Was David Cameron really "the third-worst postwar Prime Minister"?

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31 October
10:09
October
2016

Everything that David Cameron tried to do during his time as Prime Minister has been overshadowed by the Referendum result. His entire policy platform and everything that he stood for – that patrician, Etonian, liberal, heavily spun version of One Nation Toryism – was blown away by the Brexit decision. The Referendum was huge self-inflicted personal disaster for Cameron and it will go down as a mistake on the same historic scale as Suez.

At the moment Brexit looks very much like it could be a disaster for the country too, although we need to see how it works out in practice under Theresa May, and in ten years’ time we may take a different view. But even then it’s hard to see Cameron’s reputation recovering. How could he claim credit for something that he opposed?

The irony is that he looked like a pretty successful mid-table Prime Minister only a year before. He’d won the 2015 General Election, he’d refashioned the Conservative Party, he’d secured the first Tory majority since the 1992 election, and he looked like he was going to see out his term fairly successfully. The government had started to tackle the economy, and he’d introduced same-sex marriage. And people tend to forget that Cameron had run the Coalition skilfully. Can you imagine a Thatcher or a Gordon Brown trying to manage that partnership with the Lib-Dems?

It was his insouciance that did for Cameron. There’s a lot in the characterisation of Cameron as a gambler. In the AV Referendum he only pulled his finger out at the last minute; the Scottish Independence referendum was a huge gamble and a very close-run thing. And a cat can only have so many lives. He got very little from the EU renegotiation and he didn’t sell what he got very well. George Osborne, a much more strategic politician than Cameron, warned him against the EU Referendum but he went ahead anyway.

Did Cameron change British politics in any way? It seems doubtful. He rode a wave of popular culture – of short termism, fashion and image – very successfully in the Blair style. He was a sharp contrast to Brown before and of course May afterwards. But zeitgeist politicians seem shallow and inappropriate in harder, grimmer times. The backlash against politicians who perform rather than deliver is what has given us our current anti-politics mood. It looks very much as though Cameron is going to be remembered as one of those politicians inside a bubble, who thought they knew what the country wanted but got it terribly, terribly wrong.

Prof Kevin Theakston regularly polls his fellow academics to produce a league table of post-war Prime Ministers. In 2016 Clement Attlee topped the table. 

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