I do not intend my first piece since the election to join the superabundance of post-mortems offered up from May’s failure (more of that later). Instead I want to take a moment to think, in retrospect, about the spectacular but underappreciated political genius of her predecessor.
David Cameron’s election victory in 2015 remains the most extraordinary and understated political achievements in my active political life, and almost my entire memory (I will categorise 1992 as mere childhood). Even his most diehard critics will, I am sure, now concede how much happier they were then than now, because David Cameron actually took the message of Conservatism to the country and won.
Consider that this is a man who campaigned for austerity in 2010; failed to win a majority; and then persisted with a message of austerity again five years later to finally win an outright majority. Can we think of anyone in the current government who would be so unrelentingly on message, and who at the same time could win over the suburban liberal vote, however thin a sliver?
Coming from Twickenham, I unapologetically use it as a benchmark: seats like this, or Kingston or Richmond Park, are critical and they are the very future of the party. I got this year’s election result wrong. But I always maintained, even at the height of May-mania and the twenty point polling leads, that whilst the Tories would win a bigger majority, they would have done so on a harsher, harder and narrower basis than Cameron did, and it would come back to bite them. 2015 was a slender win, but it was far more expansive, generous and sustainable.
Cameron built a clever and delicate coalition that was a thing of genius; it could look forward to the future as a plausible long-term force, the fruits of his decontamination efforts since winning the leadership in 2005. By contrast, even with a 100+ seat majority, Theresa May was only looking backwards – in this case to Brexit – and would have had to completely reinvent herself by 2022. There was nothing futuristic about even the best case this year.
Gay marriage is a case in point. I am not a strong moral supporter of the policy per se, and it certainly does not excite me. Yet it was a stroke of political brilliance for one very simple reason: it allowed Tory-haters to move on to other issues. No doubt it convinced very few people directly to vote for the party – indeed amongst those who really cared, there may even have been a net loss of support. But what it gained was enormous, a vast swathe of people who really did not care, but for whom it checked the box of demonstrating that the party was in tune with contemporary society. This allowed the party to move onto areas where it felt stronger and direct a campaign towards an electorate that would be more open-minded.
Furthermore, Cameron understood the value of UKIP. Although some people will recall only the trouble the gadflies briefly caused the Tory Party through threatened defections, in retrospect it seems pretty clear that sometimes, it is actually better to have people outside the tent pissing in than the reverse. UKIP acted as a lightning rod for all the most undesirable (albeit necessary) aspects of Tory policy – they were an attack dog not just on Europe, but on immigration, law and order and various other themes. All the while, they could not win a seat. Whatever they cost us in some marginals which we did not win, they won us a lot more in terms of hearts and minds in marginal we did win. In addition, they proved themselves able to win votes in Labour heartlands that the Tories have since proven unable to emulate, despite all the high hopes and despite Brexit. UKIP were a great “fire ship”, and we should lament their demise.
Of course no one can ignore the calamity of his political gamble on Europe, or the fact that he lost it. Yet for me, some of the underlying questions on Europe did have to be asked sooner or later so I do not begrudge him that. I just wish he had been less complacent, campaigned better and won. But Europe is in any case a macro theme, not an issue of domestic political minutiae. David Cameron will, in coming years, be seen as one of the Tory Party’s greatest politicians, and he will be missed. The rise of Cameron was the rise of a new, winning coalition which made a lot of sense in its time and place; his demise, as we have seen, has been the corresponding demise of the Party.