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.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.