'It is clear that he does not own up to all the mistakes he made. Dave has a very clear idea of how far he can go while keeping what remains of his reputation intact'
On the basis of the old adage that if you have nothing nice to say it’s better not to say anything at all, let me begin with a positive thought or two about David Cameron’s memoirs (For the Record, William Collins, £25). First, he is giving the proceeds to charity. At the time of writing, and helped by television programmes and a newspaper serialisation, people are buying the book, so the charities concerned—those helping Alzheimer’s research and disabled children—should do well. Second, the author emerges from his book as a thoroughly good husband and father, something not all prime ministers can profess to be while keeping a straight face. And third, and although she has some rather batty politics, his wife is the star of the show. He is lucky to have her.
However: the book is a turkey. It is not so for the usual reasons—well, not for all of them. Dave is capable, unlike most politicians, of admitting he got things wrong: the last 100 or so pages are an on-the-psychiatrist’s-couch job about what he considers the disaster of the outcome of the 2016 referendum on our continued membership of the European Union. It is not the only mea culpa in the work, but it is the most almighty one. Unfortunately, for those of us who know rather too much about Dave and Davery, it is clear that he does not own up to all the mistakes he made; he even lauds things that smell very much like mistakes. And the book is not a complete picture; there are things and people one knows of from his private life that simply do not appear. One hears that his publishers ordered a major cut of the manuscript, so perhaps some of the more flavoursome stuff, or at least the material that might have given us a less two-dimensional view of the ex-prime minister, hit the floor.
Or—and I suspect this is more likely—despite the self-deprecation and admissions of fallibility, Dave has a very clear idea of how far he can go while keeping what remains of his reputation intact.
To take one example: he recalls how he survived being caught pot-smoking at Eton. His headmaster, the great and saintly Sir Eric Anderson, believed (or professed to believe) a tissue of lies that Dave now admits he told him about his relationship with illegal substances. Those who regard Dave as a force for the worse in our country’s history (and I suspect that, for an assembly of reasons, they are in the majority) should know that they have poor old Sir Eric to blame for this. Had Dave been sacked from Eton for drug abuse, as he would have been had he not lied to his headmaster, he would have found it enormously difficult to keep such ignominy quiet from the Conservative party. There would have been no job in Central Office, no special adviser’s role, no place on the candidates’ list, no safe seat, and none of what ensued. Dave admits to having used illegal drugs well into his adult life, exhibiting the utter lack of judgment one would not wish to see in our prime ministers. I had hoped to read a lengthy section on the wrecked and re-orientated lives of some of his friends who succumbed to addiction; on the international scourge of white slavery, prostitution, smuggling, murder and gangsterism that is down the chain of every puff and drag Dave took on his joint of a chillaxing evening. Perhaps that will all be in his next book.
This work comprises just over 700 pages. It will be of marginal use to any unfortunate historian of the future who is seduced into studying this period of our history. There are no footnotes, so we must take everything as gospel: the life of Dave remains to be properly scrutinised, verified and annotated. The period under consideration is one in which the political class became staffed more and more by nonentities. Dave and his deeply unpleasant sidekick George Osborne (one of whose more recent comments was the charming observation that he would like Theresa May chopped up and put into a freezer) exemplify this; out of university (in both cases Oxford, in Dave’s case from its intellectually highly-questionable PPE course), straight into the political machine, and more or less straight into a seat. However, they will go on to prove that, as one of the few clichés not to appear in the book has it, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
Dave deals cursorily with his brief sojourn in the real world, working for Michael Green at Carlton as a PR man, a vocation that was naturally his. He does not mention—can it be because he does not know?—that many City and business journalists of that era learned never to believe a word he said, having experienced his conduct as Green’s mouthpiece. But if this book teaches us anything, it is what happens to a country when people waltz into the cabinet directly from student politics (not that Dave, busy in the Bullingdon, did much of that). Despite Dave’s delusions to the contrary, everything becomes about management (and quite often crisis management) rather than about vision and leadership.
We are led to believe Dave wrote this book himself, based on tape recordings made regularly throughout his rule with the aid of his joke-writer, Danny Finkelstein, who now adorns the House of Lords. Dave breezily writes that he knew he’d get “flak” for his resignation honours list, packed with one or two exceptions with the trivial, the time-serving and the undeserving, but about that, as about so much else he did that reflected badly on him and on his country, he manifestly simply couldn’t care less.
Finkelstein appeared on an earlier list, as did many others of even less merit, but Dave appears oblivious to the degradation of the system, and especially of the calibre and reputation of the House of Lords, that he enabled during his spell in Downing Street.It is hard to believe this is so, for no-one but a professional cynic of the sort employed as ghostwriter by publishers could write a 703-page press release: for that is how this book reads. Short, punchy, occasionally verbless sentences; that breezy, let’s-read-on rhythm one associates with being told how fabulous a new brand of toothpaste is; and the inevitable resort to cliché—“Britain was standing taller in the world”, etc etc etc. I know Dave was not setting out to write Middlemarch or Ulysses, or even The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but this effort has all the literary merit of a dog turd.
