David Cameron is the perfect representative for Britain in decay

Cameron has once again fallen on his feet, but it is worth asking why this should be the case, given his dire record

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David Cameron was paid in excess of $40,000 (£32,000) a day to lobby for Greensill Capital, the finance company for which he worked from 2018 until it collapsed three years later. Had it not done so, Cameron’s share options would have been worth a potential $70m (£56m). Since the former prime minister became Foreign Secretary this week, the Foreign Office has refused to reveal the other jobs and clients for whom he had been working.

Cameron was earning these vast sums at a time when figures show that Britain outside London is today more impoverished than Mississippi, the poorest state in the US measured by gross domestic product per capita. The poorest parts of the UK are today worse off than the most deprived districts in the former East Germany.

The Government threatened this week to strip benefits claimants of free NHS prescriptions, dental care and help with energy bills, unless they can prove that they have made serious efforts to find work. Here they could do no better than follow in the footsteps of Cameron, who was quick off the mark in seeking new employment as soon as he lost his job as prime minister in 2016.

‘A significant lack of judgement’

In his case, one of these part-time jobs was 25 days a year working for Greensill, for which he was paid a salary of $1m, according to a Financial Times investigation citing two people familiar with the matter.

Cameron was later told the Commons Treasury Select Committee that his lobbying did not stem from a desire for private gain, but was because he believed that Greensill “had a really good idea of how to help extend credit to thousands of businesses”. The committee concluded that Cameron had committed no crime but displayed “a significant lack of judgement”.

Nor was this the first time that Cameron’s judgement has been in question. Indeed, it is not easy to find instances when he took the correct decision on any major issue, other than those that were to his personal or party political advantage. On the contrary, he has shown an Inspector Clouseau-like capacity to bring on or exacerbate disaster at home and abroad.

In 2011, for instance, he played a crucial role in regime change in Libya, which had the effect of turning the country over to criminalised warlords.

Unforced errors and embarrassing mistakes

In later years, Cameron congratulated himself on overthrowing the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and saving the city of Benghazi from destruction by his tanks. A parliamentary inquiry concluded that Benghazi had not been in much danger, and Cameron never appeared to notice that the city was later partly destroyed in fighting between the rebel factions whom he had helped into power.

Unforced errors and embarrassing mistakes have dotted Cameron’s career, some glaring, like austerity and the Brexit referendum.

But there are numerous others, such as his plan to bomb Syria in 2013, though he never made up his mind if this was to be an ineffectual one-off attack or an all-out air bombardment for which Britain had neither the planes or target intelligence.

A measure of the degeneration of British public life is the welcome given by many non-Conservatives to Cameron’s return to high office, seeing it as a resumption of sensible, moderate and competent leadership.

Dire record

Cameron has once again fallen on his feet, but it is worth asking why this should be the case, given his dire record. His appointment invites mocking jibes that the problems facing Britain must be pretty grim if the man who had such a big hand in creating them is suddenly seen as part of their solution.

I have always been fascinated by people who “fail upwards”, asking myself why certain people’s careers prosper despite repeated failures. What does this unsinkability tell us about them or the type of the society in which they flourish? At the very least, the political resurrection of Cameron suggests that British political leadership is not a meritocracy or even one in which an ability to change anything for the better is much valued.

Cameron is affable, plausible, glib, exuding a certain Old Etonian self-confidence which people in England – and possibly even more abroad – find alluring and even an indication of probity. Yet there is more here than Etonian swank, since Cameron’s denials of wrongdoing sound much more convincing than those of his fellow Etonian Boris Johnson, who never quite succeeds in hiding a certain shiftiness and dishonesty.

Cameron has the advantage of being compared as prime minister to the likes of Johnson and Liz Truss, perhaps the worst leaders in British history. As Foreign Secretary, he will benefit from being seen as an improvement on a predecessor like Dominic Raab, who remained on holiday in Crete during the calamitous withdrawal from Kabul in 2021.

Weird non-achievers

Critics may carp that it was Cameron who first promoted many of these weird non-achievers such as Truss to the Cabinet, but he still looks reassuringly sane and grown-up compared to Suella Braverman, Priti Patel and Jacob Rees-Mogg, to name but a few of that ghastly dysfunctional crew.

Cameron is lucky in another feature of the current political landscape. A large chunk of the population, particularly those who are young, better educated and living in prosperous metropolitan cities, attribute Britain’s permanent state of political crisis and economic stagnation to Brexit alone. This for them was the original sin, the moment that Eve bit into the apple, since when nothing has gone well for the country.

There is something in this, but Brexit was both a symptom and a cause of Britain’s relative decline. Similarly, Cameron is symptomatic of something rotten in the state of Britain, but he did not cause the rot. Lex Greensill, later Cameron’s employer, had an unexplained desk at 10 Downing Street during Cameron’s premiership, but senior civil servants also found credible his dubious claim to be a financial innovator.

Cameron is very much a child of his times, skilled at media presentation and political manoeuvring, but not at much else. His autobiography, For the Record, shows him to be sharp but shallow and in foreign affairs somewhat hick and provincial.

