Cameron’s arrogant promises will rightly define his legacy

The wannabe social reformer leaves behind a Britain much more badly broken than the one he inherited

Image: Number 10

David Cameron genuinely believes that he’s one of the good guys.

That’s why he bounced on to the front line of politics in 2005 with promises to mend a broken Britain, to build a big society and to fight for modern, compassionate conservatism.

And it’s why he returned to the themes of equality, opportunity and life chances in last year’s Conservative conference speech — laying the groundwork for a legacy he thought he would have a few more years to build.

Instead, he leaves Downing Street several years earlier than he planned, and leaves Britain much more badly broken than he found it.

The reason for his inglorious end — Cameron’s tragic flaw— is quite clear. He has consistently made impossible promises, arrogantly believing that he could achieve anything he set his mind to.

Here are the three most damning of those promises.

Eliminating the deficit

David Cameron’s dreams of social reform were killed by the financial crisis in 2008.

Like Barack Obama, as soon as Cameron took office the immediate challenge of keeping the economy afloat took priority over everything else.

However, while Obama took a traditional Keynesian approach with targeted public investment, Cameron, with George Osborne, opted for austerity and dogmatic commitment to an unnecessary goal — balancing the books.

Not only have Cameron an Osborne failed in their attempt to balance the books by 2020; the attempt has also reinforced the image of the Tories as the nasty party, and Cameron as their nasty leader.

Over six years, government cuts have been devastating for poor communities, for the disabled, for schools and universities, for the NHS, for women and people of colour, and for younger generations.

Despite a few flagship social policy achievements — most notably the introduction of equal marriage — Cameron will not be remembered as a social progressive, but as a nasty Conservative who attacked the most vulnerable.

Cutting net migration to ‘the tens of thousands’

Cameron made this promise back in 2010, and has clung to it despite its manifest impossibility and destructive political effects.

The Leave campaign was right — it would be impossible to guarantee immigration of less than one hundred thousand while Britain remained in the EU.

What Cameron refused to acknowledge—even as the Leavers scored victory after victory in the debate over immigration—was that this was an absurd and arbitrary target, one that likely couldn’t be met either inside or outside the EU.

This problem will not now go away. Research has shown that Britain must accept a degree of free movement in order to remain in the single market.

On the other hand, slashing immigration by half and leaving the single market would create huge economic and fiscal pressures, as well as creating huge staff shortages and skills gaps.

What’s more, Cameron’s promise and his incessant scaremongering about the effects of immigration have done untold damage to Britain’s social fabric, provided justification to the nastiest elements on the Right, and left millions of immigrants and people of colour vulnerable to violence and prejudice.

Of course, Cameron’s immigration policy has been managed and driven forward by his home secretary, and now successor, Theresa May.

Will she now recognise the catastrophic failure of his approach and change course on immigration?

The EU referendum

There’s no way around it. Just as Tony Blair will be remembered for Iraq, David Cameron will be remembered for taking Britain out of Europe.

The narrative is already well-established. To smooth out tensions with the Right flank of his party, Cameron promised a referendum that, in his arrogance just after winning an unexpected majority, he could not conceive of losing.

During the referendum campaign, as he warned about likely recessions and possible wars, he was repeatedly asked why — if the risks were so great — he had called the referendum at all.

He still hasn’t provided a straight answer to that question, and so we should keep asking it.

Brexit has already done vast damage to the British economy and emboldened the worst, most racist and abusive segments of society.

These effects will continue, and will get worse, in the years ahead. And while blame must be apportioned to a wide range of political actors, Cameron should neither be forgotten or forgiven.

At Tony Blair’s final PMQs, Cameron led the opposition in a standing ovation.

Now, as he prepares for his own swan song, the prime minister probably shouldn’t expect the same.

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter.

