call was being on the side of the winners.
Glorious failures are rare in politics and tend to be for the outsiders only. For those who hold power, the issue at hand is always to be seen to have been tapping into the mood of the country and being at the front of its biggest decisions.