Book review: Cameron at 10 - The Inside Story 2010-2015
Instant, contemporary history, has the disadvantage that sources are mainly oral and for government there is a time lag before official documents go into the public domain. Nevertheless, good research and experienced authors know how to mine the memories of participants and observers and use what written sources are available.
Anthony Seldon is the author of multiple volumes on the premiership from Edward Heath to Gordon Brown, whilst Peter Snowdon is a journalist and historian.
They were given unprecedented access to the inner circle of politicians in the Coalition and whilst not an authorised history, it comes pretty close. On the whole, Cameron at 10 is a favourable and positive account of his premiership but the authors do not shy away from criticism when it is warranted.
An unusual feature of the book is the decision to write in the present tense which gives it an immediacy but an awkward time line. Instead of a ponderous event by event history, the authors decided to highlight forty dramatic moments in the history of the Coalition with Cameron front and centre.
They manage to combine the personal and intimate with the politics and the crises that all governments face. In selecting forty dramatic moments the authors do not maintain a running critique but allow the reader to develop their own assessment before offering their editorial judgement in the conclusion.
The great strength of Seldon and Snowdon is that they have a deep knowledge of British political history and through previous books, know many of the leading personalities both from front of stage and behind the scenes. They wanted to write about Cameron because in politics and personality, he reminded them of Stanley Baldwin, another long serving leader of the Conservative Party, Prime Minister of a Coalition and very much a “One Nation” Tory.
Indeed, for those who cannot face reading a book of five hundred and thirty-five pages then it is worth reading the introduction “The Twenty First-Century Baldwin?” and their conclusion “Cameron 2010-2015; the Verdict”.
One weakness of Cameron at 10 is that we really only assess him as Prime Minister after 2010 and only have glimpses of his background, education, family, decision to enter politics and his election as leader- something which, although attracting controversy, can be found in Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott Call me Dave. But in their introduction, they do point out that Cameron came from a stable and loving family and was blessed with an even temperament.
Cameron was fortunate that he faced Gordon Brown who had succeeded as Labour’s Leader and Prime Minister after a divisive relationship with Blair, and who was probably temperamentally unsuited to be Prime Minister.
But as the authors point out, Cameron never had a close relationship either with his MPs or the Party in the country. A significant majority of MPs dismissed him as superficial and not right- wing enough and he gave the impression that he tolerated the activists. His very necessary attempts to de-toxify the Tory brand aroused their resentment, and his support of gay marriage was seen as an unnecessary provocation.
Cameron’s failure to win an overall majority in 2010 meant that to many conservatives, he had failed the ultimate test of political leadership. But he seized the opportunity of forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats to provide economic stability and to achieve and deliver a lot of Conservative policies under the Coalition Agreement.
As the authors point out, the crucial relationship in government was of course with Nick Clegg, but equally important was with George Osborne as Chancellor. There has never before been such a close personal relationship between Prime Minister and Chancellor which was in sharp contrast to Thatcher and Lawson/Howe and Blair and Brown.
Criticisms of Cameron include relying too heavily on an inner group of advisers- “the chumocracy”- who he had known from school or university. This was a great strength and comfort but meant at times it became an echo chamber. Cameron was not alone in favouring such a personalised staff. Thatcher and Blair did the same.
On the whole, the authors conclude that Cameron succeeded in his big domestic challenges in Government, but less so on foreign affairs. He led the coalition which continued despite occasional crises over AV and Lords Reform. Cameron’s position as leader of the Conservative Party has been strengthened by the election in May, which delivered the first majority conservative government since 1992.
Not a bad end of term report- but the final one will be in three of four years’ time.