It is fair to say that Cameron did not have the most dignified departure from political life, the extravagant honours list for his aids and friends did nothing to help his image, and neither did the breaking of his promise not to stand down as an MP if he lost the referendum, something that he did only yesterday. However, I do find the amount of condemnation now being thrown at him by angry commentators, many furious about the referendum result, somewhat over the top. Articles with titles like ‘Goodbye David Cameron: The Worst Prime Minister in a Hundred Years’ and ‘David Cameron’s premiership is a tragedy for which we will all pay’, speak more to the pent up rage felt by left wing commentators appalled at the Brexit result than to a balanced critique of Cameron’s time in office; while the condemnation of the right: ‘Cameron is angry and broken by the loss of power’, ‘Cameron resigns, again. Breaks his word, again. Trashes his reputation, again’ seems based on a feeling of vindication, that finally the socially liberal policies put forward by Cameron and his allies can be moved past, and a new, properly right wing government can be allowed its time in the sun.
The truth is that we will not be able to judge Cameron’s record in government until the dust is settled, something which will not happen until at least the end of this Government, if not later. Much will be written by future historians on the attitude of Cameron and Osbourne to the economy, and much ink will be spilt arguing over whether Britain recovered from the 2008 recession better than the Eurozone because of Osbourne’s policies or in spite of them. Cameron himself will also be judged on what he decides to do with his time after office, he will hope to avoid the trap that Tony Blair fell into by cuddling up to dictators and despots, something that did his image no favours. As to Cameron’s legacy, well there is of course one issue that will overwhelmingly smother any talk of Cameron’s government as surely as Iraq smothers any talk of Blair’s’ government, Brexit. What deal Theresa May manages to wring out of the Brexit negotiations, and the state of Britain’s economy at the end of this parliament, will have a great impact whether Britain’s exit from the EU is seen as a great leap forward, or a tumble into darkness. To be fair to Cameron however, Brexit is not his legacy, not in the way Iraq is Blair’s. Tony Blair pushed for the Iraq war to happen, he made it his project; Cameron allowed the vote to take place but never endorsed the idea of leaving. No, Brexit is the legacy of Cameron’s government, not the man himself.
As to Cameron’s own legacy, well I would say that it’s actually a lot more positive to those on the left then many of them might believe. Cameron took a party of cricket tests, quotas on asylum seekers and opposition to the minimum wage and transformed it into a forward thinking, socially and economically liberal party, a party based on support for capitalism and business but also for a living wage; a party that supported traditional British institutions and traditions and also gay marriage. This is why the right wing of the Conservative party did not enjoy the Cameron years, they saw him in many ways as an interloper, and in the and it was them that caused his downfall by forcing him to hold the referendum. But in the end, I feel it will be Cameron who has the last laugh, because the Tory right is more out of step with the country then they like to admit. Certainly the right is in the ascendancy at the moment, the small Tory majority means that May has to pander to them for fear of being outvoted, and prominent members of the right such as Liam Fox and David Davies are currently at the heart of the Brexit negotiations. But to a certain extent, their newfound power is a mirage. May is not stupid, and having spent many long years in the political wilderness under a succession of right wing Conservative leaders she is not about to lurch to the right and make the Tories the ‘nasty party’ once again. Indeed, her rhetoric suggests a return to the halcyon days of 1950’s one-nation conservatism, rather than a desire for Thatcherite monetarism. While she may not continue Cameron’s socially liberal reforms, May will not overturn them either, as it would again risk re-toxifying the image of the Tory party.
Instead, it seems likely to me that Theresa May’s premiership will be a stop-gap, a period of stasis for progressive reform while the economic and diplomatic ramifications of Brexit are being thrashed out. This is not to say that May will not tackle social issues, her plan to remove the restrictions on new grammar schools suggests that she has ideas for social reforms of her own. However, I would say that the reaction of many of her MP’s to that idea suggests that Cameron’s modernisation plan has worked extremely well. The reaction of many on the Conservative benches to May’s defence of grammar schools at PMQ’s was awkwardness rather than support, signifying their deep concerns over the issue. The truth is that many of the 2010 and especially 2015 intake of Tory MP’s are much more in the mould of Cameron then of May, and they look suspiciously on the social conservatism beloved of their older colleagues. These younger MP’s are from a different, less restrictive world and have no desire to return to a perceived ‘Golden Age’ of Conservative values. and Cameron’s legacy is in attracting people like that to the Tory party, beginning the long task of de-toxifying the Tory image, and finally in making it acceptable for young, socially liberal people to vote for the Tories again. Of course this is not to suggest that the Conservative party is the natural home for British progressivism; rather, it is to point out that the direction of travel within the Tory party seems to be towards the kind of socially liberal reform that does, to some extent, fit with progressive ideals. It is worth remembering that, in spite of the rise in left and right wing populism, progressive ideas are still popular in this country, and that they can be articulated by parties that, ten years ago, would have wanted nothing to do with them. Theresa May may have a better grasp on the Tory party as it is, but Cameron understood that in order for the Tories to survive the party had to change, and his legacy will be felt in every Conservative election win for a very long time.