Ascertaining the legacy of a prime minister within only days of them departing from Number 10 Downing Street is obviously paradoxical; only with the passing of time can a clear picture be envisioned.
Inevitably the legacy of a prime minister is defined not by the events of his or her premiership but by the events after. Margaret Thatcher’s career ended in turmoil, with a stab in the back from her own party, the nation on the streets and the economy deteriorating. Yet she need not have worry about her legacy for post-Thatcher Britain has been defined by her policies, style and sentiment. Tony Blair on the other hand left office on the back of a booming economy, three successive election victories and a Labour-implemented national minimum wage. In Iraq in the years immediately following his departure there was a marked improvement in the security situation. Yet, fast forward a few years and there seem to be few who are so reviled by British society as Tony Blair, the Chilcot Report potentially tarnishing his legacy forever.
With David Cameron’s time as Prime Minister having come to an end, then, it is time to reflect on his successes, failures, and to make a few remarks regarding the next few years, and how this might shape historians and society’s view of Mr Cameron in the decades to come.
For the Economy: (Co-Authored by Benjamin Stanbridge)
Mr Cameron entered office in the midst of an economic crisis, the greatest Britain had faced since the Great Depression of the 1930s. With a gaping deficit, stuttering growth, and high unemployment he fought the 2010 General Election along with his shadow chancellor, George Osbourne, around a pledge to fix the malaises afflicting the British economy. Fast forward to 2015, and once again Cameron fought the election predominantly around economic policy, presenting the election as a choice between a dangerous Labour-SNP coalition and an economically trustworthy Conservative Party; a key Conservative slogan during the election was “let’s stay on the road to a stronger economy”. With economics thus defining Cameron and his government’s discourse throughout his time in office, how far does Cameron’s record actually hold up under scrutiny?
The economic legacy of Mr Cameron is mixed and, due to the result of the EU referendum on the 23rd June, still has yet to be fully determined. Currently, the economy is growing strongly, but future growth forecasts have been significantly revised downwards and the UK is predicted to enter a mild recession by early 2017. Public finances are much weaker than they were in 2008, although the economic turbulence caused by Brexit is unlikely to be as severe as the Global Financial Crisis. Both unemployment and inflation are low, and real disposable incomes are growing.
A large part of Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne’s agenda was based on the belief that through nurturing the private sector, the loss of public sector jobs resulting from austerity measures could be assuaged. Here, through deregulation and reductions on National Insurance bills for small businesses, they succeeded, with the private sector driving Britain towards its highest ever employment rate.
To fully evaluate the economic record, though, we must appreciate the difficult economic circumstances and ask the question: did the government pursue the best policies given the current circumstances? Ultimately, the answer to this is no. Fiscal retrenchment was enacted too quickly and too deeply, stifling the recovery. The fact that austerity was eased as this became clear is a testament to economic pragmatism, but also a criticism of the original policy itself. Furthermore, the government failed to exploit the historically low cost of borrowing and increase capital investment spending, preferring to cut it instead. While Mr Cameron has left the economy in a better shape than he found it, he could have done a lot better.
For the Party
Regarding his impact on the Conservative Party, his legacy is more black and white. David Cameron became leader in the wake of a third successive election defeat, each having been a landslide. He inherited a seemingly unelectable Conservative Party, still unable to heal the wounds opened up by the demise of Thatcher and by the split over Europe, Mr Cameron telling his fellow Conservatives to `stop banging on about Europe`.
On Europe, the debate within the Conservative Party is, indeed, over. It was not, however, the resolution that Mr Cameron would have been hoping for. Nevertheless, with the new Prime Minister both a remain campaigner but also a notable Eurosceptic it seems as if the split in the party between Eurosceptic and Europhile has now drawn to a close.
Where his success lies, though, in his drive to modernise the party. The Conservative Party since the time of Thatcher has decidedly been one of the middle-class, the Labour Party inheriting the mantle of the party of the centre ground. After 1997 it became a party seemingly representative only of elderly, Eurosceptic, social conservatives – stereotypical Daily Mail readers, in other words. With Labour swiftly becoming a narrow, class-oriented party, David Cameron’s success in repositioning the Conservatives back into the One-Nation Conservativism of old has provided British politics with a party of the genuine centre. This is what gave the Tory Party its first majority in 18 years. Through his aggressive devotion to social liberalism, as embodied in his support of gay marriage, he has forced his party into line, its dominant figures now representing attitudes representative of classical British liberalism and Cameron-esque devotion to moderation and pragmatism.
For the Country
It would be impossible, here, to be exhaustive regarding Mr Cameron’s achievements as Prime Minister and to consider all those areas on which his government was lacking. There are a few areas, though, which are important to remark on.
Firstly, in style of governance. Whereas the government of Tony Blair was characterised by a highly presidential style, power centred in Number 10, Mr Cameron’s government is notable for the manner in which it reversed this trend, ongoing since the time of Thatcher. Michael Gove, Ian Duncan Smith, Theresa May and other such secretaries of state were powerful figures with genuine authority over their post. While the Home Office was once described as a graveyard for ministerial ambitions, with their being an average of a new home secretary every year at times under Blair, Theresa May spent six years as Mr Cameron’s trusted Home Secretary, for her to then succeed him in the top job; his maintenance of a functioning coalition government for the first term of his premiership was no easy feat.
Secondly, Mr Cameron’s government has succeeded in reducing the size of the state, while maintaining high quality public services. Polling in late 2013 by the ICM showed that 6 in 10 of the British public surveyed thought public services had improved or stayed the same. This has all been done while managing cuts to taxation for the poorest in society, with the tax-free allowance increasing. Even on the NHS, where attempts at reform have generally been considered a disaster, the funding has consistently been provided.
On areas such as gay marriage, the pending massacre in Benghazi when Gaddafi’s troops were at its gates and international aid, Mr Cameron has shown the will to do the right thing. Yet Prime Ministers are remembered by defining events, and it was regarding the EU that Mr Cameron staked his premiership. Unable to control his rebellious backbenchers, and threatened by the rise of UKIP, Mr Cameron placed his future, and the country’s future in the hands of an unexpectedly angry electorate. His renegotiation attempt yielded some minor successes, and there are others upon whom some fault will rest. Perhaps, if the new government is able to negotiate an acceptable settlement which maintains access to the single market, the disaster for which Mr Cameron will be otherwise remembered might be averted. But this was a referendum that should never have been promised, and once promised, it was not adequately prepared for, or fought for.
If Mr Cameron’s downfall is to have one lesson, it is that liberalism should not be taken for granted. Mr Cameron was a dignified, pragmatic Prime Minister representing the mix of One-Nation Conservativism and British liberalism that characterised the Tories of the post-War decades. He would also be the Prime Minister that staked his whole premiership upon a single vote. He lost his gamble. He will, as a result, be remembered as the Prime Minister who took Britain out of Europe. How ruinous that legacy is will ultimately be defined by the premiership of Theresa May.