Exclusive to Juncture, political historian and biographer Anthony Seldon offers his first take on the Cameron premiership, and contends that the Conservative leader will be judged well when viewed against an unprecedented set of challenges and? constraints.

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  1. Phases of the Coalition government
  2. Cameron's leadership style
  3. Achievements and failures
  4. A backdrop of challenges and constraints
  5. How history will judge Cameron

Win or lose the general election in 2015, this government will be remembered as one of the most historically significant since the second world war. It is the first coalition government for 65 years, and the first peacetime coalition since the 1930s. Conventional wisdom has always had it that coalition governments – rendered unlikely by Britain's simple majority system – would not survive long if ever one came into existence. This government has defied the sceptics and endured.

The fact of coalition is not the only reason why this government will be of significance to historians. The scale of the economic recession, unseen since the 1930s, makes it equally so. Against the backdrop of violent protests in Portugal and Greece, the advice from Whitehall officials was that it was imperative to the UK's national interest to have a stable government. The fact of governing in association with the Liberal Democrats, in concert with these wider economic constraints, strongly affected what David Cameron and the Conservatives have done.

Phases of the Coalition government

As the dust clears, it is becoming clear that this government traversed four distinct phases, each associated with a dominant figure.

Phase 1: 'Full pelt', May 2010 – March 2012
Dominant figure: Steve Hilton

Gus O'Donnell, the former cabinet secretary, believes that Cameron's team had heeded Tony Blair's advice, later reiterated in his memoirs, not to squander precious time in the first term, when political capital is at its highest ebb, but to arrive in office with a clear plan. Detailed preparation had been undertaken in opposition, overseen by Oliver Letwin, in the policy unit under James O'Shaughnessy, and galvanised by Steve Hilton, Cameron's chief strategist, to ensure that all domestic departments would hit the ground running. Michael Gove, the feisty new education secretary, was thus able to introduce his first bill before the summer recess, which became the Academies Act 2010. In some areas, however, momentum was lost as portfolios were given to new Lib Dem partners and other Conservatives ended up in posts for which they had not prepared.

The fragile electoral position heightened the Conservatives' sense that they might have only one term in office – there was not a moment to lose. Frenzied activity took place in those opening months in health, welfare, public sector reform and open government. George Osborne introduced his emergency budget in late June, just six weeks after becoming chancellor. It announced significant spending reductions, albeit not to 'protected areas' – notably the NHS, education and international development. His aim was to eliminate the budget deficit within the life of the parliament. Hilton drove policy forward ferociously, but increasingly fell out with ministers, civil servants and – fatally – some key figures within Cameron's inner circle, which culminated in his departure in early 2012.

Phase 2: 'Momentum lost', March 2012 – January 2013
Dominant figure: Jeremy Heywood

As the second anniversary of the formation of the government approached, Cameron and Osborne were feeling content with the progress that was being made and with the impression of competence that the government was projecting nationally and internationally. This hard-earned momentum was scuppered with his 2012 budget, by some distance the least successful of his five. It upset many in the business community, the Conservative party and right-wing commentariat, and shattered the impression he had carefully cultivated that 'we're all in this together'. His reduction of the top rate of income tax from 50p to 45p at a time of recession, and a series of gauche lesser measures, rebounded catastrophically. It unleashed forces that had long been simmering below the surface. Elements in the press, notably the Telegraph and Mail group papers, had never forgiven Cameron for setting up the Leveson inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press in July 2011, following the News International phone-hacking scandal. This was payback time. Suddenly, the cogency of the government's strategy since 2010 seemed to evaporate. NHS reforms ran up against major opposition; there appeared no end in sight to the country's economic woes; the partnership with the forlorn Lib Dems appeared increasingly fragile – and the polls dipped sharply.

The question 'what did he stand for, if anything?' came sharply to the fore. Many Conservative backbenchers, long disgruntled, now became openly critical. Some were angry with Cameron for his response to the expenses scandal in 2009, which had led to their losing money personally and had thus been construed as a direct attack. Many blamed him for the Conservatives' failure to win an outright majority at the 2010 election, a result they attributed to a lack of clarity in the election campaign and its inability to resonate with core Tory voters. The coalition with the Lib Dems was anathema to many backbenchers, and their hostility was only heightened by the suspicion (not wholly incorrect) that Cameron was happier in a de jure coalition with the Lib Dems than he would have been in a de facto coalition with his own right-wing backbenchers.

