Apparently David Cameron intends to be an active back-bench MP, so he might dispute the idea that his political career has ended, never mind in failure. However, he must know that a prime minister’s term in office has rarely imploded so quickly, or so spectacularly. Barely one year ago, he confounded the pollsters and became the first Conservative leader to win an outright majority in the House of Commons for 23 years. Now he is set to hobble out of Number 10 in the Autumn, leaving behind a party divided by a bitter leadership contest.
Mr Cameron was the moderniser who became Tory leader on the back of a pledge to stop “banging on about Europe”. Yet, first he put a referendum on membership at the heart of British politics and then he lost a campaign to keep the UK in the EU, with the odds stacked heavily in his favour.
While Mr Cameron looked to have secured the country’s constitutional future when Scotland voted to stay in the United Kingdom in 2014, a second independence referendum now looks likely and, this time, Scottish separatists will be favourites to win. Similarly, in Northern Ireland, Brexit has re-energised Irish nationalist demands for a border poll that was previously a distant aspiration.
There were other, subtler, failures too, for a prime minister who described himself as a ‘one nation’ Conservative and cited Harold Macmillan as his political hero. Neither Cameron’s first government, formed in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, nor the latest Tory administration, were the careful, progressive guardians of the UK and its institutions that his supposed ‘small c’ conservatism promised.
The Conservatives’ 2010 election manifesto avoided proposing ‘grand projects’ like reorganising the NHS, but the coalition government introduced the Health and Social Care Bill after only a few months in power, and Tory health ministers’ sweeping reforms are ongoing. Across departments, Mr Cameron’s two administrations produced a steady stream of tinkering and legislation, much of it making change for change’s sake; police and crime commissioners, five year fixed term parliaments and commitments to turn every school into an academy.
There were contentious attempts to implement a fairer welfare system, which were based on sound principles of encouraging people off benefits and into work, but became entangled inseparably with the Treasury’s drive to cut public spending. The UK’s economy improved during his time as prime minister, though while unemployment stayed low, living standards dropped.
David Cameron’s leadership of the Conservatives started with the prospect of a hange in philosophy. He seemed to favour a return to traditional values of ‘one nation’ Conservatism - a humane social outlook, pragmatism in foreign policy and a cautious approach to reform. In power, those instincts were curtailed, as his government confronted a financial crisis and Cameron sought to manage Tory factions.
In the end, his biggest accomplishments were party political; becoming the first Conservative prime minister for 13 years and then the first Tory leader to win a general election outright for 23 years. Cameron’s broader legacy is more questionable and he was unsuccessful judged against his own stated priorities. He made ‘banging on about Europe’ the focus of British politics, failed to consolidate the Scottish referendum result by strengthening the UK afterwards and ultimately he couldn’t impose his vision of Conservatism on his own party.