It’s very difficult to tell, at close range, how history will judge a politician, but for the moment it feels as if David Cameron will end up a rather transitional figure, or perhaps a tragic one.
I recently finished reading the excellent The Conservatives: A History by Robin Harris. This book tells the story of the Tories via the interesting method of biographising their major leaders.
The likes of Peel, Derby, Disraeli, Salisbury, Bonar Law, Baldwin, Churchill, Macmillan, Heath, and Thatcher are all viewed as having put their distinctive stamp on a certain period of the party’s history.
Others such as Balfour, Eden, and Major, whilst often able men with some creditable achievements to their name, are placed in a second order of leaders. In which camp should we place Cameron?
The case for putting him in the higher group seemed strong, at least before the EU referendum. He appeared to have affected a fundamental change in the party’s character, had created a successful coalition government, won the first Tory majority in 24 years and seen off both voting reform and Scottish independence.
Yet this side of Brexit things look rather different. The vote to leave the EU itself is so momentous, and such a calamity for him personally, that it risks defining Cameron’s career in the manner that Suez did Eden’s.
But even beyond his sudden resignation, only 16 months since his unexpected triumph at the general election, one gets a growing sense that the Cameron years are simply fading away.
There was never much meat on the bones of “Cameronism”, if it ever existed, but he certainly embodied a sort of patrician (some might say patronising) liberalism which is not much in evidence in Theresa May’s new government.
His allies and key ministers, such as George Osborne, Michael Gove, and Nicky Morgan, are now on the backbenches, whilst his planned crackdowns on disapproved consumer goods, such as sugar, have been abandoned.
May certainly can’t be said to be inheriting and carrying forward Cameron’s legacy. To the contrary, she is sparing no effort in setting out a much clearer, and in many ways more traditional, Tory vision: grammar schools and unionism, combined with a Disraeli-style emphasis on fairness for working families.
It’s true that Cameron’s Governments did carry through an ambitious public sector reform programme, much of which had great merit, and that he introduced gay marriage. But if we look back at how history has treated the titans of Harris’ book, we tend to find emphasis telescoping around a handful of key issues.
The Corn Laws; the Irish Question; Tariff Reform; Appeasement; Privatisation: these are the words that stand as shorthand for titanic battles that have defined how we remember the often long and complex careers of intelligent and able men and women whose governments spent most of their time on much more humdrum matters.
What word will summarise, once sufficient time has passed, the defining battle of our own time? It must surely be Europe, and I suspect that if Cameron gains a lingering toehold in the popular consciousness he will owe it, for better or worse, to Brexit.