“I was the future once”.
These were David Cameron’s final words as prime minister in the House of Commons echoing those of his very first appearance as leader of the Conservative Party back in 2005 when he teased a speechless Tony Blair, quipping that ‘he (Blair) was the future once’.
It is quite remarkable that in just under three weeks following the referendum regarding Britain’s status within the European Union, there is a new occupant of 10 Downing Street with a new-look cabinet, now ready to commence with the job of running the country.
Incontestable is the case that Cameron will be forever remembered as the prime minister who took Britain out of the EU. Yet perhaps understated was his aptitude for leadership and oratory.
Not an ideologue or dogmatist, Cameron was the master of the practical short-term fix. Efficient and competent, he eased the British economy off its life-support machine and brought unemployment down to record lows.
A social moderniser of the Tories, he attempted to make the Conservatives a party for the commoner not just for the privileged. Perhaps fuelled by guilt at his own advantaged background, Cameron strived to improve the opportunities and living standards of the destitute and needy.
The socially conservative wing of the Tories never refrained from critique regarding the centrist direction the party was moving in under his leadership. Nevertheless, this should not diminish from the appropriate laudation heaped upon him for his economic stabilisation at a pivotal time for the country.
Cameron was an expert at floating on the wave of the modish and popular. Difficult and divisive decisions such as the issue of a third runaway at Heathrow Airport were postponed. ‘U-turns’ were hardly a rarity.
Shortly after the Paris attacks, Cameron proposed a motion in the House of Commons to commence airstrikes on ISIS in Syria as well as Iraq. This despite losing a vote under eighteen months earlier to strike the forces of Assads’s regime; ISIS’s opponents in the Syrian civil war.
However, he took a firm stance on the EU question and was resolute in his ambition to cut the deficit, despite the large unpopularity the austerity measures designed to achieve that goal gave him.
A masterly performer at Prime Ministers Questions, Cameron’s sharp wit kept the nation entertained on a Wednesday afternoon. You only have to look at the drab and colourless diction which has dogged the Labour Party in recent years to appreciate the extent of Cameron’s natural charm which has indulged us all. It’s hard to envisage a continuation of the quick-witted retorts and put-downs under Theresa May.
With one underwhelming Labour leader after another opposing him at the dispatch box, Cameron certainly had his share of luck. Yet, it is easy to forget how much stability he has given to the Tories after wallowing in political wilderness under William Hague, Iain Duncan-Smith and Michael Howard.
Possibly without possessing the emanating vibes of feral ambition – an accusation that has plagued Boris Johnson – Cameron was always destined to rise to the top. Described as ‘fresh-faced’ upon his arrival in 2005, he energised the Tories after a sustained period of dormant aspirations which left them barren of success.
His administrative smoothness and leadership expertise won’t likely be appreciated until his absence is fully digested. This was a very capable prime minister who eventually was downed by the issue which has divided the Conservatives like no other: Britain’s membership of the European Union.
Britain’s new prime minister, Theresa May declared that Cameron’s legacy will be one of ‘social justice’. Schemes such as the ‘Big Society’ were typical of what he would call his ‘compassionate conservatism’.
With Theresa May confirming the party’s continuation along the route of One-nation conservatism, Cameron is not just a mere particle of Britain’s political history. His six years of dedicated work will very much retain an influence on its future.
He was the future once and is the future still.