It is too early to tell what sort of Prime Minister Theresa May will turn out to be, but we already know who she does not wish to be. From the moment that she arrived in Downing Street she has been inclined to define herself as the Conservative antithesis of David Cameron. She has developed a code for it, saying she’s for ‘the many, not the privileged few’ — as if she is still seeking to portray the Tories as a Nasty Party that must wash away the memory of its old leader. David Cameron got the message and resigned this week: next, he’ll be airbrushed out of No. 10’s photographs to complete his transition from Prime Minister to unperson.
When Cameron is mentioned, he is accused of bearing personal responsibility for the emergence of Islamic State in Libya. Or of conducting an establishment stitch-up whereby Britain was run for the benefit of Old Etonians. In recent weeks, Cameron has done his best to conform to this caricature by granting honours to all his flunkies, including his wife’s stylist. Now, as often in the past, he is his own worst enemy.
Today, no one can be bothered to defend Cameron’s legacy — not even Cameron. This matters, because while he had his failures (the deficit, HS2, the eviscerated military budget, Syria), they were outweighed by his numerous and extraordinary successes. Set aside his successful management of a coalition government that saw Tory radicalism followed by a Tory majority government. He created jobs at a faster rate than any of his predecessors and presided over great improvements in state education. The question Mrs May should ask herself is: how?
On the day of his regrettable decision to resign as an MP, Cameron said that historians would judge his legacy. But his achievements should be defended now. Conservatism has always been based on identifying and retaining what works in practice even when it might not work in theory. Perhaps Mrs May believed his approach to the economy was reprehensibly laissez-faire, and inconsistent with her nostalgic yearning for an ‘industrial strategy’. But before she junks Cameron’s approach, she should ask: did it work?
Cameron disparaged the idea that politicians can or should manage an economy that is driven by millions of people making decisions and taking opportunities that can never be understood in Whitehall. His business secretary, Sajid Javid, used to say that the words ‘industrial’ and ‘strategy’ ought never to appear in the same sentence. Instead, Cameron’s governments oversaw massive deregulation of the labour market, cut taxes and made it harder for workers to sue their bosses on a spurious basis. As employers stopped fearing tribunals, they became more ready to hire.
Cutting taxes for the low-paid worked, and far better than George Osborne imagined. This fits a trend: economies the world over are responding far more strongly than expected whenever deregulation and tax cuts are implemented. It is a recipe for speeding recovery. In Britain, a jobs miracle was incubated despite the overall dire state of the economy. This is a success that still has not been properly understood. It represents the triumph of liberalisation over the vanity of dirigiste politicians who think they can mould an economy as a potter moulds clay.
Then there’s schools. Under David Cameron, the Tories continued the renaissance in state education that had started under Tony Blair’s government and was reversing the seemingly terminal decline that had been going on for much of Mrs May’s lifetime. One example should stick in her mind: Hackney Downs, once notorious as the worst school in Britain, became Mossbourne Academy in 2004. Its pupils’ achievements rank among the best of any school in the country — state, grammar or private. This is what happens when academies open up and world-class schools are built where failed schools once stood. How easy it would have been to transform it into a grammar, cherry-pick the most able students and then soar up the league tables that way. Instead, Mossbourne Academy is a beacon for students of all abilities.
Rachel Wolf, who worked in Downing Street until a few weeks ago, points out in these pages that these world-class all-ability schools would probably never have emerged if the government had allowed new grammar schools. Cameron fought hard to prove to his party that new free schools would provide a better result for more pupils than new grammars, and he won the argument. It was a triumph of progressive conservatism. Yet this is now under threat.
A wise government swiftly abandons its predecessors’ failing initiatives, but it builds on their successes. When one Conservative prime minister follows another into office the sense of continuity should be especially strong. These are still early days, but there is already a danger that Mrs May might cling to recent Tory failures, such as the ruinously expensive Hinkley Point energy plant and the now leaderless HS2 project, while disregarding accomplishments. Gordon Brown did that — and the Blairite successes he discarded became a foundation for the Cameron project. His approach hollowed out the Labour party, with results that can be seen today.
Theresa May, who has not won an election as the leader of her party or as incumbent Prime Minister, would be wise to recognise that it was David Cameron’s manifesto which put her into government and to recognise the successes which he will no longer be around in Parliament to defend. And it was Cameron who decided to let voters decide whether Britain should stay in the European Union. The referendum destroyed him, but those who voted for Brexit have Cameron to thank for being given the option in the first place.
Of course Mrs May will want to define herself in office. But Cameron’s record should be the platform on which she builds, not something to set herself against.