In his first year as cabinet secretary under Cameron, Jeremy Heywood remained intensely involved in operations in Downing Street, beefing up the Number 10 policy unit and helping it to get a grip on some difficult policy areas, including the health reforms. More than this, Heywood helped to restore order to the centre of government: at a time when many in Downing Street were under fire, Cameron placed great trust in his intellect, workrate and judgment.

Clarity on policy was aided by Andrew Cooper, a longstanding strategist and moderniser in the party, who had joined Downing Street in 2011 as director of political strategy. Cooper became concerned by the lack of any clear strategy beyond Osborne's economic plan, a gap that Hilton's departure had served only to highlight. Cooper's polling led him to conclude that Cameron and the Tories needed to refine their message around two key themes, which were eventually unveiled at the 2012 party conference in Birmingham: the need for Britain to compete in the 'global race', and the building of an 'aspiration nation' that offered equality of opportunity and celebrated honest endeavour. Throughout 2012, even Cameron's advisers had been telling him that he needed to make a clear statement about his own beliefs and why he was in politics, to answer the cacophony of 'what does he stand for?' questions. Never comfortable doing this, Cameron nevertheless consented to deliver a personal credo in his 2012 party conference leader's speech, notably in the passage where he talked about his father. It was to be the most important and impressive of his party conference speeches as prime minister.

This, together with Boris Johnson's re-election as mayor of London in May 2012 (where a loss would have been a massive blow to Cameron), the first signs of better economic news, and Cameron's Bloomberg speech in January 2013 offering a renegotiation of and referendum on Britain's membership of the EU, all contributed to a new sense of purpose in the government as it negotiated tricky mid-term waters. The impact, however, was yet to be felt in the polls.

Phase 3: 'Initiative regained', February 2013 – April 2014
Dominant figure: George Osborne

This 15-month period saw continued turbulence on many fronts. Cameron suffered a series of defeats at the hands of backbenchers, most notably in August 2013 over his proposal to intervene against the Assad regime in Syria after its alleged use of chemical weapons. The coalition's very survival came under even greater strain. It had earlier sustained severe damage after the Lib Dems lost the referendum to introduce the alternative vote (AV), and when the Conservatives were defeated on all-important electoral boundary changes. Backbenchers and members of both parties were increasingly critical of the coalition. It was the personal chemistry between Cameron and Nick Clegg, and between Osborne and Treasury chief secretary Danny Alexander, which held the coalition together. As did simple electoral logic: it was not in the interests of either leadership to see it break up. On the Lib Dem side, the lack of a credible alternative leader to Clegg was another factor.

This third period started with some very bleak moments, notably the loss of Britain's triple-A credit status in February 2013. Two months later, IMF chief economist Oliver Blanchard said that Osborne was 'playing with fire' if he continued upon the course of austerity, while the Office for National Statistics talked of the risk of a 'triple-dip' recession. This strife ended in April 2014 when the IMF admitted that it had underestimated the UK economy and instead predicted that it was likely to grow quicker than any other advanced economy. Osborne had been through some dark days since the 2012 budget and now took the credit for this new optimism.

The improved economic news was the key factor in the revival of the government's confidence, and in gaining a better response from the press than it had enjoyed at any time since early 2011. Cameron's EU referendum announcement initially gave Eurosceptics much of what they sought and tipped the press further in his favour, as did the dawning realisation that, with the 2015 general election rapidly approaching, Ed Miliband – seen by some as unconvincing – might be the next prime minister. However, it was not until the spring of 2014, notably with Osborne's budget (including the announcement to give savers greater freedom over their pensions) that momentum was fully established.

Phase 4: 'Eyes on the prize', April 2014 – May 2015
Dominant figure: Lynton Crosby

The departure of Hilton in early 2012 had left a strategic gap in Cameron's camp. This was filled in 2013 by the Australian pollster Lynton Crosby, who was brought into Number 10 as chief election strategist. Crosby's approach was summed up in his advice to Cameron to 'get the barnacles off the boat': he saw a government that was uncertain of what it was saying and undisciplined in saying it. He began to persuade Cameron and his team to adopt a core message just four words long: 'long-term economic plan'.

Crosby demanded a high price for taking the reins on an election campaign he always knew would be a real challenge, so he joined on the understanding that his advice would be followed at all costs and that he would deal almost exclusively with Cameron and Osborne. A high point of his influence came with the dismissal of Gove in the July 2014 cabinet reshuffle, a decision put down to the education secretary's failure to stay on message and his alienation of teachers, whose support was deemed to be critical if the 2015 election was to be won. The fact that Gove was otherwise so close to Cameron shows the extent of Crosby's sway. Whether it has done enough to tip the election in Cameron's favour is yet to be seen.

