Tom Peterkin: David Cameron gambled away his legacy on Europe

David Cameron made the mistake of trying to settle a Tory dispute by putting the matter to the people
David Cameron made the mistake of trying to settle a Tory dispute by putting the matter to the people
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David Cameron’s farewell to front line politics inevitably throws up lofty discussions of the legacy left by the former Prime Minister.

Like more than a few political careers, there is a touch of the Greek tragedy to the fizzling out of Cameron’s time in the House of Commons, following his announcment this week that he has stood down as an MP.

At times it was as if Cameron was within touching distance of securing his position in the pantheon of great British Prime Ministers.

Hagiographers will point to his leadership of the UK’s first post-war coalition government bringing some security at a time of great instability. For Conservatives, his delivery of the first majority Tory government for almost two decades was a landmark moment.

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Cameron himself would doubtless refer to his and George Osborne’s attempts to stabilise the economy and some of his social reforms if asked to list his achievements.

The true picture, however, is not so kind. He is the Prime Minister who threw it all away by taking an enormous constitutional gamble which backfired in spectacular fashion.

Had Remain managed to win the EU referendum on 23 June this year, Cameron’s star would now be in the stratosphere. With Labour in total chaos, he would have been lord of all he surveyed. His legacy as the man who both saw off the threat of Scottish independence and settled the divisions over Europe which have riven his own party for decades, would have been secured.

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Instead, Britain is now heading out of the EU against his will and the SNP and their supporters have a fresh load of ammunition which suggests their fight to break up the United Kingdom is far from over.

His domestic record is chequered. His big idea of a Big Society did not quite materialise, while his unpopular move to end the Spare Room Subsidy (or Bedroom Tax as it became known) did nothing to discourage the characterisation of the Conservatives as the nasty party.

Similarly for every person who expresses admiration at Cameron’s determination to get the country’s finances back on the straight and narrow, there are others who express dismay at the manner in which he balanced the books.

Cameron and Osborne saw their pursuit of the austerity agenda as the pragmatic and best way of turning around the economic fortunes for the greater good.

Their critics saw it differently. To them, the means far from justified the ends. And in any case, whatever economic stability which was brought about by austerity is now threatened by Brexit.

On the credit side there were significant social reforms under Cameron, notably his willingness to embrace gay marriage, despite opposition from the more traditionally-minded wing of his party. Blessed with a gravitas that projected a patrician sense of leadership in a way that someone like Ed Miliband was unable to do, Cameron was a convincing figure as Prime Minister.

He looked comfortable on the world stage and had the confidence to assume a style of leadership based on trusting his ministers to get on with their jobs. Often, there were signs that his devotion to Downing Street was not nearly as intense as someone like Margaret Thatcher, who lived and breathed the job.

His style was more managerial and tactical than based on deep-rooted conviction. There can be much to admire about someone who bases his politics on sound leadership and pragmatism, but in this case perhaps that is why Cameron’s long-term legacy seems shallow.

Indeed Theresa May’s determination to go down the grammar school route simply underlines the fact that what little there is of it, is already being undermined.

One can understand that at the relatively young age of 49, Cameron does not want to do a Ted Heath-style “incredible sulk” and snipe at the Conservative leadership from the back benches. Nevertheless the manner and the swiftness of his departure left an unpleasant taste. Having said he would stay on in the hotseat even if he lost the Brexit vote, Cameron wasted no time in breaking that promise. His pledge to continue working for his constituents and party from the backbenches has now suffered a similar fate.

Amid all this has been the controversy about his crony-ridden resignation honours list.

His enthusiasm for outmanoeuvring his opponents often appeared to be the number one item on his agenda. This was evident when, after the tumultuous Scottish independence referendum, he pressed ahead immediately with his plans for English Votes for English Laws.

Regardless of the need to settle this constitutional anomaly, Cameron would have been better advised to have called for a period of calm rather than infuriating his former Better Together partners in the Labour Party and ramping up another constitutional conundrum.

But it was his desire to outmanoeuvre the Eurosceptics in his own party that was to lead to his downfall. Having seen off the drive for Scottish independence, Cameron embarked on a second highly divisive vote – this time on Europe. His attempt to settle a long-standing Conservative difficulty by abdicating responsibility to the people did not work. And in retrospect it now looks like an utterly reckless gamble.

The former Prime Minister is said to be working on his memoirs. When he passes judgment on his own political career, he will of course cast himself in a favourable light. History, one suspects, will not be so kind.