Theresa May makes her first speech to the Conservative Party as UK Prime Minister on Tuesday.
But what of her predecessor David Cameron, who resigned after his referendum gamble backfired and British voters chose to leave the European Union?
Phil Merry of the University of Birmingham, an active member of Conservative Party and candidate at the 2015 local government elections, writes for EA about Cameron’s legacy:
Whenever a political life ends in Britain, “legacy” is discussed. For some, the process is a long one — the play Dead Sheep is currently reviving memories both of Margaret Thatcher and of Geoffrey Howe, the far-from-charismatic Conservative politician whose turn against Thatcher ended her 11-year run as Prime Minister.
Attlee, Churchill, Blair, Thatcher — these all cast long-standing shadows over the UK.
But what of David Cameron, who left Number 10 in June, hours after his Remain position was repudiated by a majority of voters who chose Brexit from the European Union?
Detoxifying the Nasty Party
Cameron left Downing Street as the youngest former Prime Minister for more than a century and departed the House of Commons only three months later.
Still Cameron’s achievements are not inconsiderable. In 2005, he took over as leader of a party that was divided fundamentally over Europe. Its base was too narrow and so too were its sympathies: these were Tories who were far too frequently referred to as the “Nasty Party”.
Contrast that with the One Nation rhetoric we hear today from the Conservative Party, about a country which works for everyone focused on the many not the few. Cameron rehabilitated the Right in Britain from a period of electoral oblivion and political irrelevance, under leaders like Ian Duncan Smith, back to a force which gained the appearance of the natural party of government.
Austerity Economics and Public Spending
Cameron inherited one of the largest peacetime public accounts deficits in British history. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury of Labour’s Brown Government left the incoming Chancellor, George Osborne, a note: “I’m afraid there’s no money left.”
Among the Conservative Party´s elites, plans were drawn up to cut the deficit dramatically, with the aim to eradicate it with a five-year term. This period of austerity was seen in the freezing of public sector pay, the trebling of tuition fees at universities, and the cutting of the welfare budget. Still, the objective was not achieved: even though Cameron and his Ministers were ideologically committed to living within their means, they understood the shock that even harsher austerity would have in the economy.
As in 1981, when the Conservatives last shrunk the size of the State, economists lined up left, right, and center to say that this policy would shrink tax receipts and trigger a far deeper recession. As in 1981, the economists got it wrong — for much of the Cameron Government, economic growth was higher in the UK than in the rest of Europe, and on occasion Britain had one of the highest growth rates in the developed world.
Economists also predicted that unemployment in the UK would increase. The prediction which not only did not materialize, the Cameron government saw more job creation under it than under any previous administration, with more than 2 million new positions.
Finally, Equal Marriage
David Cameron will likely be remembered as the Prime Minister who finally passed equal marriage. Although the step alienated much of the party´s older membership, it quashed much of the animosity between the Conservatives and the LGBT community, a left-over from the Thatcher years and discriminatory Section 28 legislation.
Moreover, during Cameron’s time as leader, the Conservatives increased their share of openly LGBT MPs. The current Cabinet has more LGBT ministers than at any time in British history.
Foreign Policy “Not An Unmitigated Success”
During Cameron’s premiership, soft power has become more significant as a British foreign policy tool: relations with strategic allies such as China have improved greatly, with a significant flow of investment as China’s prosperous middle classes bought into property and infrastructure projects.
But it’s the hard power and decisions that Cameron got wrong. His political youth had been affected by two major foreign policy events: the signing of the Maastricht Treaty by John Major’s Government in 1992, followed by a bitter civil war within the Conservative Parliamentary party, secondly, the human cost of non-intervention in the Balkans.
Almost 20 years later, Cameron was dealing with similar crises: he would try and stop the Conservative Party from banging on about Europe, and he would use the UK’s military to assist in responses to humanitarian crises and, where required, to use force to fight for democracy.
But the Prime Minister, seemed to have a short attention span and a lack of forward planning. Airstrikes in Libya, led by NATO and with British participation, stopped Moammar Ghaddafi from murdering his own people and brought down the regime.
The challenge was what came next. The new Libyan government — or, rather, multiple governments — have been dysfunctional at best. A power vacuum emerged and as the UK and its allies were unable to fill it, the Islamic State did.
Short-Termism on Europe and Infrastructure
This short-termism also contributed the other two big policy failures of the Cameron years: Europe and infrastructure. During his first term, Cameron had seen a rise of the UK Independence Party in Tory heartlands, with two relatively minor MPs defecting to the far-right group as the Conservatives hemorrhaged members.
The Prime Minister believed that if the insurgency was not confronted, it would likely cost the Conservatives their majority and possibly allow the Labour Party back into Downing Street. So Cameron settled on the idea of a referendum on membership of the European Union.
It was a dramatic miscalculation. Cameron had won two referenda and two General elections, and he thought he would prevail again. But when he returned with arrangements with the EU that did not satisfy all of his base and his MPs, he was vulnerable.
Meanwhile, Cameron’s confidence and short-term perspective led to kicking infrastructure projects into the long grass. On both the HS2 high-speed rail network and on the expansion of Heathrow Airport: he balked at decisions that might alienate voters.
“His greatest gamble simply didn’t pay off”
Raise a glass to David Cameron for his rehabilitation of the Conservative Party, rescue of the economy, and reform in social policy.
He was a good Prime Minister and a great party leader.
But his greatest gamble simply didn’t pay off.
And, while he took the honorable decision to resign, rather that push a policy in which he does not believe, he now watches from the sidelines as another Prime Minister takes the UK into the uncertainty — and possible recession — that he had hoped to solve in his six years in power.