In the build-up to the breaking of the storm that sweeps away his career, the tone is largely sunny. He is amusing about the “tiny gene pool” at his hideous prep school, the classic posh English combination of privilege and brutality, where the Duke of Bedford and Prince Edward were among the “dorm captains” and the “spartan diet” included a dish of “curry, rice and maggots”. He is moving about his son, Ivan, writing of his death: “It was as if the world stopped turning.” He tends to the bland when discussing other leaders, but there are a few tangy titbits. I enjoyed the anecdote about Silvio Berlusconi taking Cameron into the then Italian prime minister’s bedroom, showing off an ancient two-way mirror and explaining: “They didn’t have porn channels in the 15th century.” He reminds us that he was occasionally brave as prime minister, legislating for gay marriage against the fierce opposition of reactionaries in his party. One Tory came to the constituency surgery to tear up his membership card in front of Cameron.
David Cameron went from MP to party leader to prime minister to private citizen in just 15 years. For the Record ends where the sorriest three and a half years in modern British history begin. Memories of his time in office for now are overshadowed by what has followed. That is unfair. He and Osborne together brought the country back from the brink. His commitment to gay marriage, to international aid and to the environment will continue to make a difference to millions at home and around the world. At a time when people wonder why anyone would want the job, this book is a helpful reminder of the good a PM can do.
But the person who is really missing from this book is his successor. He barely mentions her, even after he appointed her home secretary in 2010. He does spend quite a lot of time describing the changes he decided were needed to make the Tories electable again, after he first arrived in Parliament in 2001, and discovered the unreconstructed state they were in. He concluded that the party needed to soften its image, to have more women MPs, and to be more open to innovation in state education. In 2002 Theresa May, who was elected to Parliament four years before Cameron, had called the Tories ‘the nasty party’ and told them they needed to change. Three years later she co-founded Women2Win, which successfully campaigned to elect more Conservative women. She helped develop the concept of free schools that Cameron and Gove so enthusiastically adopted. But from this book you wouldn’t know she was there at all. No wonder she ended up despising the pair of them.
It is, though, hard to finish this book without feeling sorry for its author. Right up to the early hours of 24 June 2016, it looked as though he would win. He had his victory speech prepared. He had the right mix of ruthlessness and charm to pull the party together on his own terms, and he would have faced the weakest Labour opposition since before the Second World War. He would have resigned at a time of his choosing, presumably just before an election in 2020, and would then have been in his early fifties – about the age that, say, Douglas Hurd was when he first entered the Cabinet. He could have spent decades playing the elder statesman. As it is, he will go down in history as a frivolous chancer. Ed Miliband once remarked that Cameron did not really want to be prime minister but just wanted to have been prime minister. Well, it is hard to believe he is enjoying that status now.
For the Record is not bad by the standards of the genre. There are some good stories. Cameron emerges as likeable, patriotic and decent. But the long-forgotten issues it describes — the Big Society, anyone? — seem to belong to another era, and the book’s appearance could hardly be worse timed. It is as if Stanley Baldwin, another quintessential Tory leader, had published his memoirs at the height of the Blitz. Surveying the mess that Cameron has bequeathed us, and neatly skipped clear of clearing up, recalls Winston Churchill’s judgment of Baldwin: “I wish him no ill, but it would have been much better had he never lived.”
This memoir is everything you would expect: charming, smooth, fluently written with some cracking anecdotes. Prime ministerial memoirs have improved since the gluey efforts of Callaghan and Thatcher. These almost feel like diaries, yet they lack the diarist’s naked insecurity. Cameron may no longer be in parliament, but he retains the politician’s varnish.
But by then it was too late, the party he was still trying to preserve through reasonableness had set itself alight and is today still burning both itself and the UK. It should be said that it is a decent book – whatever one’s politics, Cameron gives a fluent and interesting account of his premiership – just as the author is a decent man. A decent man staring at an inferno, wondering how it could possibly have got to this.
Cameron writes so well that a cynical observer will assume his work must have been heavily rewritten by Daniel Finkelstein, the Conservative peer and Times columnist who paid monthly trips to Downing Street to record Cameron’s thoughts in office. I suspect though the majority of this came from the man himself, partly because Finkelstein would surely have finished the book to its original deadline and size, and partly because a ghostwriter wouldn’t have had the evident glee that Cameron takes in revisiting some of what he sees as his funniest quips, both in the House of Commons and in private conversation.
The finest chapter in this memoir is called “Our Darling Ivan”. One of Cameron’s lasting legacies will be the memory of our PM pushing his profoundly disabled son in his buggy, not hiding him away but proudly showing him to the world. The inscription on Ivan Cameron’s grave reads: “I loved the Boy with the utmost love of which my soul is capable, and he is taken from me – yet in the agony of my spirit in surrendering such a treasure I feel a thousand times richer than if I had never possessed it.” Impossible to read that without crying for the child and for the father who lost him.
Nevertheless, For the Record reminds you why Cameron dominated British politics for so long. The prose is, like him, smooth and efficient. There are welcome splashes of colour – from wife Sam dancing in the Downing Street kitchen to a moment over “kippers and kedgeree” at Balmoral that will doubtless make its way into The Crown – and plenty of gossipy observations of colleagues. The chapter describing the short life and death of the Camerons’ severely disabled son, Ivan, is almost unbearably moving. With admirable honestly, Cameron admits that the period of mourning did not only follow his son’s death but his birth, “trying to come to terms with the difference between the child you expected and longed for and the reality that you now face”. What had, until then, been a charmed life was interrupted by the deepest heartbreak...The problem with For the Record is not its honesty. As far as this most self-serving of genres – the politician’s memoir – goes, it is a truthful account. The problem is that on the most important question of the age, David Cameron got it wrong. That will haunt him forever – indeed, it will haunt every last one of us.
for a man who has found much of life easy — the happy childhood, natural intelligence, loving marriage and stellar career — this book has been so hard for him to write. It’s been a kind of purgatory for him, motivated by a sense of duty that prime ministers should explain why they did what they did, for the record. It’s why it is so good. No, I am not neutral; but I’ve read a lot of political memoirs, and this is one of the very best.
So Cameron’s memoirs are the record of how one huge egregious error, seeded and nurtured by the rightwing of his party, produced a result that will split, demoralise and weaken Britain for years ahead, in the process confirming for many the view that Conservatives are the nasty party.