Cameron had six years to change Britain. So what did he achieve?

Nicky Morgan & David Cameron

Pragmatist with a record of accidental achievements

KENAN MALIK

Had David Cameron not won an election he never expected to win, he might not have lost a referendum he never expected to lose. And that, in a sense, sums up Cameron’s legacy. He was a man whose achievements, for good or ill, seem wrought as much by accident as by design. He was a pragmatist, but in the worst sense of the word – in having few real principles to guide his actions in the first place.

Many laud Cameron as a social liberal and a Tory moderniser, pointing to his role in legalising same-sex marriage. But his attitude to migration does not suggest a liberal. Nor do his attitudes to civil liberties or free speech. Others see him as a one-nation Tory. But Britain is now more fragmented, unequal and disaffected than it was in 2010.

Cameron’s legacy is difficult to define because there is little that does define him. The irony is that the Brexit vote was fuelled by the anger of those who felt politically voiceless in this new technocratic world. In the end, a man bereft of political vision was brought down by those estranged at losing their political voice.

Kenan Malik’s most recent book is The Quest for a Moral Compass

Dizzying journeys from place to place, and mood to mood

QUENTIN LETTS

In January 2015, Cameron visited Washington and rushed into the International Monetary Fund building at the speed of an Olympic walker. Chop chop. Flash snapshots. Christine Lagarde admitted us to her lair long enough for her to praise Britain’s economy (a blow against Ed Miliband).

Barack Obama put Dave up at the Blair House residence. Dave repaid him by meddling in some Capitol Hill dispute. That irked the Republicans but Cameron little cared.

At 7pm the jetlagged London press corps were slumped at Blair House’s dining-room table. Cameron arrived, chest inflated, and seemed peeved none of us stood for his arrival. US presidential flunkeys do that sort of thing but not Fleet Street grunts. Cameron’s mood instantly darkened. He snapped, curled his lip, a husky curtness in the voice.

After five dire minutes he clapped his hands. The partition doors opened and we moved into a gracious little drawing room for gins and whiskies.

Ping! went Cameron’s charm. He was suddenly Mr Easy, ace at small talk, hinting at his power intimacies. Ten minutes later he was gone, puff, away to dinner with Team Obama, all part of a dizzying existence lived for the memoirs.

Quentin Letts is the Daily Mail’s sketchwriter

Brexit an abiding legacy, but also a coalition government

GAVIN KELLY

Prime ministers often start office with the conviction that the potency of their agenda will one way or another break the mould of British politics. Most fail but, in some respects at least, David Cameron succeeded.

As of today, the great shake-up that will define his legacy is, of course, the one that hangs over us: the ending of our membership of the European Union. A decision of monumental importance, we won’t appreciate the full scale of the fallout until we see whether it also gives rise to the break-up of the United Kingdom.

In time, history will also register the Cameron era for another constitutional shake-up – one that the former prime minister will feel far better about. Following his “big, open and comprehensive offer” to Nick Clegg in May 2010, he demonstrated coalition government is a perfectly viable and stable option in contemporary politics. Given the erosion of our two-party system, more such administrations will follow.

Prime ministers don’t get to choose how they are remembered, and he will be no exception. Any hopes that it will be for his social reforms (with the exception of equal marriage), or the “big society”, are in vain. But breaking the constitutional mould? For good or ill, that he did achieve.

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of Resolution Trust

UK’s divisions are not his fault – in time, we may miss him

TOM HOLLAND

Like many another enthusiast for staying in the European Union, I was left feeling furious with David Cameron when the referendum result was announced. It did not take me long, though – after a few days of cursing him as a cross between Anthony Eden and Lord North – to arrive at a more positive estimation of his qualities.

There was nothing like the brief but hideous prospect of having to choose between Jeremy Corbyn and Andrea Leadsom at the next election to make me feel a flicker of regret that Cameron had chosen to stand down.

No doubt when he dies, Brexit will be found written on his heart – but to blame him for it would be to mistake the surface play of waves on an ocean for the mighty currents that swirl beneath. The divisions in the country that the referendum exposed may well lie beyond the power of any British politician to heal. I fear that the next few years will serve to ram this home.

In time, Britain may well come to look at Cameron’s term as prime minister almost with nostalgia.

Tom Holland is a historian

Not entirely posh, not entirely ordinary: trapped in between

LUCY PREBBLE

What a shocker. I always assumed Cameron would glory in leaving behind a tidy logbook and surprisingly few enemies.

There were signs, maybe. A thin-skinned resentment when his brilliance at the dispatch box was undermined by the easy Eton slur. And so he never quite embraced his poshness like Boris Johnson, nor really believed in his ordinariness like Tony Blair. He was left bobbing about shinily, a 3D print-out of a statesman.

And maybe these accusations of “middle-manager” are what led to his downfall. The temptation to risk big. How un-British the drama of his leaving, how un-Conservative, its ugly recklessness all wrapped up in a portmanteau noun.

I felt for him on Wednesday as he stood in the rain with his family, winds whipping round Downing Street, his legacy fighting a perfect storm. There goes a true representative of our country, I thought: a miserable, freezing family forced out of their home unexpectedly.

Playwright Lucy Prebble’s writing credits include Enron

A detoxifier but a democrat who called three referendums

ELIZA FILBY

Somewhat ironically, in an age of public distrust of politicians, Cameron decided to put his trust in the public, holding an unprecedented three referendums as prime minister. His rationale and results, though, are questionable. He may have won on AV and Scotland, but his cataclysmic defeat in the EU referendum has also called into question his victories in the other two.

Cameron’s greatest political achievement, like Blair, was to make his party electable again. Yet one of his positive legacies was overseeing a switch from Blair’s “sofa-style” government to an enhanced role for parliament and proper delegation to departments, as well as consistency in the personae within the ministries of Whitehall.

Cameron’s health, education and welfare reforms represented a continuation of, rather than a significant break with, the Blairite status quo, but he faced greater challenges under the pressure of steering Britain through the ripples of the financial crash. Gay marriage – the great social reform of his government – is one even Cameron’s enemies concede he genuinely believed in, but, along with international aid, was also a key part of detoxifying the Tory brand.

Eliza Filby is the author of God and Mrs Thatcher

Apologised for Bloody Sunday but put border through Ireland

SUSAN MCKAY

David Cameron did the right thing and apologised for Bloody Sunday. Then he did the wrong thing and refused a necessary and promised inquiry into the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane, in which British intelligence agencies colluded with loyalist paramilitaries.

He appointed a secretary of state in Theresa Villiers who had even less interest in Northern Ireland than himself. She campaigned for Brexit, which will reinstate the Irish border and is self-evidently a disaster for the peace process.

Susan McKay is author of Bear in Mind These Dead, on the legacy of the Troubles

Committed to helping LGBT people: deserves to be proud

RUTH HUNT

Same-sex marriage was a key moment in David Cameron’s tenure as prime minister. He himself has said it was one of his proudest achievements. For me, it demonstrated the depth of his commitment to pushing forward equality for lesbian, gay and bi people. He said he wanted it to send a message to society about the acceptance of same-sex couples, and it has.

This commitment to equality was further confirmed when the women and equalities select committee set up the landmark inquiry into trans equality early this year. This brought to the fore the inequalities trans people face and has set the groundwork for the next government to create legislation which will ensure all LGBT people are accepted without exception.

Ruth Hunt is chief executive of Stonewall

Never clear what he stood for. He already seems to be fading

DREDA SAY MITCHELL

Both Thatcher and Blair created their own “-isms” and left behind MPs determined to act as guardians of their legacy. But that doesn’t seem to be the case with David Cameron. There’s no “Cameronism” and he already seems to have disappeared in a puff of smoke.

I’m still not quite sure even now what he was supposed to stand for or what he had hoped to achieve. His main political legacy will be the three referendums he fought. It remains to be seen whether Scotland stays in the union and whether his victory there was a temporary one.

If the UK endures, he’ll be remembered for that. It’s also too early to tell what the consequences of Brexit will be. If it works, he’ll be in the history books as the man who accidentally made it happen. If it doesn’t, history is likely to judge him very unkindly indeed.

Dreda Say Mitchell is a crime novelist

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Kenan Malik, Quentin Letts, Gavin Kelly, Tom Holland, Lucy Prebble, Eliza Filby, Susan McKay, Ruth Hunt and Dreda Say Mitchell, for The Observer on Saturday 16th July 2016 23.05 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010