Cameron's leadership style

For the first two weeks in office, officials could not disguise their delight at having a prime minister who was calm, polite and orderly, in contrast to the chaotic Brown. Cameron possesses many of the qualities that a prime minister needs: he is intellectually very bright, hardworking (despite the media's perception that he is 'chillaxed') and measured. He runs tight meetings, controls the agenda without alienating attenders, and sums up succinctly. He is a good – occasionally great – public speaker, with an exceptional ability to master a brief quickly and to speak off the cuff. He is quick and effective at processing papers in his boxes, which a PM needs to do if he is to cut through the torrent of work and gain the respect of his officials. On foreign policy, he proved to be gifted at forging relationships with overseas leaders, a skill he wasn't known for previously. His relationship with President Obama may have been less close than that of many previous prime ministers with their American counterparts (notably Margaret Thatcher with Ronald Reagan, and Blair with Bill Clinton and George W Bush). However, Obama is not a leader given to such intimacy. They have a functional and effective, if not warm, relationship. Cameron did, however, forge a close working relationship with German chancellor Angela Merkel, and with a series of leaders across Europe and beyond.

Intensely loyal, Cameron likes to listen to those people who he has known well for a very long time. His Number 10 has thus been unusually stable in its first term, with chief of staff Ed Llewellyn, 'gatekeeper-in-chief' Kate Fall and Osborne among his most senior and longstanding advisors. Almost as significant was ?(C)minence-grise Oliver Letwin, a core figure on both the policy agenda and in oiling the coalition wheels at the highest level throughout the life of the government.

The changes to Cameron's inner team that did occur over the parliament were mostly foisted upon him. Hilton's departure was preceded the year before by the forced departure of director of communications Andy Coulson, who had joined Cameron's inner circle in 2007. Cameron had depended heavily upon Coulson for giving him an authentic ear to 'ordinary people', a group that Cameron had rarely encountered personally and perhaps did not completely understand. He tried desperately to keep hold of Coulson as the hacking furore grew from late 2010 onwards; indeed, Cameron held on to him long after it would have been wise to let go, which is admirably loyal in some respects but na??ve in others. The only outsider to penetrate Cameron's inner circle during these five years was Craig Oliver, Coulson's successor, who joined Number 10 from the BBC in 2011 as an unknown to Cameron and his team.

By the same token, even to his own side, Cameron could be seen as cliquey and overly reliant on people with whom he shares a social background. This trait was memorably characterised by backbencher Nadine Dorries, in one of the most devastating put-downs of the last decade, that Cameron and Osborne were 'two posh boys who don't know the price of milk'.

Cameron has favoured continuity in his cabinet ministers. Indeed, he viewed previous prime ministers as erring in their belief that reshuffles improved the standing and effectiveness of their governments, and thus strove to keep his key ministers in place. Osborne has remained chancellor throughout, as has Theresa May as home secretary; William Hague was moved from his position as foreign secretary only in the July 2014 reshuffle, the most decisive reshuffle of Cameron's premiership.

Cameron is a better leader than manager. He made it clear at the outset that he wanted his cabinet ministers to run their own departments, an admirable principle but problematic when it came to exercising strong central control. Some ministers were given too much leeway and went off in their own direction, like Andrew Lansley in his time as health secretary. Others were left too long in post when they were showing too little drive, such as Ken Clarke as minister without portfolio, while others, like Gove, were allowed to continue unchallenged in their overly revved-up ways. The regular 'stock-taking' meetings at Number 10 that Blair held with departmental ministers to check that they were delivering on their agendas disappeared from the calendar until 2012/13, when Cameron reinvented himself as more a 'chief executive' than the 'chairman' he had first set out to be.

The effectiveness and direction of government was thus criticised for a lack of cohesion and oversight from Number 10. The initial decision to cut back on the number of special advisers in the policy unit hampered effectiveness, and may have contributed to a series of mistakes, mostly notably the U-turn over the selling of the national forests in 2011 and the failure to fully comprehend Lansley's NHS reforms. Whitehall insiders complained that they received a clearer and quicker response from the Treasury than from Number 10.

