It is safe to say that this whole EU Referendum debacle has not worked out very favourably for David Cameron. His party is cataclysmically divided, cabinet members are turning against him and disquiet amongst back-benchers is becoming so loud that a party coup is becoming increasingly plausible. Arguably the most damaging feature of the last few months for Cameron though, is the obliteration of his much desired ‘legacy’.
Cameron initially won leadership of the Tories with his promise of redefining the party after New-Labour’s hegemony of the centre ground. At this time, the Conservatives were unfashionable, dominated by grey, middle-aged Oxbridge graduates and seemingly unable to find a suitable leader – Michael Howard, William Hague and Ian Duncan Smith all came and went. The fresh-faced Cameron was different. Younger than all his predecessors, the future Prime-Minister embodied a new kind of Tory, packaged for the working-classes; at times Cameron’s Conservatives were arguably as left-wing as the incumbent Labour party.
This centrist approach was one that Cameron vigorously disseminated during his successful(ish) campaign running up to the 2010 General Election. Much was made of his ‘Big Society’ initiative, an idea to promote communitarianism particularly with an emphasis on business in the aftermath of the financially tumultuous late 2000’s. The fundamental principle of this was to promote ‘Soft-Conservatism’, to indorse social mobility while promising to take better care of the economy than Labour had done.
The trouble was, that almost immediately after assuming office, Cameron along with George Osborne, embarked on a stringent austerity programme which virtually exclusively targeted the lower-working classes. At the same time, the top-rate of tax was cut, which no matter the aim, hardly screams communalism, a problem that was not helped by the millionaire Chancellor’s rather hollow claim that “we’re all in this together”.
By 2015, the PM’s first term was largely characterised by dissent. University fees had risen, controversial taxes had been imposed and facilitated tax-avoidance exposed. Undeniably, this was not the effect Cameron was hoping for, rather than narrowing the social divide he had only assisted in widening it. Perhaps this then was why the Prime Minister chose to announce he wouldn’t stand in 2020, before he had even won the 2015 election. In doing so he could effectively promulgate that his final term would be dedicated purely to policy making, unbesmirched by the worries of winning another election.
The trouble was that by this time Euroscepticism had reached such fever pitch that Cameron was vehemently forced into promising an EU referendum, subject to any new deal he could get for Britain. Of course he did not really have much choice, but by granting this provision he effectively handed over the hammer and nails for his ‘legacy’s’ coffin. From this moment on his second term would be subjugated by talk of Europe.
To make matters worse, his handling of the affair has proved disastrous. His disregard of the views of many within the party have opened an enormous schism between his proponents and opponents. Numerous Tory MP’s have claimed in the media that Cameron has lied about the consequences of Brexit and whispers of a coup are growing louder by the day.
Undoubtedly this is essentially what Cameron will be remembered for. The possibility of using the remainder of his term to push through reforms has been dented severely by this debacle; already with a small working majority it is likely that refractory MP’s will form a road-block. Surely the only thing which could exacerbate his predicament now would be Brexit, something which would undeniably deem his position untenable.
In truth Cameron’s hope of achieving a truly positive legacy were ambitious from the outset. It is something which very few politicians; especially senior politicians actually achieve. Gordon Brown will be remembered for the financial turmoil which characterised his reign. Tony Blair the Iraq war. John Major, rather appropriately, internal EU disputes. In fact, only Margaret Thatcher in recent times, can claim to have had a vaguely positive legacy and even then large portions of society utterly despise her.
The reality is that Cameron will be placed alongside these names. In ten or twenty years’ time, the likelihood will be that his reign will symbolise harsh austerity, broken promises and divisive internal disputes. The only thing left to be decided is in what regard he will be remembered. Brexit and a coup surely means that his time in office be deemed a failure. If Britain remains, then maybe he can claw back some degree of dignity. But there is no doubt that the legacy Cameron initially wished to achieve is well and truly dead in the water.