The book runs us through what the tabloid press would call a “privileged” childhood. He has to deal with what he seems to consider the embarrassment of the E word, which he does in this repulsively arch fashion: “Then, of course, Eton College. I was following my father, his father and his grandfather . . . as well as my mother’s father, and his father . . . you get the picture.” Actually Dave, I don’t. A serious Tory would have been proud to be maintaining such a tradition with a great institution such as Eton, and certainly would not slump into cringe-making apology about it ever after. After all, we must presume that Dave had no choice in the matter and was a victim of his upbringing. His poor father, who was well aware of Dave’s extra-curricular activities at school, perhaps was stricken with shame once he realised what a cross he had inadvertently given his son to bear.
When Dave turns up at Central Office he is a recipient of kindness from Cecil Parkinson who, as any of those of us lucky enough to have known him will readily testify, was a very kind man. Dave too proclaims how much he liked him. It made me recall another of Cecil’s acts of kindness. In December 2005, just after Dave’s PR skills had eased him into the leadership of the Conservative party, I found myself sitting happily next to Cecil at lunch at the Beefsteak Club, where we were both members. He told me that he had just written to Dave—not so much as a former mentor, but as a man who had twice been chairman of the Conservative party (and, I would add, a chairman of enormous distinction) to offer any help that might be needed. A few months later I had the good fortune to find myself seated again next to Cecil at the same table, and I asked him whether Dave had taken him up on his offer. “I never had a reply,” he told me.
There are long passages in the book about aspects of foreign policy—Dave is incapable of seeing what a mess he made of his intervention in the Libyan morass—and cuddling up to the Obamas, whom Dave seems to embrace not as a politician and his wife but as targets for his obsessive virtue-signalling. As with everything else, these sections are largely unrelieved by anything normal beings would regard as humour. One sometimes wonders, as he careers through the six Downing Street years, how far Dave actually understood what was going on: he certainly ran very smoothly from the point of view of his officials, with only the odd moment of resistance—such as when somebody wanted to re-route public footpaths. But the whole of the book is a preparation for its climax, which is Dave’s decision to call the 2016 referendum.
He stands by it (of course he does), even though he could hardly be satisfied by the outcome. He resists kicking his friend Osborne, whose ludicrous “Project Fear” was not the least reason why things went so horribly wrong for their side of the argument. He calls “international support for our continued membership” of the EU an “advantage”, an assertion that seems to exemplify the extent of his delusion about the whole matter. When he decided to use the “advantage”’ by getting his friend Obama to issue a veiled threat about a post-Brexit trading relationship with the US, he goaded a key section of the British public into expressing a natural reaction to such an apparently bullying and imperialist intervention: they went out and voted to spite Obama, and Dave, and their beloved cause. Yet Dave says he was “delighted” by the intervention (which, perhaps somewhat slyly, he attributes to a suggestion by his friend Osborne). He also says at the end of the book that he did not have the referendum for the sake of Conservative party advantage. This is—to be charitable—such a delusional statement that it requires a detailed repudiation.
Shamefully, Dave went into the 2015 election campaign thinking his party would, again, not win it outright. He had found cohabitation with Nick Clegg relatively satisfying (Clegg may have given him grief from time to time, but it was usually less than he was getting from people he brands “right-wingers” in his own cabinet) and would have been happy, or so he suggests, to shack up with him again. This is unsurprising, as none of them was Conservative, or even Liberal in the proper sense of the term that Mr Asquith would have recognised, but were all ambulance-chasing social democrats. Dave was petrified by the rise of UKIP, seeing in Nigel Farage a man with a connection to the public that Dave could only dream of. Promising an EU referendum in 2015 was a means of neutering UKIP, and it worked. Indeed, it worked rather too well, because Dave got an overall majority. There was no Nick Clegg in coalition with him—as he had cynically hoped—to tell him that he couldn’t have his referendum, but that they should concentrate instead on turning Britain into the social democratic paradise they both craved. Dave had no choice but to call his referendum. The rest, as they say, is history. As a Brexiteer for decades before the word was invented, I am grateful to Dave for, as far as I am concerned, the most constructive thing he ever did. Oddly, he doesn’t see it that way.
It all clearly rankles with him. He admits he made the mistake of not realising that not everyone in the Tory party felt like him. He has to resort to silly ad hominem remarks to express his rage—Michael Gove, whose dissension from the Davist line was perfectly honourable, is described, as a result of his perfidy, as “a foam-flecked Faragist”; I have spent years observing Farage and Faragists closely, and am yet to see the merest fleck of foam: grow up. Dave does, at least, have the measure of Boris Johnson, and knows why he took the side he did in the referendum: because it was how he would become prime minister; but in their different ways—and this above all is what this book tells us—they are all as bad as each other.
Dave is not perhaps a liar in the Johnsonian class; but he is a delusionist. He seeks to manage his delusions—he calls himself a “Thatcherist” rather than a “Thatcherite”, but does not then treat us to a philosophical disquisition on the difference: perhaps they didn’t teach him that when he did PPE. I pulled up sharpish on page 324, when I saw the words “as a Eurosceptic” applied to himself: it is like Harold Shipman describing himself as a believer in the sanctity of human life. And from delusion comes arrogance: Dave cannot understand why, in a meeting with the proprietor of the Daily Mail, he did not ask Lord Rothermere to sack his commercially highly-successful editor, Paul Dacre. Dave, as I know only too well, had a habit of going around telling newspapers whom they should or should not employ, and I am glad that he shows a modicum of honesty in alluding to this pernicious and ugly habit for a man who thinks he is a democrat. Dave is, like so many politicians, a fraud. Perhaps, where history is concerned, he will be well served by the fact that Boris Johnson comes after him.