Cameron has not been a strong or steady manager of his party, and he was slow to learn from the struggles he had had in managing his MPs in opposition from 2005. The resentments that many backbenchers had upon the formation of the coalition were exacerbated by a lack of careful management and diplomacy; he was wont to ignore his backbenchers as he walked through the lobby in the House of Commons, leaving many of them feeling slighted. In late 2012, in the midst of the turbulent third period, Cameron and his team recognised that change had to come, and reached out to the parliamentary party. By then, however, the damage had been done: the narrative was that of a prime minister who was never greatly interested in the views of his backbenchers, and who was highhanded in meetings when they attempted to convey those views.

It antagonised ideologues in the Conservative party that Cameron was not a prime minister with an ideological vision, either at home or abroad. He has strongly conservative instincts, which can be compared most closely to those of Harold Macmillan (1957–63), a supreme pragmatist. Many of Cameron's sternest critics are strong admirers of Thatcher, and Cameron's empirical approach grated with worshippers of the great lost leader, who inconveniently died halfway through the parliament, reminding the world of her commanding, and commandingly ideological, presence. By contrast, Cameron's early quest to 'detoxify' the Tory brand never chimed with the right of the party. Heartily promoted by Hilton, this campaign included embracing the green agenda, localism and – above all – the 'big society'. Then, in 2011, when the economic outlook and electoral logic led him to begin to abandon this agenda, Cameron failed to produce a fresh set of policies to take their place, fuelling criticism that he was an insubstantial figure who blew with the wind.

It is not that he lacks principles. Cameron is at heart a social reformer: he genuinely wants to extend opportunities for all. He pressed ahead with legislation on gay marriage even when many in his party and even in his own inner circle were telling him that it would do far more harm than good to the Conservative cause. This example of principled leadership counters the charge that he has no inner beliefs; however, equally, this was the issue that further inflamed his troublesome right wing.

Similarly, Cameron made a brave decision after the SNP's 2011 Scottish parliament victory to grasp the nettle and hold a referendum on independence in September 2014. The decision was very much Cameron's own and was an example of his decisive leadership; many prime ministers could have tried to avoid such a potentially disruptive poll.

Nevertheless, the same accusations of opportunism were levelled at his foreign policy. After the 'Arab spring', Cameron initially favoured intervention, as in Libya 2011, which was highly praised at the time on both the political right and the left. However, after parliament blocked his proposed intervention in Syria in August 2013, he became cautious at precisely the moment in 2014 when many insiders felt the time had come for Britain to take a strong stance against the Islamic State jihadists and against Russia over its aggression in Ukraine. His European policy was also considered to be overly influenced by opinion at home, difficult though it was to navigate a steady course at such a time.

Cameron is good at handling domestic crises, although he could be overly loyal and indeed stubborn about holding on to ministers for too long, as he did with culture secretary Maria Miller when she became embroiled in an expenses scandal, before public opinion effectively forced her resignation in April 2014. He has been accused of being petulant and of acting impulsively without doing adequate homework and behind-the-scenes diplomacy – his unsuccessful bid to stop Jean-Claude Juncker from becoming European Commission president in the summer of 2014, for example, served as a painful reminder of how isolated Cameron has become in Europe. On several occasions, it was salutary to remember that Cameron is young – aged 43 when he became prime minister – to hold such a senior position. Not since Lord Liverpool 198 years ago has there been such a young incumbent. Blair was a similar age when he first became prime minister, and he too made the errors of a young man, where an older and wiser head might have acted differently.

The fact of coalition brought out the strengths in Cameron; no other senior Conservative of this current generation could have made it work as successfully. He had a deep respect for the person and predicament of Clegg, and without that relationship the coalition would neither have formed nor remained intact. Clegg felt that Cameron – in contrast to Brown – was a person he could work with. Equally important was Osborne's tactical sense that coalition was necessary and that, once formed, it would need to be oiled. Osborne, Cameron, Clegg and Alexander made up 'the Quad' – an informal body not envisaged in the original coalition agreement – which became the principal mechanism through which agreements were thrashed out, especially budgetary matters.

The Conservatives undoubtedly got the better end of the coalition. They gained not only the position of prime minister but also the next-most senior jobs: chancellor, foreign secretary and home secretary, as well as the defence and education secretaryships. In negotiating coalition policy, they were not unhappy to concede inheritance tax reform, and they found the concessions they made on the constitution sufficiently woolly to be accepted without difficulty. (Although difficulties were later to arise from a difference in understanding as to exactly what had been agreed.) Clegg decided not to head any department himself but instead to range widely as deputy prime minister – a decision regarded by many as a mistake, because it denied him a power base to work from. The Lib Dems had to swallow not only tuition fees but also nuclear power stations and the Trident nuclear deterrent. Apart from fixed-term parliaments, quickly enacted in 2011, they lost out on their wider hopes for the constitution, including reforms of the electoral system (AV) and the House of Lords, whereas many Conservative policies were enacted, notably in education and welfare, and on Europe. Nevertheless, much to the Conservatives' irritation, the Lib Dems proved to be a block on some of what they wanted to do, especially with regards to immigration, reform of the Human Rights Act, labour market deregulation, and market-based reforms in welfare and social policy.

