British Prime Minister David Cameron chaired a farewell Cabinet meeting on Tuesday (Wednesday NZ Time) as moving vans pulled up to his 10 Downing St residence a day before he is replaced as leader following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.
Ministers gathered for Cameron’s 215th and final weekly Cabinet session a day after Home Secretary Theresa May was confirmed as the new Conservative leader and prime minister-in-waiting.
Culture Secretary John Whittingdale said there had been a “touch of sadness” to the meeting, which saw May and Treasury chief George Osborne led tributes to Cameron.
It is sad to see his career end so suddenly. He was and is a very talented politician, and from all accounts a very decent person.
I was fortunate enough to meet him three or four times at IDU meetings, and he always dominated the room – even when he was just an Opposition Leader.
The first time I met him was at the 2005 Conservative Party Conference. Michael Howard had resigned as leader and there were five candidates for the leadership – Cameron, David Davis, Kenneth Clarke, Liam Fox and Dir Malcolm Rifkind. David Davis was the clear favorite going into the conference and Cameron was in third place in the betting markets.
The conference does not vote for the leader, but is was a chance to impress, and David Cameron did. He gave a speech which remains probably the best political speech I have seen a politician deliver. He spoke for around half an hour without a single note or teleprompter and connected emotionally and powerfully with the audience – he defended and extolled the virtues of the Conservative Party but also set out areas it had to do more.Especially poignant was when he talked of their experiences with the NHS with their baby Ivan who had severe epilepsy and cerebral palsy.
The large convention hall was so quiet during his speech you could have heard a pin drop. You did see delegates and diplomats (I was seated with them) turning to each other with expressions that said much the same thing – “We are seeing the rise of the next Leader of the Conservative Party”. Everyone in the hall knew his speech was a game changer, and so it was. By the end of the day he was the favourite with the bookmakers and went on to win.
The biggest thing he did to the Conservatives was make them electable. Many forget how awful their brand was in the late 1990s and 2000s. A series of leaders had all lost to Tony Blair, despite being competent leaders. But the Conservative brand was tarnished. I recall a poll done by Lord Ashcroft when they asked people what they though of a particular immigration proposal. 77% said they supported the proposal. However when told it was Conservative Party policy, only 42% then said they supported it. The brand was so bad it could reduce support for a policy by 35%!
Cameron changed their brand and make them electable again. I don’t think any of the others would have done that.
He won the 2010 election but didn’t get a majority. Critics say he should have, as Gordon Brown was so unpopular and the economy so weak. But I’m not sure the rise of the Lib Dems can be put down to Cameron – it was more a wary electorate.
He managed to govern for five years in a coalition with the Lib Dems, which was no mean feat. Many Lib Dems are to the left of Labour. And then in 2010 he got a majority. He was on top of the world and was on track to retire undefeated after eight to nine years as PM.
But alas for him he is out of office a year later, having been the chief proponent for the losing side in the EU referendum. Many have said that he should have never gambled with holding the referendum, but I disagree. It was profoundly the right thing to do, especially as the people voted to leave. Refusing to allow the people to vote on whether they remain part of an EU government they can’t sack, would have been profoundly undemocratic. It also would have just led to UKIP gaining more and more strength.
Where he did perhaps make a mistake was becoming the chief campaigner for Remain. If he had perhaps done the same as Jim Bolger with the MMP referendum, he might have been able to survive. Bolger stated his preference for remaining with FPP, but did not lead the FPP campaign.
So David Cameron is gone 11 years after he became Leader and after six years as PM. While he leaves office on a low, I hope history will be kinder to him as the man who made the Conservatives electable again and beat Labour so badly in 2015 that they are now the unelectable party. There are worse legacies. The UK economy is also much stronger today than it was in 2010, and after an initial shock I think they will remain a strong economy outside the EU.