If you’re in North America, go here to watch a live stream of our coverage of David Cameron’s last day as prime minister on CNNgo.
Editor’s Note: Robin Oakley was political editor and columnist for The Times newspaper in London from 1986 to 1992, the BBC’s political editor from 1992 to 2000, and CNN’s European Political Editor between 2000 and 2008. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.
How quickly things change. Three weeks ago, David Cameron was the leader of one of the world’s most powerful countries – then Brexit happened, the moving vans rolled up to 10 Downing Street, and by Wednesday evening he will be just be just another member of Parliament.
The legalisation of same sex unions has been one of Cameron’s most prized achievements as a modernizing Prime Minister and something which he achieved in the face of instinctive opposition from many of his own traditional Conservative supporters.
Cameron’s biggest failure. Back in 2006 he urged his party to “stop banging on about Europe.” They didn’t stop. In an attempt to end the battles over Europe which had plagued the party since Margaret Thatcher’s time, he promised the referendum on the EU, imagining that he would win it and that the “Brexiteers” would have to pipe down. Instead he lost it and becomes the Prime Minister who reversed 40 years of history by taking Britain out of the European Union.
Tony Blair’s tenure in Downing Street and the war in Iraq should have been a warning signal to any Prime Minister about engaging in wars in the Middle East. By staging a vote in the House of Commons on his proposal that Britain should join military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and losing 285 to 272, Cameron severely damaged his own authority and disappointed the Americans.
Cameron showed little interest in standing up to Vladimir Putin over Ukraine and seemed content to leave it to NATO and to the EU.
Cameron’s government – with incoming prime minister Theresa May as Home Secretary – promised to reduce net immigration to a target of 100,000 a year. Instead it rose from 330,000 to 440,000. Cameron failed to persuade EU leaders to give him an “emergency brake” on immigration from the EU and that was probably key in helping him to lose the referendum debate.
Although he woke up late to the danger, Cameron, in conjunction with other UK party leaders, saw off a strong effort by the Scottish National Party to win a referendum on Scotland departing from the United Kingdom by 55% to 45%. But he then imperiled what he had won by losing the UK referendum, in which a clear majority of Scots voted to stay in the EU. Westminster now fears that in another referendum Scotland would vote to go.
Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne have done much to correct the British economy and have seen a record number of Britons employed. But they have not met their targets on the reduction of Britain’s borrowing and those targets are now being abandoned in the aftermath of Brexit.
Cameron has worked for greater equality – hence the legalizing of gay marriage. Other measures have included a fairer use of stop and search powers by the police (thanks to Theresa May), better recording of race hate crimes and forced publication of differentials between men’s and women’s pay. May’s proposals to put workers on boards, publish pay ratio differentials between bosses and workers and enable shareholders to have their wishes on directors’ pay argue that much more needs to be done.
The National Health Service is a nightmare for every British government. Funds are never enough to meet growing demand. Any achievements in this field have been overshadowed by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s long-running battle with junior doctors.
Cameron stepped up pressure on big companies including Starbucks, Facebook and Google to pay more taxes in the UK, but critics said the new tax revenue was not enough. His government also worked with over 80 other nations to create new rules to tackle global corporate tax avoidance.
Meanwhile, his personal finances were called into question following the Panama Papers scandal, which leaked private papers concerning Cameron’s father’s financial affairs. In a move to demonstrate that he had not benefited from tax avoidance schemes, Cameron published his own tax returns. This marked a new era of financial transparency for UK politicians. Michael Gove later published his tax returns when bidding for the Conservative Party leadership and May and Andrea Leadsom followed suit. His successors are not going to thank Cameron for his action but he showed himself willing to move with new times in which more transparency is expected from political leaders.
The overall grade for Cameron’s time as Prime Minister has to be a “fail.” True, he was probably the one Conservative who could have successfully led a coalition government, as he did with the Liberal Democrats. And he then brought his own party back to power – but look what he has left.
He took a huge gamble in conceding a referendum on the EU and lost. He has bequeathed a massive task to his successor. Against his own wishes he has ejected Britain from Europe, he has intensified the divisions within his own party and he has raised a huge question mark once again over the union with Scotland. It is not what he would have wanted for his political epitaph.