It was a dense, rubbery nugget of an interview. Closely-crafted questions. Pointed answers. A potted tour of the whole of The Cameron Years inside an ITV-sized half hour. Like "It’s A Small Small World" for the London riots. Syrian intervention vote? Would have done it just about the same, Tom. Austerity? Had to be done, Tom. Referendum? Needed to be called, Tom. Do you apologise for the mess? That I do, Tom.
As ITV interviewer Tom Bradby and former PM David Cameron did their demonstration sword-fight, a strange feeling took hold. It was the comforting familiarity of a bygone age. We’d gone no-contact for three years. But here a portal into another era had opened up for Britain. How distant it felt – a flickering Pathé newsreel of gents in bowlers and frock coats lifting their canes: a former leader from the age when a poorly-eaten bacon sandwich was a major news event, and success could hang on being a decent sort of chap with the manners of a head prefect.
So much that any time Cameron was asked about that era, there seemed little to say of interest – like a man trying to draw a causal link from spivs to postcode gangs.
Cameron’s memoirs were probably timed to appear an honourable distance from the 31st of March. That didn’t happen, so instead, they’ve arrived at a moment of maximum kablooey. It’s a pity – history may one day be interested in quantitative easing and the Irvine Report. TV is only interested in Brexit and more Brexit.
Inevitably, at the centre of the evening’s agenda was the bit where he would be asked to put himself on the altar, to apologise for “the mess you left”.
It arrived 25 minutes in, and its subject seemed to have been polishing his soundbite. “I have huge regrets,” he said. “I regret that we lost the campaign. I regret I let expectations about the negotiation run far too high. I regret some of the individual decisions we made in the campaign. I think perhaps there’s a case to say the timing could have been different… I regret we let expectations about the renegotiation run too high.”
But overall, he concluded, it was the fault of “historical forces”. “Britain’s position needed to be sorted. And we needed a renegotiation, and a referendum.”
Funny how, in that moment, Cameron revealed himself to be a hardcore Marxist. Nothing to do with me guv – just Hegelian dialectic, innit. In one line, he’d placed the defining act of his premiership in the basket marked: “Inevitable”.
The things he regretted were details of strategy. The errors of conscience were all other people’s decisions. Here, after 27 largely bloodless minutes, something real and urgent twitched within him. Cameron began his assault gingerly. “[Michael Gove] seemed in two minds about it. And I thought – if he’s in two minds, surely stick with the programme and the team, and the work we’re doing together…”
Then drew the dagger, with a headmasterly sense of disappointment, of them having let themselves down most of all. “They got on the bus and they left the truth at home… That I found deeply depressing – because I didn’t think that’s who they were.”
Unlike Blair, Cameron never fell out with his Chancellor. Nor with his coalition partner. Beyond politics, the Goves and the Camerons were real friends. Their wives were friends. They holidayed together. But Cameron had always assumed, as he told Brady, that Gove would choose loyalty over principle.
But Owen Bennett’s new biography of Gove, Michael Gove: A Man in a Hurry, suggests there was always a kind of officers versus enlisted men dynamic between them. Gove, the adopted son of an Aberdeen fishmonger, “believed in things”, and that made him weird to Cameron’s set (though effervescent on the dinner party circuit), who merely believed in running things.
So it was a clash of cultures, a comic, cosmic misunderstanding, when Gove committed the ultimate sin – disloyalty – and went for Leave.
As his ITV return illustrated, Cameron was the good chap guv’nor. A steady-as-she-goes steward, a genius of short-term strategy, who failed to notice quite how much the bigger picture had shifted behind him, how much nihilism had curdled in obscure parts of the land after a queasy, stagnant decade. Gove had ideas. Cameron had principles. We had moved back into an age of ideas and ideologies from one of managerialism. But it wasn’t in Cameron’s nature to grasp that. There’s little evidence the pair have spoken since 2016.
In fact, perhaps the biggest reveal of all came in the post-interview credits, which begin with a right-of-reply response from Boris Johnson: “Nothing that David Cameron says in his memoirs will diminish the affection and respect in which I hold him.”
One title later, we learn that: “Michael Gove declined to comment.”