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Wednesday, July 13, 2016 

Our worst post-war prime minister.

In retrospect, you can pinpoint precisely the moment when it became clear what a David Cameron premiership would mean.  Not during the 2010 election campaign, when his disembodied head started out from billboards, promising that he would cut the deficit, not the NHS.  Certainly not when he went off on his husky adventure, or when we learned that as part of his eco man of the people act that his papers came behind him in his car as he cycled to the Commons.  It wasn't when he said he would do his best to stop his party banging on about Europe, at the same time as he took it out of the main Conservative grouping in the European parliament.  It wasn't when he was making so much, alternately, about creating a big society from out of our broken society, both policies that practically nothing came of.

No, it was back as Tony Blair finished his last PMQs and the government benches rose almost as one to applaud a man who had won elections but had repeatedly brought his party to the brink of mutiny for his own ends, when Cameron ordered his side to join the ovation also.  Cameron, George Osborne and the rest of his clique desperately wanted to emulate much of what had made Blair so formidable an opponent, if not his policies.  They weren't so much acknowledging Blair's achievements as prime minister as much as they were recognising his qualities as a leader, his ability to play the press at its own game, to make those formerly instinctively opposed to Labour change their opinion.  They wanted all of it, but for their own ends.

It obviously didn't work out like that.  Cameron leaves Downing Street nowhere near as loathed as Blair had become by the end, but with even less in the way of achievements to his name.  He never so much as came close to touching Blair's ability to transcend politics, to being able to find the right soundbite at the right time, even if he always sounded plausible.  He never won the grudging respect of his party as Blair did, was never able to force them down his path; quite the opposite in fact.  He never so much as managed to win a mandate as large as Blair did for his third term in government, let alone the first two landslide Labour victories.  Had he managed to convince the country to give him that sort of scale of victory in 2010, it's difficult to see how much of what went wrong for him would have taken place.

This emphasis on Blair and Labour is for the reason that in time, it's likely to be come to be seen that Cameron's Conservatives merely followed on where a Blairite Labour party would have taken the country anyway.  Very few of Labour's reforms, both economic and social, have been overturned in the past six years.  The major ones have in fact been expanded by the Conservatives.  Not all schools will be forced to become academies as was until recently the plan, but most non-primaries are already.  Free schools, the pet project of Michael Gove, are a further extension of the ideas behind academies, just freed completely from centre control.  The pledge during the 2010 election to not impose further top-down reforms on the NHS, as had been the Blairite way, was abandoned within weeks.  Andrew Lansley's establishing of clinical commissioning groups is already widely viewed as a distraction from the problems that an ageing population are putting on the health system, a problem exacerbated further by the spending squeeze necessitated by austerity.

Cameron's victories weren't so much as his as they were those of his media advisers, Lynton Crosby especially.  The Conservatives focused unyieldingly on the economy and the deficit, to the point where the public came to believe that Labour's spending rather than a global banking crisis had been the cause of the recession.  This allowed Cameron and Osborne to put in place an economic policy that by the goals set out by the pair themselves they failed utterly to achieve.  The deficit was meant to have been eradicated before 2015 in order to provide for some election giveaways; in fact, post-Leave, the refined goal, to have a surplus by 2020, has been abandoned entirely.  Austerity is set to be with us for even longer.

The second victory, which again with the Leave vote has come back round to trap them, was the identifying of a significant shift in the British temperament after the crash.  An anger that was always there metastasised, directed not so much at the top of society but at those below, seen as freeloading and getting something for nothing, whether they were benefit claimants or immigrants.  Labour had again began to put in place the policies the Tories under Cameron expanded upon: the retesting of all those on incapacity benefit, now put onto employment and support allowance, a policy since found to not save money, and the expansion of workfare, with Labour's Future Jobs Fund replaced with a myriad of schemes ran by private companies.  A cap on benefits, indifferent to extraordinary temporary circumstances and the needs of large families was established, while those claiming housing benefit judged to have more bedrooms than they needed were penalised under the "spare rooms subsidy", a policy meant to incentivise claimants to move, but where to was never explained.  These policies had almost no impact whatsoever on public perception of where money on social security was spent (overwhelmingly on pensions and those genuinely in need, rather than the unemployed and feckless) unsurprisingly when the rhetoric of clamping down on those getting "something for nothing" never changed.

Cameron's greatest success, pyrrhic as it would turn out, was the small majority he unexpectedly won last year.  A campaign that focused almost entirely on the recovery of the economy, a recovery already under way when he became prime minister, asked the electorate if they could trust a Labour party that refused to accept it had been responsible for the crash.  It compared the strong, stable leadership of Cameron with the simultaneously weak and brutal Ed Miliband, in the pocket of the SNP, bound to give way to those same loathed wasters, yet prepared to stab the country in the back if that's what it took.  The victory paved the way for a referendum he never expected to call, along with the introduction of policies he believed were to be to bartered away in a second round of coalition negotiations.

Oddly, Labour's derided and abandoned manifesto was quickly pilfered by Cameron and Osborne (and since also by Theresa May), with one of the few policies Cameron spoke of today taken almost directly from it.  The national living wage, despite being no such thing and only just having been introduced, was one of Cameron's boasts.  He talked of the increase in employment and the recovery, both things that would have undoubtedly taken place under any government.  He brought up the introduction of gay marriage, despite it being loathed by a substantial number of Tory MPs, and again was little more than an obvious expansion of Labour's civil partnerships.  One of the few unqualified successes of his premiership is the increase in overseas aid to 0.7% of GDP, yet it's another policy unpopular with some on the backbenches, and one hardly guaranteed to last long under his successor.

Just though as Iraq will be with Blair always, so too will the EU referendum with Cameron.  In many ways a lucky prime minister, Cameron never faced a true crisis.  When one of his own making arrived he resigned, just as he would have had the Scottish independence vote gone the other way.  His actions that morning, to instantly call for English votes for English laws, made clear his contempt for any attempt at reconciliation.  It's no surprise then he maintains he leaves the country stronger than when he arrived; perhaps he has come to believe his own propaganda that Britain was on the precipice, on the road to becoming another Greece as he entered Number 10.

In reality, Britain looks weaker and more divided than at any time since the 70s.  The new prime minister insists "Brexit means Brexit", ignoring the wishes of both Scotland and Northern Ireland, with it seeming only a matter of time before the former becomes independent.  Cameron made clear his preference today for the UK remaining in the single market, but whether that can be achieved when May has said she favours restricting free movement whatever the cost is dubious in the extreme.  England is split between a prosperous south east and a north that has been in decline for over 30 years, although the same could be just as easily said about the difference between the major cities, the M4 corridor, and everywhere else.  Cameron's austerity has only further exacerbated those differences, with the jobs that Labour provided in the public sector replaced if at all by precarious part-time ones or others on zero hour contracts.  If Labour papered over the cracks, then the Tories tore down that veil and boasted about it.  Cameron may not have created the attitude towards welfare and immigration that rose after 2008, but he did everything to ride it, including making promises he knew he could not keep.  In the end it cost him his job.  The rest of us are being left to pick up the pieces.

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