A year ago there was a hero’s welcome for David Cameron at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. Understandably so. He was the man who led his Party to a General Election victory five months earlier. The pollsters and pundits had been defied and for the first time since 1992 a Conservative Government with an overall majority had been returned. Cameron beamed as the Conservative activists roared their approval.
It's been a privilege to serve the country that I love.
— David Cameron (@David_Cameron) July 13, 2016
A year on and he has become a non-person at the Tory conference under way this week in Birmingham. That’s true in the literal sense – he hasn’t turned up. But it’s almost true in the broader sense – the tributes to him have been met with polite but muted applause.
It is not just that Brexiteers find it hard to enthuse about someone who was such a vigorous opponent in the bitterly fought EU referendum. The Remainers of various varieties have dumped him too. The hard Remainers – the Remainiacs – cannot forgive him for calling the referendum in the first place. They curse it as “unnecessary”. They are so devoted to the European Union that they wished for continued membership to be imposed indefinitely on the British people – even if
it was against our will.
Then we have the soft or reluctant Remainers who have also ceased to be Cameron devotees. They might have been persuaded by Project Fear – and now feel tricked after the emphatic pronouncements of immediate disaster following a Brexit vote have been disproved. Or they might have been Party loyalists who wanted to back the leader. Or perhaps they never believed in Remain but went along with it after some Cameroonian arm twisting.
The upshot is that Cameron finds himself without a fan club. Neither side in the referendum debate is grateful to him.
To add to Cameron’s woes comes an attack from Ken Clarke. “Next week’s headlines are given more priority than serious policy development and the long-term consequences,” says Clarke using his memoirs to cheerfully trash Cameron’s legacy.
In one sense Cameron has only himself to blame. He could have tried to get a proper EU renegotiation by making clear that he was serious about being willing to back a Leave vote in the referendum. If he really felt he had to back Remain he could have done so in an honest, measured, equivocal manner. He could have accepted there were big disadvantages about our membership and said that “on balance” he thought we should stay – while stressing he would work to make a
success of whatever we decided. Instead he let himself get so swept up with all the scaremongering so that in the end it was not credible for him to remain in office.
But the claim from Clarke that Cameron’s era was all about PR is unfair. And the frequently stated conclusion that Cameron will only be remembered for the EU referendum will also provide wide of the mark.
David Cameron made @Conservatives fit for the 21st century. As PM he repaired a broken economy & made the UK stronger. One of our finest.
— Stephen Crabb (@scrabbmp) July 13, 2016
There have been some transformational changes since 2010 – yet to be fully appreciated. The schools revolution stands out. Before, failing state schools were allowed to drift on. Now they are put under new management – subject to forced takeover as “sponsored academies”. Good schools are allowed to run their own affairs by converting to academies. Free schools have brought more innovation, choice and competition.
Then there is welfare reform. When David Cameron became Prime Minister the unemployment rate was 7.9 per cent and rising. By the time he left it was down to five per cent and falling. That was an important achievement but the lasting legacy will be to have conquered the addiction of welfare dependency. Universal Credit as it is slowly “rolled out” means that people are better off working.
The Troubled Families Intiative has “turned round” thousands of families that had previously been failed by the system – despite huge public spending and endless visit from officials from different state agencies.
Crime has fallen and elected police and crime commissioners have brought in a new era of accountable policing.
Proud & honoured to have served in Cameron's Govt – great leader & PM. Looking forward to #TheresaMay hugely competent & compassionate Tory
— Anna Soubry MP (@Anna_Soubry) July 13, 2016
There are other social reforms where Cameron made a start and we will have to see if Theresa May pursues them. One is ensuring far more children are adopted than languishing in the care system. Another is estate redevelopment to replace hideous tower blocks with terraced streets. Then there is reform of our prison system. But even without these, Cameron’s credentials as a great social reformer are very strong.
What of Cameron’s international contribution?
The UK played a key role in the overthrow of the Gaddafi dictatorship in Libya. Our military intervention averted a massacre in Benghazi. Critics can point to lack of a stable Government in Libya and so to an extent the judgement of history is still in the ‘pending’ file. But I am pleased that Cameron helped to topple this deranged criminal who gave Semtex to the IRA and who was responsible for the shooting of a woman police officer in London in 1984 and the bombing of a Pan Am plane over Lockerbie in 1988.
In 1986 Ronald Reagan reflected on Gaddafi’s Libya (along with North Korea and Iran) as: “The biggest collection of misfits, loony tunes and squalid criminals since the advent of the Third Reich.” Cameron was right to pursue Reagan’s unfinished business. Cameron was also right to take military action against so-called “Islamic State” which during this year has been proving effective. Nor was it Cameron’s fault that he was prevented from taking tougher – and earlier – action against Assad’s regime in Syria. He was let down by his colleagues in the House of Commons and by Obama’s appeasement.
To quote Reagan again, he concluded his time of office reflecting: “We weren’t just marking time. We made a difference.” He won the Cold War. So it is hard for Cameron to compete with that. But in his own emollient way Cameron has made a difference too.
Internationally he made the case for defeating tyrants and terrorists rather than ignoring them, while for the British people he brought in radical changes that will prove of lasting value.
For all the talk of PR mastery, many of his most important changes were not widely reported or understood. Cameron may be out of fashion this week. His Party and his country may be rather grudging in assessing his accomplishments at present. But that may well change. I suspect we will reflect more kindly on him in the years to come.