The Day I Met the Rude, Bored, Graceless David Cameron
The former Prime Minister is trying to spin his legacy with the publication of his autobiography – but Otto English explains why he’s not willing to let him get away with it
In August 2004, I was invited to a book launch at the House of Commons. I’m afraid I can’t remember what the book was called, but I do remember that my wife was heavily pregnant. As I walked in through security, I wondered if I really should be going to an event when my first child was due.
The gathering was held in a packed room up some stairs off Westminster Hall. I didn’t know many people there and wandered about eating canapes, drinking wine and checking my phone for messages – before someone grabbed me by the arm and said I must meet ‘so and so’. It swiftly became apparent that I was being introduced to ‘so and so’ because we were just about the only individuals there under the age of 40.
He and his companion shook me by the hand and, after a bit of awkward, faltering chat, I realised who he was.
In 2004, anyone interested in politics still read actual newspapers and ‘so and so’ had a fortnightly ‘diary’ in The Guardian. He was the token Conservative MP in the paper, presumably because his views were not so different from those of the Blairites. A few of the things he had written seemed quite sensible and I brightened up considerably at the thought of some entertaining banter and perhaps even a light pre-Twitter era row.
And so I tried to engage him. His chum, a fellow Tory MP who I had never heard of, was quite gregarious and even chuckled occasionally at my attempts at humour. But ‘so and so’ was clearly bored, obviously, rudely, obnoxiously and unequivocally bored. He was so bored, he was not even willing to hide it.
Having established that I was a man of no importance – who read The Guardian no less – he gawked past me as I spoke at his boscage of thick hair. I had nothing to give him and he couldn’t be bothered to make the effort. He was looking for someone more substantial – someone who could progress his path to wherever it was he wanted to go.
Before the author had even got up to speak about their book, I heard ‘so and so’ whispering to his colleague: “Nobody here really is there? Let’s go.” And he put down his glass of wine and turned and left. His companion covered the niceties, shook my hand and followed.
In the years that followed, I often thought back upon that brief encounter. Because that amiable man, was an MP by the name of George Osborne, destined to become our Chancellor, while his graceless companion was a certain David Cameron.
After that, I didn’t bother reading The Guardian diary, but watched instead – with a sort of morbid fascination – as Cameron clambered to the top. Soon he was riding about the Arctic on sledges and promising to hug hoodies. As he jogged about for the cameras and rolled up his sleeves, I could never get away from the notion that here was someone – much like his fellow Etonian Boris Johnson – who treated politics, like book launches, as nothing more than a vehicle for his own progress.
To be a great leader, you need to have authority, charisma and some kind of bigger vision. David Cameron had none of the above. He aped Tony Blair but lacked his authenticity. He had worked for six years as a PR guru at Carlton TV and he remained a PR man to the hilt.
Once he arrived at Downing Street, his obsession with image over substance led to him spinning even the minutest of matters. In the run-up to the Royal Wedding of Prince William in 2011, he even pretended that he, an Old Etonian, didn’t own a morning suit. Clearly, the aim was to show that he was just an ‘ordinary man of the people’; a ‘Dave’ like any other. But superficiality was the least of his flaws.
Bereft of any real vision, he concocted one: the utterly meaningless ‘Big Society’. Lacking the skills of leadership, he sought to govern via a series of cowardly and perilous referendums that were eventually to pull the very stitches of Britain apart.
Now, three years after gambling away his country to fix a backbench Conservative squabble, he has returned – like the Prodigal Son – to seek our sympathy and approval. He has a book to sell, some scores to settle, and the far more important matter of his legacy to curate. All Prime Ministers and ex-Prime Ministers worry about that. It goes with the territory. They know that history will judge them – and Cameron must lie awake at night, staring into the dark void, wondering about his prospects.
Here is his chance to spin it once more and the broadcast and print media have been very happy to oblige. There have been profiles and interviews to celebrate the publication of his memoirs and the BBC has even produced a two-part documentary called The Cameron Years in which Cameron and chums have lined up to agree that none of it really was his fault and he was the greatest Prime Minister since Disraeli.
There is no apology and no meaningful recognition of his culpability. No attempt to address his flaws as a politician or take ownership of the irreparable damage he has done to this nation.
When David Cameron was at Oxford University he belonged, along with Boris Johnson, to The Bullingdon Club, a society of wealthy young men who would dress up in their finery and wine and dine in local restaurants before smashing the places up. The following day, they would return, oozing charm and bonhomie, offering apologies and cash to pay for the damage they had inflicted. It seems that old habits die hard.
My son, meanwhile, is now 15. He and his sister are growing up in the legacy of turmoil that Cameron created. Their prospects have been thrown into chaos by the vanity of this pampered and privileged man.
So, listen Dave, good luck with your book sales and sorry you had to leave that party so abruptly. But, just one thing before you go – there’s no forgiveness here.