Remember the days when David Cameron was the sleek young prime minister who had brought to an end 13 years of Labour government and Boris Johnson was just a clown on a zipwire?
There seemed little doubt that Dave had won the race between the Bullingdon Club contemporaries for the glittering prizes of political life, seizing the chance to fashion a moderate Conservatism for the modern age. Boris, the great entertainer, was destined to be a far less consequential figure – a squanderer of his own talents.
The Greensill affair underlines the perils of rushing to premature judgment. But while it is perfectly obvious that Boris now has the most glittering prize of politics in his pocket and Dave is the one engaged in reputational self-harm, the reversal of fortunes goes far deeper than that.
Boris Johnson and his chancellor Rishi Sunak are already well on course to eclipse David Cameron and his chancellor George Osborne as figures of historical importance. Johnson and his brilliant sidekick are the substantial main course, while it turns out that Dave and George – who occupied the same posts for six unbroken years – were merely an amuse-bouche.
It would be an exaggeration to say everything about the Cameron-Osborne era has lost its lustre and has already been eclipsed by the achievements of Johnson-Sunak, but not much of one.
Last week’s report from the IMF predicting annual UK economic growth of more than five per cent both this year and next is a case in point. Should the forecast come to pass – and many economists think it will actually be surpassed – then the UK economy will have made up for the Covid contraction of almost ten per cent in just two years.
This compares to the five years it took for the economy to make good the six per cent contraction it suffered in the 2008 financial crash. Outgoing Labour chancellor Alistair Darling was poo-pooed at the time for claiming Osborne was going way over the top with austerity and would crush a promising recovery in the process.
But the apparent success of the Johnson-Sunak ultra-Keynesian response to Covid – based on the former’s explicit rejection of another round of austerity – certainly strengthens the case against Osborne’s hair shirt. This is especially true given the much bigger public sector deficit that Sunak has had to face, compared to the £140bn or so that Darling passed onto Osborne.
On big foreign policy calls, the Cameron-Osborne era no longer looks smart, if ever it did, either. The intervention in Libya has proven to be a disaster, creating a competitor to Somalia for the title of Africa’s most dangerous failed state. Meanwhile, the less said the better about the big strategic call to schmooze up to China and let it buy-up key British assets in order to encourage it to reform.
In purely political terms, Cameron and Osborne must have grown accustomed to regarding themselves as undeniably successful: in 2010 they added around 100 seats to the Tory tally and fashioned a five-year government in which they fared much better than their coalition partner, after all. Then, in 2015, they won the first outright Conservative majority for nearly a quarter of a century.
But Boris Johnson has eclipsed that too by delivering a landslide majority in December 2019, making the 2015 result look puny by comparison. And Johnson appears to have created a sustainable new winning coalition of support for the Tories too, by co-opting older and working-class voters via his political priorities of levelling-up and getting Brexit done.
Above all, Johnson and his fellow Brexiteer Sunak have succeeded in uniting their party on the issue of Europe. After Sunak came out for Leave in the referendum, Cameron is said to have remarked privately: ‘We have lost the future of the party.’ Little did he realise that he had also lost the present.
After Cameron’s failed attempted renegotiation of the UK’s terms of membership, Johnson was widely derided for writing two competing potential newspaper columns in support of Remain and Leave respectively. But he made the correct call by choosing to file the one in favour of leaving.
And once he had done that he seldom waivered – not quite a Spartan in opposing Theresa May’s sell-out deal, but certainly displaying remarkable political courage in pursuing a meaningful Brexit as premier in the face of a furious onslaught from a Remainer parliament and establishment.
It seems remarkable to think that the economic disadvantages of leaving constituted the main plank of Cameron and Osborne’s career-terminating Remain campaign now that those disadvantages have been unmasked as so trivial in the great scheme of things.
But Boris and Rishi got the big vision and no doubt saw the political potential of Brexit too, while George and Dave were too steeped in establishment politics and too addicted to wooing corporate Britain to notice.
In the years since they ducked out of the Commons, they have largely continued on such a dispiriting course, amassing personal fortunes in the process.
But in less than two years as PM, Boris Johnson has ‘got Brexit done’, is on course to steer the UK economy through the Covid shock with minimal long-term scarring, won a landslide election victory and instigated a brilliant independent British vaccination strategy. All these achievements have come off the back of deliberate political choices that David Cameron would probably not have made.
The contemporary commentariat consistently over-rated Dave and under-rated Boris. The history books are unlikely to make the same mistake.
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