As the Theresa May premiership gets into its stride, there will be one less familiar face watching from the back benches. David Cameron surprised nearly everyone by resigning this week as the MP for Witney. The by-election is unlikely to produce a huge surprise, given a 25,000 strong majority, but what the former PM does between now and 2020 will be more interesting. On his to-do list will be his memoirs, and from there who knows where. He has hinted at future work in international bodies, though Brexit may hinder his options. The international community is unlikely to welcome the man who split the UK from the EU.
As David Cameron exits the stage, and not unrelated to his departure from it, Theresa May is getting stuck in. David Cameron’s comments he did not want to be a ‘distraction’ from his successor’s work implies, reasonably, that he will not always agree with her judgements or proposals. But the idea that this is a complete change of government is over-blown, and in part is driven by the fact the media need something to talk about until party conference season. Cameron and May face the same pressures, same group of MPs, and to some extent share a temperament. Cameron does not leave behind a strong ideological imprint, unlike Margaret Thatcher. Instead, he leaves behind a Tory pragmatic streak his successor shares, though she might argue she is more strategic than her predecessor (he would of course politely disagree). Of course there are differences – more selective education, more limited prison reform, for example. A bit less patrician liberal and a bit more provincial lower-middle class Tory. But don’t expect policy to do a 180-degree change. Even on the European Union both Cameron and May are captured by their party – it was almost impossible for Cameron not to call a referendum, and it is now impossible for May to not implement (at least some form) of Brexit, even if both were reluctant Remainers at heart.
The very nature of Cameron that makes it hard to create ‘Cameronism’ as a domestic ideology also makes it hard to ditch without moving far to the right. Cameron could be flexible – he moved from hugging huskys to ‘getting rid of the green crap’ but the elements of consistency are broad and broadly popular. He believed in public services responsive to public need, disliked excessive centralism, wanted a strong economy, and a liberal society with a chance for all people alongside limited controls on immigration and a tough approach to extremism. He left office with high political ratings for a Prime Minister into his sixth year, and he scored as the second most popular Prime Minister since Thatcher since leaving office. He could be radical, but less than sometimes he himself perhaps made out, or his team liked to brief journalists. And now, typically, he has decided to move on to make things easier for his successor and party than fight for policies his successor might disagree with. Perhaps the least political politician we have seen in a long time has for now left the stage.