For the Record: David Cameron's memoir is honest but still wrong

The former prime minister gives a truthful account of errors – but unknowingly makes a few more

For the Record by David Cameron, William Collins, £25

A spectre haunts this book – the spectre of Europe. Just as the 700 pages of Tony Blair’s autobiography could not escape the shadow of Iraq, so the 700 pages of David Cameron’s memoir are destined to be read through a single lens: Brexit.

For all its detailed accounts of coalition talks with Nick Clegg or anxious Syria debates with Barack Obama, Brexit is the story. Cameron acknowledges as much, writing several times that he goes over the events that led to the leave vote of 2016 every day, “over and over again. Reliving and rethinking the decisions, rerunning alternatives and what-might-have-beens.” Later he writes: “My regrets about what had happened went deep. I knew then that they would never leave me. And they never have.”

It’s this which gives the book its narrative arc, one it shares with Blair’s. Both tell the story of a man whose previously charmed path to success is suddenly interrupted, running into a catastrophe that will haunt him to his last breath. The build-up is the same in both cases, a series of consecutive victories – winning his party’s leadership, rebranding and modernising that party to appeal to the centre ground, reaching Downing Street, winning re-election – only to make a decision that will wreak lasting havoc.

Cameron offers the same defence for Brexit that Blair gave for Iraq: yes, things might have turned out disastrously, but my mistake was honest, I acted in good faith, I only did what I truly believed was right.

Which is not to say that For the Record is not self-critical. On the contrary, Cameron scolds himself throughout and not only on Brexit. He writes that he often misses the wood for the trees, getting lost in policy detail and failing “to see the bigger, emotional picture”.

On Brexit, he is scathing, counting off the judgments he got wrong. He raised expectations too high on his renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the EU, so that whatever concessions he did extract were bound to look paltry. He did not fight to grant 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote, even though it would have helped the remain cause and had already happened in the Scottish referendum.

He did not push back on the wording of the referendum question, even though he knew the recommendation of the Electoral Commission meant his side had lost “the positive word ‘Yes’… and ‘Leave’ sounded dynamic in contrast to ‘Remain’”. When George Osborne urged him to go hard against leave leaders, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, Cameron feared such “‘blue on blue’ attacks would just make the campaign look like a Conservative spat”.

At first, all this makes Cameron an appealing narrator. The self-deprecating toff is an established type – it made Hugh Grant a star – and Cameron plays it well. But after a while, it grates. That’s partly because it too often amounts to a humblebrag. Witness the moment when the leave campaign suggested Britain was about to open its doors to 76 million Turkish immigrants. Advisers urged Cameron to say that could never happen because he would veto Turkey joining the EU. But Cameron felt that would be unfair, snuffing out Turkey’s legitimate aspiration to be an EU member. “I was caught between being a campaigner and being a prime minister, and I chose the latter … I made the wrong choice.” If I had a flaw, it’s that I was too responsible.

But that’s not the chief reason why this litany of confessed errors gradually loses its charm. At a certain point, the reader stops feeling sympathy for the author and concludes that he was just serially and unforgivably wrong. For the Record is meant to be the case for the defence. In fact, Cameron has written his own indictment.

That’s most apparent when the author is unaware that he is laying bare his mistakes. He decries the fact that British anti-EU sentiment had been in gestation for decades and could not be turned around in a matter of weeks. Yet his own book is full of EU-bashing – hardly surprising for a politician who had cheerfully surfed the Eurosceptic wave to reach the top of his party. Cameron, like many others, only articulated – or perhaps only fully realised – the value of Britain’s EU membership when it was too late.

He describes how he could see Boris Johnson – who emerges on these pages as chaotic, vain and utterly devoid of principle – becoming ever more tempted by the leave cause. After all, the Brexit side would be “loaded with images of patriotism, independence and romance”. But if Cameron could see that ahead of the referendum campaign, why did he not construct a remain message that would match leave’s emotional appeal, instead of consciously relying on, as he puts it, “arguments of the head, not the heart”?

Indeed, if he understood the deep emotional pull Brexit was bound to exert, and given that he believed leaving the EU would spell calamity for Britain, what on earth was he doing risking that outcome by calling a referendum in the first place?

Cameron addresses that implicit objection throughout the book, repeatedly insisting that such a ballot was “inevitable” and could not be avoided. That he makes this point so often – citing a letter from John Major to that effect on the penultimate page – conveys not confidence in his case but rather a nagging anxiety. If he does have doubts, one can hardly blame him. It’s true that Ukip was snapping at the Tories’ heels, but the notion that public demand for an in/out referendum had reached a deafening clamour just does not square with the facts. When Britons were asked one year before the vote to list the issues that concerned them most, “Europe” did not make the top 10.

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.

Even those readers with no affection for Cameron, including those who will bridle at the book’s unrepentant defence of austerity, might empathise with his account of what it was like to fight against perhaps the first fully post-truth, populist campaign. No matter how much evidence or expertise the remain camp mustered, leave would reply with an astonishing “mendacity”. Cameron was driving himself hoarse, advancing “reasonable, rational” arguments, while they were serving up £350m worth of lies – and winning. Cameron writes: “It was like one of those dreams where you’re trying to shout but no sound is coming out.”

Cameron’s most unbending critics will put down this book as sure as ever that he was a hollow man lacking in any ideology or conviction beyond a vague, patrician faith in public service and his own ability to do the job of PM well. They will continue to see him as largely indifferent to the suffering his austerity programme inflicted on the country – incredibly, he praises himself for empowering “council chiefs”, even though his cuts forced local authorities to axe vital services for the most vulnerable. It should be possible to condemn all that and still reflect that, while Cameron was a PR man and spin merchant to his fingertips, he did at least live in the realm of facts, proof and evidence. In the age of Johnson, perhaps that should not be taken for granted.

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.


Jonathan Freedland

The GuardianTramp

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