David Cameron is a loss to public life. This is not just now the received view, but Lord Lexden, the Conservative Party’s Official Historian, yesterday explained to ConHome why it is the correct one:
“Former prime ministers ought not to be entirely separated from the world of Westminster, which, apart from the benefits of proximity to power, would constantly remind them of the dangers of lucrative enticements which the press and candid friends will always be glad to see exposed in Commons or Lords.
“No ex-PM has wanted to go the Lords for nearly 30 years, the attraction much diminished by the creation of peerages on a massive and unprecedented scale, a process of degradation much assisted by Cameron himself following Blair’s lead. This is a loss to both Parliament and former Prime Ministers.”
Theresa May remains in the Commons, where she continues, when she wishes, to give the House the benefit of her experience.
Blair and Cameron resigned their Commons seats just after ceasing to be PM, while Gordon Brown and John Major each remained in the Commons until the general election after the one at which they had been defeated. All four have declined to go to the Lords.
Margaret Thatcher stayed in the House until the general election after her overthrow, and then accepted a peerage.
Edward Heath remained for over a quarter of a century in the Commons after losing the two elections in 1974 and the Tory leadership contest in February 1975.
Harold Wilson reverted to being Leader of the Opposition after his defeat as PM in 1970, entered Downing Street again in 1974, stepped down as Prime Minister in 1976, but stayed in the House until 1983, when he went to the Lords.
His successor as Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, who was defeated at the general election of 1979, remained in the House until 1987, when he too went to the Lords.
The most graceful example in modern times is afforded by Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who after leaving the Lords at the start of his brief prime ministership in 1963-64, remained in the Commons and served in 1970-74 as Foreign Secretary, his second term in that office, before going once more to the Lords.
Cameron had originally intended to remain in the Commons as a backbencher, but in September 2016, two months after stepping down as Prime Minister, announced he would also step down as an MP, saying in explanation:
“As a former Prime Minister it is very difficult to sit as a backbencher and not be an enormous distraction and diversion from what the Government is doing.”
To traditionalists, it seemed a great pity that Cameron had so quickly followed Blair’s example, cutting and running from Parliament as soon he was no longer the most important person, as if the only point of being an MP is to hold high office.
But just as Blair’s position was rendered excruciatingly uncomfortable by the opprobrium he continued to attract for having led Britain into the Iraq War of 2003, so Cameron’s position was rendered excruciatingly uncomfortable by the opprobrium he continued to attract from Remainers for calling and losing the EU referendum of June 2016.
All Cameron’s earlier achievements were forgotten. Modernising the Conservative Party, leading it back into power in 2010 in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, restoring the economy and governing the country well enough to win a narrow overall majority in 2015, now counted for nothing.
People find it hard to remember more than one thing about any Prime Minister, and all they now remembered about Cameron was that he had accidentally led Britain out of the EU.
He gracefully recognised at breakfast-time on the morning after the referendum that he must step down. There followed a period of silence from him, and this too seemed graceful.
In 2019 he brought out his memoirs, in which he confessed:
“The latent Leaver gene in the Tory Party was more dominant than I had foreseen.”
But his book was not candid enough to arouse any great interest. He had been only 49 when he stepped down, younger than any Prime Minister at the end of their term in office since Lord Rosebery, Prime Minister from 1894-95.
Rosebery was only 47, and for a long time his admirers hoped he would come back. He was a great orator, who could master huge crowds and who still displayed, at unpredictable intervals, star quality, and shafts of insight which showed an admirable independence of mind.
In 1904, when everyone else was cheering the entente cordiale with France, Rosebery greeted a rising Liberal star, David Lloyd George, with the words: “You are all wrong. It means war with Germany in the end.”
Cameron has less brilliance but a steadier temperament than Rosebery, and seemed to have mastered the awkward art of retiring before the age of 50.
In an interview by Emma Barnett with his wife, Samantha Cameron, in January 2021, we learned:
“Dave has shopped and cooked virtually every meal in the last few months.”
Now the Lex Greensill affair threatens to supplant the EU referendum as the one thing for which Cameron is remembered. The audacity which carried him to the Tory leadership, and into Downing Street, also led him to back an Australian banker who promised to make him rich beyond the dreams of avarice, but has instead gone bust, leaving thousands of jobs in the British steel industry in peril.
Greensill had been granted an unusual degree of access to Downing Street, and even a No 10 business card, while Cameron was Prime Minister, and Cameron has since lobbied Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on Greensill’s behalf, though without managing to extract any funds.
On Sunday, the first signs of a fight-back by Cameron could be detected, in a piece by Dan Hodges for The Mail on Sunday:
“David Cameron has let himself down. And he knows it. ‘He was adviser for a company that went bust in a very public way. And he’s told me he recognises that’s embarrassing,’ says a sympathetic Cabinet Minister who spoke to the former Prime Minister last week.
‘”But he does think all the other stuff is way over the top. This idea he was getting No 10 business cards printed out for all these dodgy people. His attitude is that he had a lot of responsibilities as PM and dealing with the Downing Street stationery wasn’t one of them.'”
It is just possible that by refusing to respond in person to the Greensill story, Cameron will so starve it of oxygen that it dies out.
But the story serves also as a reminder of how hellish it can be to be an ex-Prime Minister. As long as one is in office, one can at least indicate to potential critics that if they start to chuck mud, they can abandon all hope of promotion.
That sanction falls away as soon as one falls from power. From then onwards, anyone who wants to take a crack can do so with impunity.
Consider the case of Stanley Baldwin, Prime Minister in 1923-4, 1924-29 and 1935-37, the dominant figure of the inter-war years, who in 1936 with masterly skill united the British and Imperial Establishment behind the policy of replacing the feckless Edward VIII with the dutiful George VI.
The following year, Baldwin at a moment of his own choosing stepped down, became a Knight of the Garter, and was elevated to the Lords as Earl Baldwin of Bewdley, an earldom being the usual reward for a PM.
Three years later, he became one of the guilty men who had left Britain unprepared for the fight for national survival against Nazi Germany. George Orwell wrote of him:
“As for Baldwin, one could not even dignify him with the name of stuffed shirt. He was simply a hole in the air.”
Baldwin was by now so unpopular that he did not care to appear in public, and despite being old and infirm was denied a seat while travelling on a train. Lord Beaverbrook, in an act of spite, had the gates removed from Baldwin’s house, a gift from Worcester Conservative Association when their leader retired, under the pretence that the metal was needed to make Spitfires.
At Baldwin’s final appearance in public, for the unveiling in 1947 of a statue of George V, a feeble cheer was raised in his honour, and he asked whether he was being booed.
What a fearful warning to Cameron. We write about these things as if they were fair, but that is seldom the case.
We find instead an overwhelming desire to blame someone. The most liberal-minded people are particularly liable to yield to this urge to flog some poor wretch, and to feel better about themselves as they inflict the punishment.
It is especially satisfying to flog someone who formerly adopted a high moral tone. Baldwin liked to strike that note, as did Blair and Cameron.
They were very good at it, but their critics saw the discrepancy between the high-sounding rhetoric and the slightly less elevated behaviour, and pounced.
How disgusting those critics are. Cameron is a decent man, and so were Blair and Baldwin. All three did about as well as anyone could do in the circumstances, and all three, so far as one can see, are doomed.