A country in decline

More seriously, it never occurred to him that there was something obscene in making $40,000 a day in a country where 3.8 million people, including one million children, are destitute, often without enough money to eat or buy warm clothing, according to a survey by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Cameron is the product of a British political and economic system, which was largely created by Margaret Thatcher in the 80s, but which has not worked effectively since the financial crisis of 2008. It glorified the market over the state, but companies exist to make profits, which they may or may not do by satisfying consumers.

As prime minister, Cameron presided over a British state whose decay he accelerated. As Foreign Secretary, he will be an all too appropriate representative of a country in decline.

Further thoughts

Britain’s former Home Secretary Suella Braverman attends the State Opening of Parliament at the Houses of Parliament in London on November 7 – just days before she was sacked by Rishi Sunak. (Photo: HANNAH MCKAY / POOL / AFP)

How far will fear-boosting Suella Braverman and her ilk legitimise the far right in the UK, just as Donald Trump did in the US?

The question is worth asking as political developments in America are often mirrored in Britain with a time-lag of a few years. Modern-day far-right Tories derive much of their inspiration and ideas from what was once the Tea Party wing of the Republicans but, with the arrival of the Trump era, is now the Republican mainstream.

Braverman’s bid to legitimise the far-right on 11 November, when she blamed the pro-ceasefire marchers rather than neo-fascist thugs fighting police around the Cenotaph, is the equivalent of then President Trump’s response to the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in Virginia on 12 August 2017.

A white supremacist demonstration against the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee from a local park led to counter-protests. A neo-Nazi and white supremacist sympathiser, James Alex Fields Jr, drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 35 others. It was a hit-and-run, but he was later arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment.

But it was Trump’s immediate response to the neo-Nazi and white supremacist violence that energised and legitimised the far-right in a way that had never happened before in the US. Just as the news of Heyer’s murder was being reported, Trump issued a statement condemning “in the strongest possible terms this display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides”. The reference to “many sides” – which he repeated for emphasis moments later – equated the white nationalist protesters with the peaceable counter-protesters.

At a press conference a few days later, Trump doubled down on his refusal to condemn the white extreme nationalists, saying that “you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides”.

Braverman is emulating Trump, consciously or unconsciously, while Sunak is doing the same in only a slightly more nuanced way. But both are seeking to ignite cultural fires that might frighten people into voting Tory in the next election. So far they have not succeeded but that does not mean that a populist nationalist vote does not exist and cannot be fired up given a dose of fear-mongering.

Below the radar

Protestors hold placards as they wait for the verdict on whether the UK Government can send refugee migrants to Rwanda. (Photo: Claire Doherty/In Pictures via Getty Images)

Big set-piece events like the Supreme Court’s decision on the forced removal of asylum seekers to Rwanda should produce high-quality reporting and commentary. After all, media outlets know well in advance the time and date of the judgement, so they can wheel out their reporter- and pundit-heavy artillery.

I have noticed, however, that the reporting of big stories, be it a judicial decision or the long-expected war, is often well below par. The reason is that too many people get in on the act. The number who really know what they are talking about are swamped by those who do not. There are too many interviews with political big shots, who say tediously predictable things. Political correspondents fail to understand implications outside Westminster because they are obsessed with “who is up, who is down, who is out”. The true significance of an event – or even factual reportage on what has actually happened – gets lost in the scrum.

In the case of the Rwanda judgment, the reasons why the Supreme Court unanimously turned down the Home Secretary’s appeal was lucidly and compellingly explained by the President of the court, Lord Reed. He suggested that the promises of the Rwanda government are not worth much, since it signed an agreement with Israel similar to that with Britain and covertly broke all its provisions. He noted that British police have had to warn Rwanda dissidents in this country that there is credible evidence that the Rwanda government is plotting to murder them.

All this makes Rishi Sunak’s proposed emergency legislation to declare Rwanda a safe place absurd, given the country’s record, as related by the UNHCR with copious grim examples.

Why should the British Government stop with Rwanda, when declaring toxic regimes safe places to go? Why should not future legislation simply announce that Afghanistan, Syria or Yemen are likewise safe and secure, despite all blood-soaked evidence to the contrary? This would enable people who have fled these countries in the mistaken belief that they might be killed, tortured or imprisoned, to return home in perfect security. People arriving on the beaches of Kent could be whisked off back to Kabul and Damascus from which they have so unreasonably and unaccountably departed.

Cockburn’s picks

Britain’s new Foreign Secretary David Cameron attends a Cabinet meeting inside 10 Downing Street. (Photo: Kin Cheung – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The most lucid and convincing account of the Greensill debacle – now back in the headlines because of former employee David Cameron’s promotion – that I have come cross is Greensill, Gupta and Cameron: what went wrong.

This is Dispatches with Patrick Cockburn, a subscriber-only newsletter from i. If you’d like to get this direct to your inbox, every single week, you can sign up here.

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