David Cameron's memoir only confirms what we already knew – he just doesn't get it
In 'For the Record', the former Prime Minister is too keen to justify his decisions and prove that he was right
In a recent interview with a British newspaper, David Cameron said that “there will be some people I will never convince” about his motivations for holding a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. That might well be true but, after reading his 732-page memoir, For the Record, I couldn’t help wondering if the former Prime Minister might, perhaps, have tried a little bit harder.
He does apologise in a rather roundabout way – “I am truly sorry to have seen the country I love so much suffer uncertainty and division” – but he never takes responsibility for what has happened. Nor does he properly address the reasons why he ever allowed it to happen. Instead he doubles down. “I know others may take a different view, but I couldn’t see a future where Britain didn’t hold a referendum,” he writes. Or to paraphrase: it was out of my hands.
The problem for Cameron is that the facts don’t match the rhetoric. According to the Ipsos Mori Issues Index, a poll conducted every month to take the country’s temperature, in January 2013, when Cameron promised the country a referendum, only six per cent of people thought Europe was an important issue facing Britain.
So it would have been welcome if Cameron had taken this opportunity to admit that, far from being inevitable, calling the referendum was a scab he chose to pick. His refusal to do this not only compromises his integrity, it backs him into a corner, from which he swings and misses in increasingly eccentric ways.
At one point, Cameron lists some of the Conservative Party’s achievements under his leadership – forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, restoring the country’s finances “after the worst crash in living memory”, withdrawing from Afghanistan – and then writes, “None of these things was inevitable. They happened because we made them happen.” Funny, isn’t it, how he was the architect of the successes but a helpless hostage to circumstances when it comes to his greatest failure.
It all seems terribly unfair to Cameron that he is being blamed. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove let him down. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party didn’t do enough to help. The BBC gave too much coverage to the intervention of Cameron’s former director of strategy Steve Hilton, who campaigned for Leave. On and on it goes and yet Cameron will not accept that none of it needed to happen.
Here he is on page 622, his hands surely blistered by this stage from all the wringing: “As I’ve said, I was convinced a referendum would happen in the near future anyway, and most likely under a more Eurosceptic Tory government, which might not even offer the option of reform.” He’s not seriously asking us to be grateful, is he? The result is a strange contradiction of a book, in which Cameron begs to be forgiven for something he doesn’t actually believe to be his fault.
This, though, is not the only problem with For the Record. There are occasional spicy morsels – Iain Duncan Smith is described as an “outdated old clunker”, professional conspiracy theorist David Icke, we learn, once told Cameron his helicopter was going to crash – but too often, the anecdotes feel incomplete. It is as if we, the readers, are being shut out from the real gossip, which seems a bit unfair given we’re also being asked to wade through whole sections on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) and austerity, on which Cameron is both overly technical and haughty. “Those who were opposed to austerity were going to be opposed – and pretty hysterically – to whatever we did,” he writes, waving a hand dismissively at those affected by his cuts.
Cameron tells us the start of a promising story about the time as a young man he met Margaret Thatcher at a Conservative Research Department Christmas party. Thatcher asked Cameron about some figures he ought to have known about. “I hadn’t seen them,” he writes. “At that moment, instant death – or even a lingering painful one – would have been a merciful release.” What did Thatcher say? We never find out. Similarly, Cameron brings up the resignation letter he received in 2007 from one of his MPs Quentin Davies, describing it as “pure vitriol” and “very personal” but that’s as much as we’re told. There are other omissions, too. No mention, for example, of the scandal that briefly engulfed him and his party when he told a female opposition MP to, “Calm down, dear.”
By far the most enjoyable chapters are about Cameron away from Westminster. He has great fun describing his upbringing in Berkshire and relationship with his father, who was obviously an amusing and much-loved man, whose family rules included, “Never eat baked beans for breakfast” and, “Always travel in a suit”.
'For the Record is a political book and it is on those terms that it must be judged. There is so little reflection on the decisions he made; for Cameron, it’s all about justification.
Cameron’s love for own family is vivid, too. He shows some welcome self-awareness comparing himself, the “ambitious Tory apparatchik”, with his wife Samantha, “the hippie-like art student”. Rather than cringing when Cameron talks about Samantha “playing pool with the rapper Tricky in the trendiest part of Bristol”, I just found the fusty language quite endearing. He also writes beautifully about his son, Ivan, who was born with the debilitating “Ohtahara Syndrome” and died at the age of six. “We were always determined never to hide Ivan away,” he explains. “While he could never tell us his likes and dislikes, we sensed that he liked the stimulation of being out and about in the fresh air.”
In these sections, Cameron comes across as a thoroughly decent man. But For the Record is a political book and it is on those terms that it must be judged. There is so little reflection on the decisions he made; for Cameron, it’s all about justification. On the intervention in Libya: “What we did was right.” On returning schools to using phonics when teaching children to read: “We turned out to be right.” On the referendum pledge: “I made the pledge because I genuinely believed it was the right thing for Britain. It was right to try to get a better deal for us in Europe. It was right for us to have our say on that deal...” He doesn’t seem to have been wrong about much and yet here we are in a political crisis largely of his making. Odd.
But perhaps the most telling passage arrives later on when Cameron responds to Michael Gove’s assertion in 2014 that the number of Old Etonians in Downing Street is “preposterous”. “I always thought conservatism was about where you were going, not where you came from,” writes Cameron, without seeming to consider that where you come from very often dictates where you’re going – and raising the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million, as his government did in 2015, doesn’t really support his claim.
Far from setting the record straight, this memoir only confirms what most of us already suspected – Cameron just doesn’t get it.
For the Record by David Cameron is out now, published by William Collins
Updated: September 22, 2019 04:57 PM