As I See It
Cameron: why Libya looms as his real legacy
Rather than become an Eton version of grammar school grouch Sir Ted Heath he thought valour to be the better part of discretion and that it would be best if he did not spend his wilderness years complaining from the back benches.
Of course, it’s the job of public relations people to make their clients look good and, believe it or not, sometimes it works.
However, there were those who thought that ‘giving Theresa a bit of help’ sounded a little hollow; that, far from opening doors and offering not to be a hindrance to Britain’s second female PM, he actually disagreed with what she is planning, starting with the re-introduction of grammar schools in England.
The PR was just a little too rosy, and the message too generous. Maybe Mr Cameron was guilty of a bit of spin, and all that.
And then came the thunderbolt. Within 48 hours of offering to stand out of Mrs May’s way and let her get on with running the country, he was at the receiving end of a damning report from the Foreign Affairs Committee over his handling of the Libya crisis in 2011.
Remember that? With so much going on elsewhere…Afghanistan, Syria and so on…we’ve sort of forgotten about Libya and the toppling of another dictator. In fact the country has been in a mess, near to civil war, since we popped over and tried, along with the French, to sort things out.
Far from settling down, it’s actually a simmering pot, ready to boil over again. Mr Cameron, who ordered Britain’s involvement is now facing the sort of accusations that have stuck to Tony Blair since he ordered a similar invasion of Iraq (common denominator: oil, not humanitarian aid).
Mr Cameron and French president Nicolas Sarkozy promised the Libyan people that: “Your friends in Britain and France will stand with you as you build your country and build your democracy for the future”. Instead, once Gadaffi had been ousted, Mr Cameron chose to focus on other things.
According to the Foreign Affairs Committee Britain’s ‘rescue mission’ led ultimately to the creation of Islamic State. The collapse into chaos has resulted in people smuggling, and the lack of an organised state means the country is managed by tribal militias fighting among each other.
There was “insufficient action” taken to secure weapons abandoned by the Gaddafi regime, which contributed to the turmoil and an increase in terrorism across the region.
This could get messy, or at least it could have got very messy if Mr Cameron had stuck around and got himself another job in government. That was never really likely, although former Tory leaders such as William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith were handed Cabinet posts (and knighthoods), and even former Labour PM Gordon Brown has remained vocal and, a sort of guiding light during his party’s darkest hours.
Mr Cameron has opted to step out of politics (though a peerage must be an option), and he’ll be left like the rest of us to reflect on his six-year stint as PM, the focus of which has shifted week by week since he quit Downing Street after the EU vote.
Undoubtedly his term of office will be best remembered for the two referendums he ordered during those years, though one writer exaggerates by claiming his legacy will be gifting Scotland its independence. No it won’t.
He may have opened the door, but it was already ajar. Mr Cameron was only part of a political process that may lead to independence. Was he right to let Scots vote on their future? Even the most dictatorial of Prime Ministers would have found it difficult to justify denying freedom of expression to a section of the electorate. Mrs May has yet to face that challenge.
Even so, a strong PM would have declared himself leader of a Unionist party with a mandate to lead a united Britain until such time as the voters kicked him out of office.
Mr Cameron’s decision to let the electorate decide on Britain’s membership of the EU was similarly questionable. This was also a matter of allowing democratic freedoms to be expressed. Instead, he clearly misjudged the enormity of the British people’s frustration with the EU. Ultimately, he sacrificed the country’s membership of a powerful (albeit, at times dysfunctional) economic union in order to placate rebels in his own party.
By pandering to others, he may believe he consented to allowing alternative views. Ultimately, this is what democracy is about. But it also smacks of weak leadership.
Now he is in the firing line for apparently listening to duff intelligence advice with regard to Libya and this is the biggest of all his failings. Brexit may have thrown up massive imponderables, but ultimately it is not a matter of life and death, and Britain is robust enough to survive it. The same applies to Scottish independence. Should it ever happen, one or way or another life will go on much as before.
Not so with Libya. Volatile states are potential time-bombs ready to explode – literally – at any time and with enormous consequences.
This column was written while staying at a mountainside hotel in an area of Portugal where Mr Cameron is said to be a frequent visitor. According to the staff here, no one knows for sure where he and his family stay, or who with, though it’s a good bet he’ll be back a few more times if the heat is turned up any further.