This book made me regret that Enoch Powell is no longer alive. This is not because I have the slightest nostalgia for Powell the politician, but because he was such a brilliantly savage reviewer. Only the poison ducts in his pen could have done justice to Cameron’s style. This mixes chatty, cliché-ridden informality (heads are ‘stuck firmly in the sand’; ‘crunch time’ comes) with long-winded portentousness. Cameron does not say ‘I thought’ but ‘I was firmly of the opinion’; he does not ‘agree with Reagan’ but ‘came firmly to the conclusion that he was totally right’. I would guess that this is the result of having dictated his words into a machine and then left assistants to write them up – though I did occasionally wonder whether Rupert Murdoch, who is said to despise Cameron, might have instructed his editors at William Collins to produce a book that would make the former prime minister look as stupid and self-important as possible.
For all this, the book is worth reading and is more revealing than many autobiographies by more subtle and self-aware authors. As a person, Cameron is attractive. He loves his wife, whose taste for smoking roll-ups and saying ‘fuck’ makes her the antithesis of a conventional Tory lady. She was also a source of shrewd political advice and perhaps the single most important influence on her husband’s attempts to modernise the Conservative Party. She supported gay marriage, opposed the invasion of Iraq and thought it ‘mad’ to vote for Iain Duncan Smith as party leader. One would like to know more about what she thought of holding a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. The life and death of the Camerons’ oldest son, Ivan, who was born with a rare and crippling disease, is recalled with painful honesty, and one senses that the boy did not just bring Cameron even closer to his family but also created bonds with people from outside his natural milieu, such as Gita Lama, a Nepalese-born woman who cared for Ivan at night.
Cameron was born into a rich and affectionate family – though the enthusiasm that both his parents showed for Valium hints at some emotional crosscurrents. His father was a stockbroker who was bought out of his family business after the Big Bang of 1986, enjoying a more benign fate than most of those whose outdated working practices were challenged by Thatcherite reforms. Cameron was not entirely happy at Eton and he broke with family tradition by sending his second son to a London day school. Oxford was where Cameron really came of age. Among all the prime ministers who have studied politics, philosophy and economics, Cameron is the second most academically distinguished – just below Harold Wilson. This mattered to Cameron because it quelled the nagging sense that he might just be a public school mediocrity. I suspect that he has what a French énarque would describe as a ‘mastery of dossiers’. He read exactly what his tutors (and later his civil servants) told him to read but nothing more.
Above all, Cameron is a political technician. He has spent his whole life in the engine rooms of British politics. During a gap year between school and university, he worked as an assistant to the Tory MP Tim Rathbone, his godfather, and, after graduation, he went to work in the Conservative Research Department. These were not years in which much new thinking was going on in the Conservative Party. What mattered to Tories of his generation was implementation of policy and then, increasingly, the branding exercises and electoral manoeuvres that would ensure conservative policies would be carried out by a Conservative government rather than by Tony Blair’s Labour Party.
None of this is quite to say that Cameron has no principles. He describes himself as a Thatcherist rather than a Thatcherite: privatisation and the containment of state spending are things he takes for granted. What he lacks is the sharp political edge that the Thatcherites acquired from having to fight at a time when everything seemed against them. Cameron was still at prep school in 1979; the Conservative government had won its hardest battles by the time he left Eton. He is an optimist who grew up during the economic boom of the middle Thatcher years and entered Parliament amid the prosperity and hope that preceded 9/11. His one real break with Thatcherism involved monetarism – partly, perhaps, because he also grew up in an age of low inflation and partly because, in the 1990s, he came to associate high interest rates with German hegemony. He is a fiscal hawk who regrets not having contained public spending more firmly, but he is a monetary dove who wanted to deal with the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis by ‘flooding the system with liquidity’.
The speed of Cameron’s rise through the ranks reinforced the pragmatism of his political character. He was elected leader of his party four years after entering Parliament and, five years after that, he was prime minister. He had never held any other ministerial office before becoming Tory leader and had only spent a few months on the front bench, as shadow secretary of state for education. Party leaders and prime ministers have to be tacticians. They hold the team together, balance interests and manage crises. Cameron was impatient with strategists among his colleagues who talked about issues outside their brief. He could not understand why Michael Gove, as education secretary, wanted the Cabinet to discuss such matters as Islamic extremism. He was angry when David Davis indulged in an ‘ego-trip’ by resigning from the Shadow Cabinet to fight a by-election to protest against the Blair government’s infringement of civil liberties. Cameron might have been more effective in his dealings with the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg if he had appreciated that ego trips and genuine displays of principle are not always mutually exclusive.
Cameron insists that the most momentous decision of his political life, to hold a referendum on British membership of the EU, had been announced long in advance and that, in any case, treaty changes made it impossible to avoid rethinking Britain’s position in the organisation. He cites an article in The Times, which said that he ‘elucidated’ a problem but did not cause it, and John Major, who told him: ‘History will acknowledge that a referendum was becoming inevitable.’ I do not buy this. Real conservatives know that all sorts of unpleasant things are likely to happen in the future, but also that nothing in politics is inevitable. They also understand that sticking with institutions that work is better than risking new departures and that public opinion is rarely a good guide for statesmen.
Cameron is often compared to prime ministers – Eden and Blair – whose careers are defined by a single decision that came, in retrospect, to seem a mistake. The comparison does not quite work. Eden and Blair believed they were acting in the interests of their country or even of humanity. Cameron’s decision was made on narrower grounds. He gambled the future of his country in the hope of winning a prize for his party. He underestimated his opponents – perhaps because his years briefing Iain Duncan Smith had not given him a high regard for the intellectual calibre of Brexiteers. The most damning comment on Cameron during the referendum campaign was made by Boris Johnson. He said that Cameron would have been guilty of criminal irresponsibility in calling a referendum if he really believed that leaving Europe would have the dire consequences of which he warned. Of course, Johnson himself would be even guiltier if, as Cameron suggests, he campaigned for an outcome that he did not even want.
It is, though, hard to finish this book without feeling sorry for its author. Right up to the early hours of 24 June 2016, it looked as though he would win. He had his victory speech prepared. He had the right mix of ruthlessness and charm to pull the party together on his own terms, and he would have faced the weakest Labour opposition since before the Second World War. He would have resigned at a time of his choosing, presumably just before an election in 2020, and would then have been in his early fifties – about the age that, say, Douglas Hurd was when he first entered the Cabinet. He could have spent decades playing the elder statesman. As it is, he will go down in history as a frivolous chancer. Ed Miliband once remarked that Cameron did not really want to be prime minister but just wanted to have been prime minister. Well, it is hard to believe he is enjoying that status now.