Events, dear boy, events, was how Harold Macmillan summed up the unimaginable challenge of being Britain’s Prime Minister. This weekend, as he celebrated the tenth anniversary of his election as Leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron had time to reflect on his political hero’s insight into life at the top of the greasy pole of power.
For ultimately, Cameron’s leadership, certainly his five year premiership, has been defined by events: the financial crash of 2008 and the subsequent need for austerity; the near break-up of the United Kingdom; the rise of the right-wing insurgency of Ukip and the irresistible pressure for an EU referendum; chaos in the Middle East and the emergence of so-called Islamic State and its bloodthirsty designs on the West; uncontrollable immigration from Eastern Europe and then a migrant crisis of biblical proportions.
On more than one occasion, though more in his salad days in Opposition than in the latter years of government, Cameron has sought to tackle the vision thing – to give a sense of purpose and direction to his tenure as Tory leader. We have had hugging huskies and hoodies and a promise to lead the greenest government ever; love for the NHS; optimism and a national happiness index; the vague but well meaning Big Society project, which appeared to be a mission to shrink the State and boost the influence of individuals and communities. Economic policy began as quintessentially Brownite (sharing the proceeds of growth) only to be torpedoed by the credit crunch, the banking collapse and a deficit ballooning to £160 billion.
The truth is that all Cameron’s attempts to put his personal stamp on his party and his government have come to little. Admittedly he walks and talks like a Prime Minister but about his only notable achievement has been to go with the flow of metropolitan liberalism (dressed up under the convenient portmanteau label of One Nation Conservatism) – promoting the cause of women and ethnic minorities within the Conservative Parliamentary Party; further undermining the traditional family with a tax system that discriminates against the one-earner household and childcare subsidies of Harmanesque proportions; and, of course, the introduction of gay marriage. The Nanny State, in all its forms, continues to flourish under this PM. He says the Conservatives must learn to love modern Britain; a lot of conservatives don’t like what they see around them.
The FT attempted a profile of Cameron in its weekend edition. “Cameron remains enigma after 10 years,” was the headline. You can see what they are getting at.
In the final analysis, it will be Cameron’s response to the events that have marked (or marred) his premiership that will shape his reputation and legacy. Will the mild austerity of his second term as set out by his Chancellor George Osborne in last month’s autumn statement eventually eliminate the deficit, get state spending down to 36 per cent of GDP and start to make inroads into the national debt mountain?
Since all the numbers are founded on uninterrupted growth, many think Dave and George are taking a big punt on the unknowable future. They used to talk about fixing the roof while the sun is shining; now they assume the sun will shine for five years.
Will the belated decision to join the international alliance against Isis in Syria lead to a kind of peace in the region? Will the threat of Islamist terrorism recede? And will Britain ever regain the powers it has ceded so carelessly to the EU. Will we re-establish control of our borders or will new waves of migrants, legal or not, continue to wash across our shores?
Given he has pre-announced his departure, Cameron has probably no more than three years to make his mark on history. And since it is hard to see him resolving the intractable issues of the economy, the Middle East, and terrorism, Europe looks like being his most lasting legacy.
Yesterday, the newspapers reported that Cameron, exasperated by the lack of progress in his renegotiation of Britain’s terms of membership of the EU, was prepared to lead the campaign to quit Brussels.
Since he has previously said that he won’t take No for an answer and that he rules nothing out in his bid to get a better deal, the story is not as remarkable as it seems.
But at a deeper level it is literally fantastic. Can anyone imagine that Cameron, Eton and Oxford and the ultimate establishment man, repudiating the course that his idol Macmillan embarked on back in the 1960s when he began the process of seeking a European destiny for a Britain that had lost an empire and was searching for a role on the world stage?
Cameron has no more intention of leading Britain out of Europe than of flying to the moon. The latest briefing is simply a ploy to pressurise European leaders, mired as they are in a series of crises, to pay some attention to the British demands for a (modest) new deal in Europe.
Cameron may model himself on Harold Macmillan. But it is another Harold, Harold Wilson, the Labour Prime Minister who beguiled the country into accepting his European settlement in the 1970s, who offers a better clue to the Prime Minister’s intentions.