This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Before the 2010 election, David Cameron was asked by an interviewer why he wanted to be Prime Minister. In a sloppy, unguarded moment, he responded: "Because I think I might be quite good at it."
It was an x-ray of a response—like Tony Blair with Labour before him, Cameron had only really joined the Conservatives because politics requires you to pick a team. While Blair's Fettes College background could slip by unnoticed, the Eton College siren meant Cameron would always be a Tory. Underneath it, though, here was a man with no particular mission in politics, who merely happened to have a deep well of talent for its more artisanal side.
And certainly, no one could deny that talent. He took a brand that had gone from disaster under John Major to sheer irrelevance under the ghoulish trio of Hague, IDS, and Howard, and reformatted it into something that was like a slightly ropey photocopy of Blairism's election–winning machine.
Riding with huskies, hugging hoodies, digging the gays—Cameron was a modern, London-ish, liberal who figured you could probably make "choice" sexy again if you combined it with listening to the Smiths and waving from a float at Pride.
It was only when advisers tried to coax him into developing a coherent ideology that he found himself on the back foot—as with the Big Society thingy, a half–cocked attempt to find a mid-way between presenting the public with something conservative-sounding and his more fundamental instincts to drift bumptiously through the center ground.
Don't rock the boat. Steady the ship. It was a patrician approach that was the High Tory of Harold MacMillan far more than the radical headbangers of the Thatcher era preceding it. It descended somewhere from a genetic muscle-memory for the true aristocrat's first duty: to be a competent steward to the estate and its workers, and to understand that the estate was held in trust for future generations.
That was his way. He was the Great Triangulator, and not having a mission in politics made his big pivots astonishingly effective. Nowhere more so than in 2008, when, post–Crisis, he abandoned the cozy cross–party consensus on matching spending to argue for belt–tightening. The economic case was 6/10, but politically, it drove deep water between "sensible, prudent" Toryism and a Gordon Brown who was profligate. the Labour party "failed to fix the roof while the sun was shining" as the slogan he and his Shadow Chancellor ruthlessly hammered went.
The other data point that always seemed telling was that Cameron's only job outside of politics was as a PR chief for Carlton TV, the ITV franchise. This was a PM who was one big shiny reflective surface as smooth as his jowls. You could always find a message you wanted to take from Cameron. That was politics, and the boy was very, very good at it.
But what was ever behind it? A telling nugget of gossip was that while conservative politician George Osborne was always wooden in front of the cameras, those who knew him off-stage always spoke of him as actually very charming—jokey and interested. Cameron, by contrast, was always magisterial in the big onstage moments—relentlessly strong on his feet at PMQs, a man with an emollient soundbite for every occasion. Privately, though, many thought he was far less emotionally accessible of the two—a man who always seemed to be presenting to you rather than talking to you. With Cameron, the façade was all you ever got. He once forgot his own football team. The personality chip was booting in safe mode that day.
Yet, he was hardly without hinterland. This was a man whose father might have been born rich, yes, but also with severely deformed legs that later required amputation, and in that unstinting, un-pitying quest to live with his disability, he became his son's great inspiration. This was a man whose own child died while he was leader of the opposition—who'd spent many nights in shabby hospital waiting rooms nursing that boy.
And this was no plodder—the double-first from Oxford betrayed a great capacity to swallow and sift data. It's all very well to be a Minister and stay on top of one brief, but to be Prime Minister and stay on top of them all takes extra intellectual gears very few possess.
But again, this was not a man who had much space for big intellectual stuff. The BBC quotes Cider with Rosie and Robert Graves's WWI memoir Goodbye to All That as his top books. Nice, folksy numbers, to be filed alongside his love of Bob Dylan and the Killers. "He rarely agonizes over a problem," wrote Tory insider Matthew D'Ancona, "preferring to resolve dilemmas as quickly and pragmatically as he can, generally with a group of close allies."
Likewise, when his government seemed on the ropes in 2012, he was described by some as having essentially two modes: Chilled–out—when things were going well he took his foot off the gas and everything started to go terribly—and crisis mode, in which he was generally considered to be very effective. Unlike workaholics Thatcher or Brown, Cameron seemed to prefer a much more hands–off chairman of the board style to doing government. "If there was an Olympic gold medal for chillaxing, he would win it," one inner sanctum member told his biographers.
In college, he'd not even bothered with politics—captaining the Brasenose tennis team instead. He'd tossed up becoming a journalist, or mucking about with banking like his dear old dad. In the end, a whim led him to answering an ad for a researcher at Conservative Central Office, and not many months later he could be seen in the background on newsreels of that other dark EU day—1992's Black Wednesday crisis—as special advisor to the doomed Chancellor Norman Lamont.
Despite, or perhaps because of, all the damage it wrought on his then boss, later in life, when it came to Europe, Cameron seemed to see the issue as a purely managerial one. According to close colleagues, he was always more out than in; he was the one who told his party to stop "banging on about Europe." He went to a big Brussels summit in late 2011 and vetoed a new treaty proposal, putting Britain out on a 26–1 against limb, but again it seemed to be a purely defensive move to look tough and shore up his own position against the persistent internal Taliban of post-Maastricht rebels.
In the end, though, that same lack of political compass meant he always had a gambler's streak to him. When it worked, it made for decisive strategic moves. Unlike doomed prevaricator Gordon Brown, Cameron understood only too well that boldness has its own genius.
This time, well… it may not have worked so well. Cameron sought to round up all of his political niggles in one big bet-the-farm referendum. Had only four percent of the UK felt differently, he'd be chuckling in the Downing Street Rose Garden right now with bagful of peanut M&Ms, unassailable king of all he surveyed, golden, up there with the greats in his chosen sport of politics.
As it is, a man who led the Conservatives for longer than all but three others—Thatcher, Churchill, Baldwin—now finds himself being measured up alongside the worst Prime Ministers in history. Is he Ted Heath? Is he Anthony Eden? Perhaps even Gordon Brown can raise a smile today at the thought of finally peeling himself out of that lowest tier.
All the legacy stuff he tried to remind us of as he said his tearful goodbye on the steps of Number 10—gay rights, more apprenticeships, expanding international aid funding, steadying the economy—will be largely forgotten. In the long game, history only really has time for the big font stuff. School kids in the crude mud huts of Britain 50 years hence will copy out in cracked crayon the name of the man who was such a lucky gambler. Until he wasn't.
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To see all our articles about the EU Referendum, check out Europe: The Final Countdown.