The man who wasn’t there
James Kirkup reviews David Cameron’s memoirs
The best stories about David Cameron are sadly lacking from the book he hopes will make us think of his premiership and his political life as something other than a failure. He may have filled 732 pages, but he could not find room for the tale of a dinner he took when Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. Asked exactly why he wanted to be prime minister, he immortally replied: “Because I’d be good at it.”
If For the Record has a purpose — and I’m not wholly convinced it does — then it is to persuade his readers that that early estimation of his own talents was justified. Yet so much about the book, like its author, is strangely ambiguous. Familiar events described by a familiar figure often somehow ring false under Cameron’s pen, and not just because of his sometimes crashingly unsubtle attempts to retell a sad story to his own advantage.
Retell to whom, though? It’s not terribly clear who Cameron thinks he’s addressing in his book. The way he dwells on the bland and glosses over the significant leaves the impression that his target audience is incurious American undergraduate students of British history reading a couple of decades from now. If you want to know what Cameron assumes of his readers’ level of engagement with British government and politics, reflect on the fact that he tells us no fewer than 11 times that the door to No 10 Downing Street is black. On four of those occasions we are reminded that it is not just a black door but a “famous black door”.
By contrast, there are just three references in this vast slab of prose to Universal Credit. Here is the longest of them, reproduced in full:
Today, Universal Credit is rolling out, slowly. Such a step change is never going to be straightforward, and the issues that have arisen have been with delayed payments. It is vital that process problems do not derail the concept at the heart of UC: that work must always pay.
If summarising the chronic mismanagement of a decade-long welfare reform that will eventually have more than 8 million claimants in precisely 49 words appears culpably casual, it is not the whole of it. In one of those scant other references to UC, Cameron criticises Iain Duncan Smith for repeatedly resisting cuts to the UC budget that actually reduced the claimants’ economic incentives to work. In other words, if Dave had got his way, UC would do even less to deliver the very thing the policy he lauds was invented to do.
Why hover over a few lines about welfare reform in a book that purports to have so much to say about much else? Because while it’s not possible to say with certainty which of the possible interpretations of those lines is correct, those interpretations all say a great deal about the author, and possibly more than the rest of the book does.
Does Cameron have so little to say about UC because he knows its disastrous implementation reflects poorly on him, or because he just didn’t pay enough attention to it to warrant more than a few sentences of cheery recollection? (He is, to his credit, candid in his admission that he failed to notice his first health secretary, Andrew Lansley, embarking on a fundamental reorganisation of the NHS he says he loves.)
Readers must draw their own conclusions here, but they should do so remembering that Cameron describes the aim of his governments, his very political mission, as using “Conservative means to achieve progressive ends”.
That’s an intriguing idea, one that could sustain a whole book in the right hands, but Cameron is neither philosopher nor historian (he claims William Wilberforce was a Tory, which suggests he hasn’t read his dear friend William Hague’s life of Wilberforce) so he gives us a brief definition of progressive ends — “a fairer, more equal society; a greener environment; more responsive public services; and more power for people” — and quickly moves on, possibly to avoid any risk of explaining what progress he made towards those goals during his six years in office. Later we get a moment of bathetic comedy as we briefly glimpse the glistening golden arc of Cameron’s domestic agenda: “The policies kept coming. Cancelling the proposed rise in fuel duty. Tax cuts for savers. A new Help to Buy ISA….”
Truly, a vision of state and society transformed.
Where does Cameron’s soi-disant mission come from? Why, to rehearse that opening question, did Cameron really want to be prime minister, or in politics at all? His book is frustratingly light on answers. After Oxford he did milk round interviews with banks and consultancies, and was offered a job (thanks to a family connection) with Jardines in Hong Kong. He attempts no real explanation for why he chose instead a job as a Conservative Party researcher.
Before Oxford he’d spent some of his gap year working for a Tory MP (his godfather) but devotes barely two paragraphs to this “stimulating” but otherwise unremarkable experience. By his early twenties, when he has served as a special adviser to Norman Lamont and Michael Howard and is wooing Samantha (a friend of his sister), he describes politics as “my calling” but still gives few clues about what it is about the trade that actually calls him.
His ascent from backroom to leadership is almost more frustrating in its lack of depth or insight. To hear Cameron tell it, he vaults from nomination as Conservative candidate in Witney (where — would you believe it? — he has family connections) to the party leadership with a couple of fluent speeches and the good fortune to be up against plodders such as David Davis and Liam Fox.
The role of Michael Howard in smoothing the path for him, like the deals he made with the Conservative right for which he professes contempt, are not explored or explained. In reality, the leadership did not simply drop in his lap and his victory was never the dead cert he suggests here, so this light-touch account raises more questions: does Cameron want us to think of him as a privileged lightweight who just got lucky? Is he unaware that this is the impression his account gives — or just unconcerned by it?
