The highs and lows of the Cameron years

From the Rose Garden double act with Nick Clegg to the humiliation of Brexit, we look back at the key moments – and crises – of six years as prime minister

His premiership started in sunlight in the Downing Street Rose Garden and ended in June outside No 10 after Britain voted to leave Europe, and there were other ups and downs along the way.

2010

Ups: Formation of the coalition

David Cameron became prime minister in 2010 after forming a coalition with Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader. Their agreement was marked by an iconic press conference in the Rose Garden of Downing Street, in which they promised to work together for the sake of the economy for a fixed term of five years. Relations would never be so good again, but their partnership did last the course of the parliament until 2015.

Downs: Failing to win an overall majority and student protests against tuition fee rises

Riot police react with student demonstrators, outside Millbank, the headquarters of the Conservative Party during a protest against oincreased tuition fees in London, Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010.
Riot police with student demonstrators outside Millbank, the Conservative party headquarters, during a protest against increased tuition fees in 2010. Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP/Press Association Images

Cameron seriously disappointed the Conservatives by failing to win an outright majority against the unpopular incumbent prime minister, Gordon Brown, whose party had been in power for 13 years. It was an embarrassment after he had pitched himself so carefully as a modernising centre-ground candidate, and a sign the electorate still did not trust the Tories. His first year in office was soon plunged into controversy after the coalition parties agreed to proceed with a rise in tuition fees, contrary to the Lib Dem election pledge, triggering protests by students.

2011

Ups: Vetoing an EU treaty and mobbed as a hero in Libya after removing Colonel Gaddafi

France’s President Sarkozy, Britain’s Prime Minister Cameron and NTC head Mustafa Abdul Jalil join hands in Benghazi after toppling Libyan dictator Gadaffi in 21
President Sarkozy with Cameron and NTC head Mustafa Abdul Jalil in Benghazi after toppling Libyan dictator Gaddafi in 2011. Photograph: Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

The prime minister was already having trouble with the Eurosceptics in his party, who were applying pressure for an EU referendum. He tried to show he was able to stand up to Brussels by vetoing an EU treaty relating to the bailout of the eurozone. This was held up at the time as a great victory but ultimately such dramas appeared merely to inflame Eurosceptic feeling among Conservatives. Cameron also claimed military intervention in Libya as a success, as he was received as hero in Tripoli alongside French president Nicolas Sarkozy after removing Colonel Gaddafi. It would become clear in the months and years ahead that this was far from the triumph depicted by them at the time, with the country descending into disorder and violence.

Downs: Andy Coulson resigns, phone-hacking scandal and the summer riots

Cameron and Andy Coulson at The Millies – A Night for Heroes awards 2009 at the Imperial War Museum.
Cameron and Andy Coulson at The Millies – A Night for Heroes awards 2009 at the Imperial War Museum. Photograph: David Fisher/Rex Features

The first half of the year was politically difficult for Cameron as his director of communications, Andy Coulson, resigned over allegations there was phone-hacking at the News of the World while he was the editor at the Sunday newspaper. The scandal revealed by the Guardian prompted even more questions about Cameron’s links to Rupert Murdoch’s News International and its chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, forcing him to announce the Leveson inquiry into the media. A tough period was intensified by riots in cities across the UK over the summer.

2012

Ups: Olympics

A moment of national pride: the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.
A moment of national pride: a scene from the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Cameron said the Olympics were a moment of national pride and an opportunity for an economic boost. The construction of the park was a huge feat of organisation and the games passed off without significant mishap. Although Labour was responsible for the winning bid for London and the chancellor at the time, George Osborne, was booed while attending an event, it was generally claimed as a success for the government and Cameron.

Downs: The omnishambles budget, rebellions over the EU and grillings at the Leveson inquiry

A video grab from footage taken inside the Leveson Inquiry shows British Prime Minister David Cameron giving evidence at the Leveson Inquiry into press standards at the High Court in London on June 14, 2012.
Cameron giving evidence at the Leveson inquiry at the high court in London in 2012. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images


This was the year of George Osborne’s ‘omnishambles’ budget, which reflected badly on Cameron’s government. It contained the controversial decision to cut the top rate of tax for the highest earners from 50% to 45%, and Osborne eventually had to U-turn on the so-called “pasty tax” that raised VAT on hot-baked goods. Cameron also suffered some damaging rebellions over the EU, as John Baron, a Tory backbencher, led a letter from 100 colleagues demanding a referendum on the EU in June. Over the summer, there were a series of damaging revelations at the Leveson inquiry about his government’s close relations with News International executives at a time when Murdoch needed approval to take over BSkyB.

2013

Ups: Same sex marriage legislation is passed

Peter McGraith (left) and David Cabreza in March 2014, just before marrying in one of theUK’s first same-sex weddings.
Peter McGraith (left) and David Cabreza in March 2014, just before marrying in one of the UK’s first same-sex weddings. Photograph: Rob Stothard/Getty Images

Cameron has said legalising same sex marriage is probably the greatest achievement of his premiership. The bill made its way through the House of Commons in 2013 in the face of severe opposition from many of his backbenchers and activists but the support of opposition parties.

