Ideas
July 13, 2016 9:53 AM EDT

David Cameron appeared to have a charmed life but on 23rd June his luck ran out. It wasn’t supposed to end like this. He was born into a comfortable and prosperous home, educated at Eton, a graduate of Oxford University, good looking, charming and debonair.

A Member of Parliament at 35, he became Leader of the Conservative Party a mere four years later. By 2010, at the tender age of 43 he was Prime Minister. Now, at 49, he is a retired, former world leader and statesman,, his political life , apparently, over.

In many ways Cameron was a conventional, old style, Tory. He had little ideological baggage, was easygoing, tolerant and able to work with political opponents as we saw when he formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the first coalition the U.K. has had since 1945.

But his affability and pragmatism concealed a deep ambition, a willingness to be brutal when he judged it to be politically necessary and an ability to carry the burdens of office without the angst, anxiety or paranoia that other occupants of 10 Downing Street, have shown over the years.

The General Election in 2015 was the zenith of his career. To his own surprise as well as that of the electorate he emerged from that contest with the first overall majority the Conservatives had had since 1992, 23 years earlier.

In the same election the Labour Party were destroyed in their Scottish stronghold by the Scottish Nationalist Party and the Liberal Democrats disappeared as a serious political force. Despite all that, hubris has been followed by nemesis. Just over a year later Cameron is gone, the obituaries are being written and he will be remembered more for his one supreme failure rather than for his years of, apparently, effortless success.

Was it avoidable? Needed the U.K. to have a referendum at all? Could Cameron have won it rather than crashed to defeat?

A referendum on British membership of the E.U. was bound to happen. While euroscepticism has become rampant throughout Europe in the last few years it has dominated British political debate almost since we joined the then Common Market in 1973.

It was not a divided Tory party that led to the nation being divided. Rather the feeling in the Conservative Party reflected, first the irritation, and then the hostility to the E.U. that grew as integration directed from Brussels increased. A referendum was inevitable but the outcome was not. The 48% who voted to remain could have been 50.1% if serious mistakes had not been made.

Cameron was wrong to have a renegotiation of our terms of membership before the referendum. It was always predictable that his E.U. partners would not, and could not, compromise on basic principles such as the free movement of labour. It was inevitable that Cameron would emerge from that renegotiation with meagre achievements that would weaken rather than strengthen his authority with the electorate during the subsequent campaign.

He, and his advisers, were also mistaken in exaggerating the effects of leaving the E.U., not as much as did the Leave side but with much less necessity. Boris Johnson and the Leave campaign had few experts on their side. They had to exaggerate, particularly as regards immigration and its effects, if they were to win.

The Remain side had massive support from independent analysts, businessmen and economists. They did not have to exaggerate the risks . But Cameron and Osborne allowed themselves to play with statistics. They implied that each family in Britain would lose over £4,000, that mortgage rates might rise to 9% and that an emergency budget, slashing public spending and increasing taxes would be necessary in the immediate aftermath of a Leave majority. None of this was seen as credible.

Now Britain has a new Prime Minister. The immediate consequence of Theresa May’s victory was a huge sigh of relief, from the British public, from the business community and from Presidents and Prime Ministers around the world.

The grown ups had won. The upstarts, in the shape of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Andrea Leadson, had imploded and been sent back to the nursery.

Attempts are being made to analyse whether Theresa May is a new Margaret Thatcher. She is not. I was in Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet. She was a great leader. She was also a strident, charismatic, conviction politician. Memorably, she once remarked that the only kind of consensus she approved of was a consensus in support of her convictions. You either loved Mrs Thatcher or loathed her. Theresa May is not that sort of politician.

If one is looking for a suitable comparison, a more convincing choice would be Angela Merkel. Both May and Merkel are serious, sober politicians with little small talk who keep their sense of humour for their private conversations.

Perhaps significantly, both are the daughters of clergymen doubtless brought up on the Protestant work ethic. Both are problem solvers, unlikely to ask, if a solution works in practice, what is wrong with it in theory.

Merkel has , of course, already had long years of being a highly successful Chancellor. It is impossible to know whether Theresa May will win the respect, admiration and political support of the British people as Merkel has done with the German.

But when she travels to Berlin, Washington and Paris Mrs May will be received by her fellow heads of government as an equal, recognizing, as they will, not only her ability but, also, her six years as Britain’s most successful Home Secretary in modern times.

Both they, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, will see that Britain is again led by a Prime Minister who will not be a soft touch but will fight her corner with skill and determination.

Politics is a brutal business. The reality was that Cameron was a successful and effective Prime Minister for six years. Britain has weathered austerity, has modernized its infrastructure and has reduced racial and gender prejudice under his leadership. He has done much that he can be proud of. The baton is now passed to Theresa May. We will soon see whether the future is what it used to be.

 

 

 

Write to Sir Malcolm Rifkind at malcolmrifkind.

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