Theme: Parties & Elections | Content Type: Blog

The Worst British Prime Minister Ever?

Donald Sassoon


Heidi Sandstrom

| 8 mins read

At a recent lunch, discussion turned to the question of who had been the country’s worst ever prime minister. The usual suspects were rolled out: Lord North, the PM ‘who lost America’, and Neville Chamberlain. The American colonies, however, would have been lost sooner or later, and while trying to avoid war only twenty years after the end of WWI may have proved naive, it was at least understandable.

No such excuses can be proffered for David Cameron, whose memoir For the Record is out now.

Cameron was directly responsible for Brexit – the biggest crisis in post-war British history. It was a crisis entirely of his own making since relations with the EU had not dramatically changed, nor was there was a massive, or even a minor, social movement demanding exit from the EU. In fact, as is evident in this half-baked and boring book of self-pitying memoirs, even the hardest Eurosceptics had not dreamt there was a chance of leaving the EU.

The worst British prime minister ever?

For the Record is full of admissions of failures, but whenever Cameron fails, which is often, he trots out the mantra: ‘It was the right thing to do’ – without ever explaining why.

For instance, Cameron is happy to have prevented Gaddafi ‘slaughtering his people in Benghazi’. The outcome is not what he would have liked, yet ‘What we did was right’. Those who suffer the indescribable nightmare that is Libya today should ponder Cameron’s calm philosophy: ‘Why should we expect modern transition from dictatorship to democracy to be instant and painless?’ Actually, most recent transitions have been relatively peaceful: Greece, Portugal, Spain, the USSR, most of Eastern Europe, and so on.

When Sayeeda Warsi, the first Muslim female cabinet member, resigned in protest at the government’s one-sided response to the crisis in Gaza in 2014, when Israel massacred thousands of Palestinians, Cameron, who admits that Israel ‘does not always do the right thing’, is amazed that a UK cabinet minister could resign over a ‘distant war’ in which Britain ‘played no part’. No part? Two pages later he writes that the ‘chaos’ in the Middle East ‘had everything to do with Britain’ (his emphasis).

When Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was kicked out during the Arab Spring, Cameron immediately started meddling, thinking that Egypt’s future was Britain’s business. He ruled that the Muslim Brotherhood could not be involved in the transition to democracy. Why? Because he did not like them -– though Mubarak had, reluctantly, legalised them, aware of the support they enjoyed.

The first ever democratic elections in Egypt led to the clear victory of their leader, Mohamed Morsi who was soon replaced by the bloodthirsty dictatorship of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Cameron’s humanitarian concerns (and those of the rest of the West) evaporated.

For the record: ‘a Berkshire boy’

Cameron’s early years are condensed in a chapter called, mock-pathetically, ‘a Berkshire boy’. A Berkshire lad who went to Eton, whose father went to Eton, and whose grandfather and great-grandfather went to Eton.

Before going up to Oxford he worked in the House of Commons for his godfather, a Tory MP. Then he went to Hong Kong where, thanks to family connections, he got a job at Jardine Matheson. After Oxford he ‘hunts’ for a job and, miracle, he finds one immediately with the Conservative Research Department.

He was soon special adviser to Norman Lamont, chancellor at the time of Black Wednesday. Lamont would pester him with phone calls wanting to know what was in the papers. Samantha, not yet his wife, had the right attitude (she is the unsung heroine of the book): “Tell him to fuck off and buy them himself.”

Following a period of support for Ian Duncan Smith, who thought abortion should be restricted, capital punishment restored and that an unmarried couple should not be allowed to adopt, Cameron fell into line behind Michael Howard. The “grown-ups were back in charge” he exults, only to discover that Howard’s 2005 general election campaign was right-wing and mean-spirited. Perhaps Cameron should have noticed since he had written the manifesto.

With Michael Howard gone, Cameron writes that “slightly to my surprise....I found myself running for the leadership.”

During his premiership, Cameron increased tuition fees, cut benefits, pursued austerity, (“we probably didn’t cut enough”) and saw an increase in poverty, homelessness and food banks. He cut nursing training in response to the NHS recruitment crisis. In his speech to the Conservative Party conference (March 2011) this great reformer announced that he was going to take on “the enemies of enterprise”: Civil servants, town hall officials and public sector procurement managers. How original, how Thatcherist. Steve Bannon said the same things and so did and does Dominic Cummings.

David Cameron's greatest achievements

His great achievement, Cameron constantly boasts, was to have legalised gay marriage. Yet he had been “on the wrong side of section 28” and abstained over gay couples’ right to adopt. As late as 2010 he was against gay marriage. By 2012, when same-sex marriage is legal in most of Western Europe, he was for it. Cameron simply went with the trend, while the law was passed thanks to Labour MPs – 134 Tories opposed it.

As for Europe, he claims that it is wrong to assume that that he called a referendum because of internal party politics, or because of the threat from UKIP, claiming “I made the pledge because I genuinely believed it was the right thing for Britain.” By page 406, however, he admits that it had to do with the Tories in parliament. It had nothing to do with the country and everything to do with petty party politics.

This appalling book ends with low-level pop patriotic chants: “we are a small island.... with a prouder history, with a bigger heart, with greater resilience. This is the country that cleared the European continent of fascism, that took slavery off the high seas.”

The Russians are unaware that the Red Army played only a supporting role in WW2. The descendant of the slaves should be grateful that Britain abolished the slave trade having played the leading role in it.

Never mind: “Britain is the greatest country on earth. Our greatness is derived not from our size, but from our people –their decency, their talent, and that special British spirit.”

For the Record, by David Cameron, is published by William Collins. 732pp. £25.

A longer version of this article will appear in the Political Quarterly journal.

  • Donald Sassoon

    Donald Sassoon

    Donald Sassoon is the Literary Editor at the Political Quarterly. He is also Emeritus Professor of Comparative European History at Queen Mary, University of London.

    Articles by Donald Sassoon