David Cameron. The man who modernised the Conservative Party and perhaps saved this country from financial ruin — but he is also known as the man who lost a major referendum campaign and imposed austerity.


The young moderniser …

Starting at the beginning of his time as leader, there was a huge amount of work to be done. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were a formidable partnership despite their disagreements, winning a comfortable third majority in a row even after the debacle that was the Iraq War. Even though Michael Howard helped the Tories gain 33 seats, this only took them to 198. Shortly after, Howard announced he would step down for a younger leader.

From all perspectives, it was clear the Conservative Party needed to be revamped. It was old, tired, and clearly didn’t have the appeal that New Labour did up until the 2010 election. William Hague and Iain Duncan-Smith didn’t cut the mustard, and Michael Howard wasn’t able to punish Tony Blair enough to trouble him. In any functioning democracy, a strong opposition is needed. The three subsequent Conservative leaders were simply unable to provide that after John Major’s disastrous election in 1997.

Cameron, with his mission of modernising the party, won the 2005 leadership election contest comfortably against David Davis who would later serve in Theresa May’s cabinet as Brexit Secretary.

Even before becoming the leader, Cameron had formed an alliance with George Osbourne to rival the Blair-Brown partnership. This alliance would eventually pay dividends for the pair in 2010, when Cameron became Prime Minister and Osbourne took the Chancellor of the Exchequer title. This career high would last them six years.

Mr Brown’s woes

It may be insulting to Gordon Brown to say that Blair’s handover aided the Conservatives’ return to No. 10, but the last couple of years proved very difficult for Brown given certain events. He was accused of being an unelected leader, standing unopposed in the (non-existent) 2007 Labour leadership contest.

However, that was the least of his problems. The financial crash of 2008 was a very difficult time for  the United Kingdom. Many people felt the effects of that for many years to come. In terms of his response, he has been praised for moving quickly but also drew criticism for his ‘economic mismanagement’ during that period.

The expenses scandal also brought great shame on the country. Although we cannot reasonably blame that or the financial crisis on the then-Prime Minister, it was nevertheless clear in the 2010 election that people had enough and wanted change.

Cameron’s dark victory

Cameron’s personal tragedy in February when his 6-year-old son Ivan passed away was significant. The Tory leader showed immense courage in carrying on, and no doubt Ivan’s bravery was an inspiration to him. Cameron led the party to 307 seats in 2010.

He was quite clear before the election that hard decisions had to be taken and managed to fight off the reputation of Gordon Brown and ‘Clegg-mania’, taking the party within touching distance of government for the first time since 1997.

On the day of the election, he knew what he had to do. Brown had quite clearly lost his mandate to govern the country, and this was something Cameron stated in his speech on the morning after the election.

Later on that month, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition — something that may not have happened under a less modern and more right-wing leadership. Credit should be given here to both the Tory leader and Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg. The two men managed to make this partnership work despite a few clear and obvious differences between their parties.

For me, one of the highlights of the coalition was the legalisation of gay marriage in 2013. This was an unpopular policy amongst Cameron’s backbenchers. In fact, more Tory MPs voted against the bill than for it. According to former minister for schools David Laws, Cameron said to Clegg that sometimes he wished he hadn’t brought this bill to the Commons.

If that’s true, I think that’s a real shame. This was a fantastic bill and one of the best things he did.

One of the things that did taint his tenure though was austerity. This is something that he will also be remembered for. Cameron has since argued that austerity was not really a choice. A letter left by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, David Byrne, saying ‘… there is no money’, put things into perspective.

Difficult decisions had to be made from that point onwards. Of course, there will always be questions over the Tories’ strategy in reducing the deficit. Arguably, Cameron wanted to spend more once in power. But the financial crash changed everything.

Two pivotal referendums 

Let me just finish off by commenting on two key referendums during Cameron’s time in office. The 2014 Scottish Independence vote and the 2016 EU referendum.

The 2014 Scottish vote was a roaring success for Cameron. Though it may not have repaired the relationship between Scotland and the Tories after the Thatcher era, respect must be given here for Cameron’s decision to allow the nation to hold a vote on independence.

Now enter the disastrous EU referendum and the beginning of the end. Leading the losing Remain campaign,  Cameron knew this was an issue that wouldn’t just go away — so he did instead. I did lose some respect for him when he ran away from the job. He needed to own the result and take charge until the next election, which would have been in 2020.

When people think of David Cameron, they will think of the EU referendum because of the sheer magnitude of the British people’s decision. But we must have balance and look beyond that ill-conceived move. There was enough good done in those six promising years. Let’s remember that too.