Mea culpa – or David Cameron’s Project Revenge? They’ve taken three years and cost publishers £800,000… now that the former PM’s memoirs are set for release, RICHARD KAY asks just what can we expect from the hotly-anticipated book?
David Cameron’s memoirs will be released on September 19
The timing could hardly be worse. With Parliament prorogued, politics in paralysis and the Brexit turmoil as intractable as ever, comes the arrival of David Cameron’s long-delayed memoirs.
To say publication will be a distraction is an understatement. For the past three years Mr Cameron has been in self-imposed purdah; the man who triggered the EU referendum has been desperate not to be seen as a back-seat driver and not to provide a running commentary as the country lurched from crisis to crisis.
But an autobiography from a former prime minister is no run-of-the-mill book. They are magisterial offerings and even if the contents don’t always live up to the publisher’s blurb (Tony Blair’s self-serving A Journey springs to mind), they rise above the political cut and thrust.
Cameron’s will be accompanied by a string of carefully choreographed appearances. He will sit down with the BBC’s formidable inquisitor John Humphrys in what will be the broadcaster’s last big interview before his retirement from the Today programme, and he will speak to the ITV newscaster Tom Bradby.
There will also be interviews with ITV’s This Morning, LBC and Virgin Radio, and he will appear in the controlled — and friendly — environment of the Cheltenham and Harrogate literary festivals.
However, no bookshop signings have been scheduled.
For Cameron, the din and fury of Brexit that he so desperately wanted to avoid — he deferred publication for a year in the hope that Britain would be out of the EU by then — far from subsiding, has multiplied. Nor is he any longer the former prime minister. With the fall of Theresa May, he is the former prime minister but one.
This is unlikely to diminish the impact of his return to the political limelight, however. Three years after leaving office, he is regarded not just as the architect of Brexit but the man to be blamed for the chaos it has provoked.
It is this legacy of political upheaval that explains why many old friends say the youngest prime minister to leave office in 120 years — he was just 49 — has been unable to move on.
Bruce Anderson, the veteran political commentator and one of Cameron’s oldest friends in politics, says the man he first tipped as a future Tory leader miscalculated over the referendum because he underestimated the depth of public anger about issues such as immigration, particularly in working-class parts of northern England.
Many old friends say the youngest prime minister to leave office in 120 years — he was just 49 — has been unable to move on
Cameron and Anderson used to go deer-stalking on the 20,000-acre Tarbert estate owned by Cameron’s wife Samantha’s stepfather, Viscount Astor, on the Scottish whisky-making island of Jura. Anderson says his friend was ‘too rational’ in his approach to politics.
‘He never gets angry and missed the anger about immigration. He didn’t realise the changes in the north of the country, places like Sunderland. To him, the country is rural Oxfordshire and terrier-keepers and Jura, not the industrial North.’
According to Anderson, this all fed into his decision-making, along with a sense of infallibility. Anderson adds that Cameron was determined to win the referendum by a comfortable margin to silence the then Ukip leader Nigel Farage, who was eating into Tory support.
‘He was asked by [former Chancellor] Ken Clarke before the referendum: “Are you sure you can win this, David?”’ recalls Anderson. ‘He replied: “I can win anything, Ken.”
Cameron and wife Samantha enter Number 10 Downing Street for the first time in 2010
‘He wanted to win by 55 to 45 [per cent] because he thought it would put [Brexit] to bed for good. Politically he’d risen effortlessly and had led a charmed life.’
From his unexpected victory over frontrunner David Davis in the Conservative leadership contest in 2005 to his defeat of Gordon Brown’s Labour five years later, his career had been characterised by success.
But his smooth-as-silk charm was not enough to carry the day on Brexit, and he removed himself from Downing Street with almost indecent haste because, say friends, he had for the first time lost a vote he expected to win easily.
Battered and shaken by defeat, he retreated from the fray to write his memoirs.
He wrote the book, which was distilled from 53 hours of recordings taped by his old friend Danny Finkelstein, the Tory peer and journalist, about his Downing Street years, in a lavishly appointed £25,000 shepherd’s hut complete with wood-burning stove.
The former Prime Minister wrote his memoirs in a £25,000 shepherd’s hut
When his memoir For The Record finally appears in the shops, many will turn eagerly to the Brexit chapters. There is already lip-smacking speculation over whether Cameron sets about those figures in his Cabinet whose support for Leave and not Remain he considered a betrayal.