Perhaps it’s the former. Elsewhere he demonstrates that that smooth, smooth skin is also thin — so thin he offers frankly silly rebuttals to minor charges he’d do better to have left to lie on file.
He’s in agony about the moment in the 2015 election campaign when he said he supported West Ham football club, not Aston Villa, who also play in claret and blue: “The incident made me look phoney, as if I had always pretended to support Aston Villa but didn’t really. The opposite was the case. I hadn’t said a huge amount about being a football fan, but I really was one, and I followed Villa more closely than I let on.” This is, needless to say, the only reference to Aston Villa in the book, or indeed to following football of any sort.
While it evidently matters to Cameron that you think his love for football is heartfelt, he can appear blandly careless of bigger things. After a well-observed chapter on Britain’s latest war in Afghanistan, he offers this thought on a deployment that lasted more than a decade and cost 454 British lives: “So, for all the blood spilt and treasure spent, was Britain’s involvement in the Afghan war worth it? Historians say it’s too early to say.”
Such banality is the hallmark of Cameron’s extensive retelling of foreign policy issues. “I spent the rest of that holiday on the phone. Israel and Gaza. Ukraine and Russia. Syria and Iraq. The world is never at peace, and as a result, neither is a prime minister,” he sighs at the end of yet another chapter of diplomatic detail.
Yet it’s the international that interests him more than British welfare claimants, social care reform, further education, bus services or any of the other boring little domestic concerns that find no place in this book. To give him his due, he does tacitly admit to ignoring such petty things when he talks about the autumn of 2015 and what might have been, about the attention he might have devoted to social problems, had he not torched his own government, party and place in history in an act he still can’t really explain.
Yes, it’s taken a long time for this review to get to Europe, but that’s because the book does too. I had to slog through 500-odd pages of Libya and anecdotes about George Osborne’s brilliance to get to the heart of it, so you, dear reader, have had to wait too. This is 2019. Respect my lived experience.
That experience includes about 15 years as a political correspondent, many of them spent following Cameron around the country and the world, and especially to EU summits. During that time he gave a very good impression of a man who meant it when he said he wanted to stop “banging on” about Europe so he could talk about something else.
So imagine my surprise to read that the man who always said he didn’t give two hoots about the EU, who mocked obsessives like Bill Cash and raged with entertaining obscenities about Tory backbenchers demanding an ever-harder line on Europe, was actually consumed with scepticism all along.
You might think that he’d spent his entire leadership trying to forestall the swivel-eyed loons by promising Eurosceptic jam tomorrow (he got the leadership by promising to pull out of the European People’s Party, then went double-or-quits with a “cast-iron” promise of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty) and finally ran out of road in 2016. In fact, you’ll read in his book that he had long harboured deep-seated doubts about the EU.
How do we know this is true, that he’s not just spinning a yarn to cover up the fact that he blew up his leadership and British governance because he couldn’t actually lead his own party or face down Nigel Farage? Well, Cameron reveals that actually he told his friend and ghostwriter Danny Finkelstein “as early as January 2012” he was thinking about a referendum because Europe was changing and the euro and sovereignty and treaties and reasons. So there. Yah, boo, sucks, etc.
But wait, what’s this, 70 pages later? It’s a proper story, about George Osborne floating the idea of a referendum as an exercise in party management early in the coalition years:
He was one of the first to raise the need for a proper discussion about it. He was worried that we couldn’t keep our party together until the next election without one . . . he specifically raised the concern that we might end up as the only party at the  election not offering a referendum.
So which was it, Dave? Was the referendum a creature of your super-secret souverainism, or a George wheeze to keep the loons in check? Historians say it’s too early to say.
We do know the result and the hubris that explains why he thought he’d win, and why he lost:
I was in a good position at the end of 2015. Our lead on the economy was at record levels. My personal ratings were high. The migration crisis had shown that I could lead in Europe, and that our special place in the EU immunised us from its worst effects.
And if you liked that gag, he’s got more. This one will slay you: “Unlike Merkel, I was determined to keep my head” over immigration. So writes the man who lost his head because after spending years telling voters they were basically right about how awful Europe and immigration were for Europe, he then gave them the chance to reject both — and was surprised when they took it.
Looking back, he offers something that I think is supposed to resemble reflection and self-criticism of his promise to renegotiate a whole new relationship within the EU, but I’m honestly not sure.
Did I raise expectations of concessions from the EU that it wouldn’t ever make? Or had I failed to go far enough? The issue was hardly going to go away, so maybe it was better to be more specific. Yes it would raise expectations, but only expectations the British people already had.
If there’s a way of reading that last sentence as anything other than contradictory pabulum, it escapes me. But then, so too does any real insight into why he called the referendum, or indeed why he did anything in politics at all. There may well be hidden depths to the man — great thoughts, strategies, a hinterland — but if so they remain hidden after this book, and probably always will. Or perhaps the truth is there on the page, hiding in plain sight, and there really is even less to David Cameron than meets the eye.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe