David Cameron occupies a unique place in the Brexit debate, being unpopular, even loathed, now on both sides of the divide. So The Cameron Years, a two-part documentary whose first episode goes out tonight at 9pm on BBC One, timed to coincide with the release of his already headline-grabbing memoirs, is an intriguing watch.
I previewed it with Tom Bradby’s terrific half-hour interview with Cameron on ITV earlier this week still ringing in my ears. Rarely have I seen an interviewer come so close to bursting a blood vessel – even going so far as to fizzingly accuse the former prime minister directly of having “exported the nervous breakdown in the Conservative Party to the whole county”. Is this documentary anything like as combatively entertaining?
Sadly, and inevitably for the BBC, it is an altogether blander affair. It isn't that people aren't queuing up to give Mr Cameron a kicking. They really are. (Even his Remain campaign co-leader George Osborne slips in the knife early on: “David Cameron was one of a number of British prime ministers who fed the idea that Brussels was to blame… and we’ve all paid a price for it.”) But no one is allowed to do it in person.
Instead Cameron gives his version of events straight to camera, while alternative views and voices are separately filmed and edited in. Many of these are interesting not so much for being original as for being on the record. Such as Michael Gove’s confession that “I was not convinced that offering a referendum was the right idea” and Andrew Mitchell’s claim that Cameron called the referendum “for party management reasons at best”. Interesting also is former French president Nicholas Sarkosy’s admission that the EU made “a mistake” by not offering Cameron more concessions.
Ultimately though it is Mr Cameron’s voice that dominates: occasionally self-pitying (“I do brood hugely”), inevitably self-justifying (“I was never overconfident, there was no complacency") and sometimes downright bitter (“He put what was good for his political career ahead of what he actually thought was right for the country,” he says of Boris Johnson’s decision to join the Leave side of the Brexit argument). Mr Cameron doesn't have to answer a single question put directly.
As such, the film overall has the air of a well-rehearsed, entirely media-manged exercise in self-justification. A walk in the park. Give me Tom Bradby with steam coming out of his ears, any day.
The Cameron Years will be broadcast at 9.00pm on BBC One tonight, with the second part on 26 September at 9.00pm