One man in particular is said to be in the crosshairs — Michael Gove, now Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. The two had a bitter fall-out after Gove became a key figure in the Leave campaign. Close friends since their days at Oxford University, they no longer talked.
But time has healed some of the rancour. ‘They have buried the hatchet as much as they ever will,’ says a figure close to both men. ‘They met for a drink in May and they are now communicating by text.’
All the same, it is widely believed there will be some measure of revenge in the 752-page book, from which the publishers asked Cameron to cut 100,000 words.
One revelation was made yesterday by Cameron’s former Chancellor and closest political ally, George Osborne. Writing in the Spectator magazine, Osborne, now Editor of London’s Evening Standard, said that in 2014 he [Osborne] offered to swap jobs with then Foreign Secretary William Hague.
‘If he’d said yes, we could have had a Hague government [rather than a May one] after the referendum two years later,’ Osborne said, adding: ‘It’s one of the “revelations” in David Cameron’s memoirs… don’t worry, there are more juicy ones than that…’
To his great credit, Cameron is donating the £800,000 fee he received from publishers HarperCollins to charities for Alzheimer’s research — a cause close to his heart — veteran servicemen and, poignantly, childhood disability (his six-year-old son Ivan, who suffered from severe epilepsy and cerebral palsy, died in 2009).
Cameron with his son Ivan in 2004. Ivan, who suffered from severe epilepsy and cerebral palsy, died in 2009
All the same, it is unlikely to assuage public anger. Just as Blair is forever associated with the aftermath of the war in Iraq and false intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, David Cameron has to live with Brexit and, say his enemies, the accession of Boris Johnson.
According to Bruce Anderson, Cameron does not resent his Old Etonian rival’s rise to power. Cabinet papers disclosed in one of the recent court cases over the prorogation of Parliament showed Boris had scrawled in the margin of one document that Cameron was a ‘girly swot’.
Says Anderson: ‘He isn’t bitter about Boris, it is the other way round. Boris called him a girly swot because he is still jealous that Cameron got a First at Oxford and he didn’t. The difference between them is that Cameron has a natural air of confidence, while Boris has a sense of entitlement.’
David Cameron has to live with Brexit and, say his enemies, the accession of Boris Johnson as two of his largest legacies
Those around Boris are a different matter in Cameron’s eyes. When No 10 Brexit adviser Dominic Cummings worked for Michael Gove, Cameron called him — in private — a ‘career psychopath’. Anderson says: ‘When I reminded David of the comment, he laughed and said: “I was too polite!” ’
Insiders say Cameron does not just concentrate on Brexit in the book. ‘It’s about his journey from Leader of the Opposition to PM and about living in Downing Street,’ says one of his former aides. Does the author have any regrets? ‘Well, he isn’t like Norman Lamont [the former Chancellor, after Black Wednesday and Britain’s ejection from the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992] sitting in the bath singing “Je ne regrette rien”.’
So what has Cameron been doing, apart from his memoirs, since leaving Downing Street? He has been seen in Lanzarote, in the Royal Box at Wimbledon, at pop festivals and at the races.
The official line is that the man who brought us Brexit, then walked away whistling his farewell to the nation, is enjoying a lucrative new life on the international speaking circuit, reportedly raking in up to £100,000 a speech through the Washington Speakers Bureau, with a couple of directorships thrown in.
Cameron has been spotted numerous times at Wimbledon and other sporting and social events in the past three years
Others say the reality is somewhat different, that Cameron is restless, intensely worried that he will be adjudged the worst British Prime Minister since Neville Chamberlain.
Even his staunchest supporters admit he has been stung by the level of anger directed at him. On several occasions, members of the public have shouted abuse and remonstrated with him in the street. He has, however, developed a ruse to avoid confrontation — keeping his mobile phone clamped firmly to his ear.
‘The abuse mainly happens in London. It’s a metropolitan liberal thing,’ says the friend gamely. ‘Outside London people are more generous.’ Indeed, the encounters haven’t all been bad. On planes he is often greeted warmly by passing cabin stewards. The reason? They thank him for introducing gay marriage.
He hopes his book will allow him to start a new chapter. ‘He isn’t 53 yet and history hasn’t finished with him,’ says his old friend Anderson.
‘He would make a good Nato General Secretary and he once mused about being Foreign Secretary from the House of Lords in a future Tory government led by Ruth Davidson.’