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8 Responses to “Cameron’s arrogant promises will rightly define his legacy”

  1. Jacko

    Decrease in unemployment under David Cameron, from 2.51m to 1.67m

    £79.9 billion
    Decrease in the size of the deficit, from £154.8bn to £74.9bn

    0.3 per cent
    Current rate of the increase of the cost of living, compared with 3.4 per cent in May 2010

    Fewer working days lost to strikes in the year to April 2016 compared with the year to May 2010

    33 per cent
    Proportion of the Cabinet who are women, compared with 14 per cent in Cameron’s first Cabinet

    483 million tonnes
    Greenhouse gas emissions in the UK in the first three months of this year, down from 588 million tonnes six years ago

    Increase in tax-free personal allowance under David Cameron, from £6,475 to £11,000

    31.59 million
    Number of people currently in work, up 2.45 million during Cameron’s time as PM

    Supported gay marriage

    EU exit: supported staying, not leaving, which makes you comment irrelevant.

    Immigration: oh, the irony of the Left trying to lecture us about immigration.

  2. Chris Golightly

    Oh! The irony of numbers wielding rightist lobbyists attempting to suggest that David Cameron and most of his Tory colleagues are even remotely interested in reducing greenhouse gas emissions is utterly ridiculous. “Take out all the green crap”.

    His enthusiasm for the European Union was lukewarm to say the least and that is being generous. Anti-European, Climate Change fence-sitter, low tax, anti Union, supporter of tax avoiders, non-supporter of regions or manufacturing, Oh! just another standard elitist Englophile Tory and about as much of a social reformer as Donald Duck. Gay marriage? Give us a break.

  3. Jacko

    You don’t dispute the numbers then, Chris?

  4. Jimp


    Put links to support your stats and I’ll counter them.

  5. Jennifer

    Jacko, if you compare the amount of our green house gas emissions with Germany and other EU countries, we are not doing well at all. Germany now gets 70% of its electricity from renewable resources, and electricity is much cheaper there than here. Cameron cut subsidies to encourage solar. Germany have banned nuclear power…. no £40 billion dinosaur nuclear power plant for them that will take British consumers here a generation to pay for… an Osbourne ego trip no less.

  6. ted francis

    Jacko’s figures are irrefutable however, he has carefully taken the year 2010 as his bench mark. By then the full force of the consequences of the international bank crash (incidentally not as was alleged, Labour’s fiscal ineptitude). To get a true comparison of the state of the nation you must study the flow charts starting at the turn of the century. For example: the highest Unemployment reached in the first 8 years was 1.64m.
    Another misguiding subject is, “The Deficit”. By comparison with the size of the National Debt and the dangers that that poses, The Deficit pales to almost insignificance. We owe over £1 trillion….. that’s actual cash or assets that could be called in by our debtors.And the fastest rate/period of growth since the millennium is, 2010 to 2016 Taking a line out of the Brexit hymn sheet: and it’s growing at the rate of almost £6,000 per SECOND. Sorry Jacko but, as they say, them’s the facts.
    One more that caught my eye (and his has to be the last, I must get to bed): Cameron called the Ref for reasons which are well known and had to support Remain. Originally he was anti EU, it was only the advent of the Coalition and the Lib-Dems bargaining power that turned Cameron into an apparent EU supporter.

  7. Holman

    Surely, Cameron and Osborne should be measured relative to the other major political economies. Have we changed at the same pace as them: output, employment, health? And, within the UK, has the lower third kept pace with the upper third? How has Cameron done on a relative basis?

  8. Bob

    This stuff doesn’t matter at all. Leftists are out of touch with reality.

    All government spending works by creating money. This generates tax and saving. Taxes destroy money.

    It all adds up folks. Deficits is people saving. Gov’t have an unlimited intraday overdraft at the BoE.

    Government is constrained by real resources.

    Only leftists can’t see this as its ridiculously simple. You are so pitiable. Also look up “NAIRU” to see the beauty of the current system 🙂

    Immigrants are handy to blame for stuff 🙂

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