Downs: Loss of the Syria vote on airstrikes, announces the EU referendum

A demonstration against British military action in Syria outside Parliament.
A demonstration against British military action in Syria outside parliament. Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

Cameron’s authority was wounded when he was defeated in his bid to launch airstrikes in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad. Labour refused to support him and there were too many Tory rebels for him to get it through the Commons. The other momentous occasion in the year was the prime minister’s announcement of a referendum on the EU under duress from dozens in his parliamentary party who wanted to settle the issue for good. Those in favour of leaving the EU would characterise it as a triumphant moment, but the prime minister was pushed into a political gamble that ultimately sealed his professional fate.

2014

Ups: Victory for no in the Scottish referendum

It was Cameron’s decision to grant a vote, and he later admitted to severe jitters in the run-up to the result. However, it was a big victory for the prime minister and fellow unionists when Scotland voted to stay part of the UK. The referendum appeared to give the prime minister too much confidence that the electorate would always vote on the issue of the economy when it came to a major question, setting him up for a fall at the EU referendum.

Downs: Defections to Ukip of Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, apology to the Queen

Douglas Carswell (left) with Mark Reckless after the latter won the Rochester and Strood byelection for Ukip in November 2014.
Douglas Carswell (left) with Mark Reckless after the latter won the Rochester and Strood byelection for Ukip in November 2014. Photograph: Rob Stothard/Getty Images

It was regarded as a disaster for Cameron when two of his eurosceptic backbenchers, Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, defected to Ukip. They both triggered byelections and both retained their seats, leading to speculation that more Tories could cross the floor en masse to Nigel Farage’s party. The victory was shortlived for Reckless as he later lost his seat again, but the chaos overshadowed that autumn’s last Conservative conference before the general election. To top off a terrible autumn, Cameron had to apologise to the Queen for breaking convention to tell the former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg that she “purred down the line” when he informed her that Scotland had voted against independence.

2015

Ups: Winning the general election

Cameron poses for a photo with newly elected Conservative MPs on 11 May, 2015.
Cameron poses for a photo with newly elected Conservative MPs on 11 May, 2015. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/AFP/Getty Images

Cameron succeeded where he had failed in 2010 by winning outright on a message of economic competence, confounding the polls and his critics. It was a slim victory but an unexpected one, which gave the Conservatives the right to govern for another five years without having to compromise with the Liberal Democrats. However, it combined with the no victory at the Scottish referendum to give the prime minister an impression he could win any poll by convincing voters he was right about the economy, giving a false sense of confidence about the EU referendum.

Downs: The tax credits rebellion and “pig-gate”

An effigy of David Cameron with a pig’s head on his lap at the bonfire night celebrations in Lewes, East Sussex in November 2015
An effigy of David Cameron with a pig’s head on his lap at the bonfire night celebrations in Lewes, East Sussex in November 2015. Photograph: James Gourley/Rex/Shutterstock

The prime minister quickly discovered the difficulties of governing with only a small majority when a group of Conservative backbenchers refused to accept his proposals for reducing tax credits, after suggesting in the election that they would be safe from cuts. The House of Lords also rejected the measures, forcing the government to scrap the cuts altogether. The party’s conference was also a tricky time after an unauthorised biography by former Tory donor Lord Ashcroft and journalist Isabel Oakeshott made an unsubstantiated allegation that he had put “a private part of his anatomy” into a dead pig’s mouth as part of an initiation rite at university.

2016

Ups: Securing a renegotiation with the EU

Cameron claimed it as a success when he managed to get a deal with 27 other member states of the EU. They agreed to restrictions on benefits for new arrivals for up to seven years, concessions for the City of London and an opt-out from “ever closer union”. The measures were nowhere near enough to satisfy Eurosceptic MPs or many voters, setting him up for failure in the EU referendum, but many had suspected he would get even less from Brussels.

Downs: Losing the EU referendum, Obama reportedly accuses Cameron of contributing to a “shitshow” in Libya and questions over tax affairs

David Cameron and his father Ian Cameron. Guardian composite artwork for Panama papers
Revelations over his father’s tax affairs put Cameron’s family in the spotlight. Composite: Reuters

It was a significant moment in March when US president Barack Obama laid part of the blame for post-Gaddafi conflict in Libya at Cameron’s door for having been “distracted” by domestic issues at the time of the intervention. The year got worse for Cameron as he came under pressure over revelations about his father’s tax affairs in the Panama Papers leak. But the worst time of his political life came in July when he lost the EU referendum, after fighting for weeks on the campaign trail to keep Britain in. The result was unexpected for both Cameron and the remain camp, triggering his resignation as prime minister the next morning. He was gone from No 10 within the month when Theresa May was chosen as his successor. Cameron has now decided to step down as an MP after reflecting over the summer on his future plans.

Contributor

Rowena Mason Deputy political editor

The GuardianTramp

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