With hindsight, it is easy to say that Cameron was slow to respond to changes that manifested themselves during these years. However, arguably, he could have done more to anticipate Ukip's rise, which he exacerbated by his delay in offering a referendum on EU membership. He underestimated the strength of the public resentment that caused the Ukip surge, despite polls showing that the insurgent party was taking three votes from the Tories for every one that it took from Labour. He failed to understand the rising anger at the scale of immigration from the EU, not least during a recession. Indeed, the country had moved significantly to the right (on these issues at least). Coulson tried to tell him this, but it took Crosby to help realign Cameron with the country. Cameron also underestimated the extent of the anger and frustration in Scotland at being governed by remote 'London elites' – the same force which helped catapult Ukip forward. Finally, Cameron and Osborne have consistently underestimated Ed Miliband. They were delighted when he beat his brother in September 2010 for the party leadership. They never judged him to be a leader capable of taking the strong action Labour required. Whether they were right to underestimate him will only be known with the results of the general election.

Achievements and failures

Judgment of this government will centre on its economic policies. During this parliament, the economy has undoubtedly improved, for which Osborne and the government have rightly received praise. The question that will always be asked – and which is likely never to be answered definitively – is how far the improvement was due to government policy and whether a gentler approach, or even a more brutal one, would have been equally or more effective or more socially just.

Osborne's 'plan A' was criticised for damaging the recovery and for cutting too deeply – and for failing on its own terms: Osborne's commitment to eliminate the deficit during the life of the parliament had to be abandoned after only two years. Critics claim that the recovery only occurred when Osborne modified 'plan A' by introducing measures to stimulate the economy more. For some, the economic success story was grounded in the 2013 budget's 'Help to buy' housing scheme, which revived the construction industry and boosted consumer confidence. Other economists say that the credit is due to the Bank of England for its policy of quantitative easing, and still others say that the crucial factor was the abatement of the wider Eurozone crisis from the summer of 2012, shortly after which the UK economy began to pick up.

Economists will never agree, but there can be no denying that now there are 1.5 million more new jobs than in 2010, inflation is low, and Britain has the fastest growth rate in the western world. History will also record that, despite a very troubled economy and immense pressures on daily life, the government managed to avoid the significant social unrest associated with previous downturns, with the exception of the 2011 summer riots.

The other principal achievements of the government came on the domestic front. Gove's reforms to education greatly accelerated the number of academies (semi-autonomous state schools), and free schools were introduced from scratch, with 150 being established or proposed by 2014. In the face of fierce and hostile resistance, Gove drove a whole series of reforms to examinations and the curriculum aimed at making the academic life of schools much more rigorous. However, it is not yet clear to what extent his policies will increase social mobility, which is his great passion. In health, the controversial and divisive reforms introduced by Lansley were smoothed down under his successor, Jeremy Hunt, a more deft political operator. Some improvements in the quality of the service were being experienced by patients from 2012, but it remains to be seen whether the reforms have actually offered patients a better service, and whether the gains will be worth the enormous damage done to the Conservative brand by accusations that they were 'privatising' the NHS.

At the Department for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith has introduced significant reforms to welfare policy that have gone some way to ensuring that welfare is targeted at the most deserving. The amount that could be claimed in welfare was capped at average family earnings. His success in getting people formerly dependent upon welfare back into work played an important part in the reduction of unemployment, and contributed to the proportion of out-of-work households reaching its lowest level for nearly 20 years. Some other reforms, such as to disability benefit, were heavily criticised, while the introduction of his flagship policy, universal credit – a unified benefit replacing six means-tested benefits and tax credits – has been repeatedly delayed by technical and ICT problems. By mid-parliament, he had lost the confidence of Osborne, but managed to fight off attempts to reshuffle him out of post.

Human rights have caused Cameron considerable difficulty, most notably over the delayed deportation of Abu Qatada. Cameron has found himself frustrated by EU law, which has prevented him from coming even close to his target of restricting immigration to 'tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands', a key election promise in 2010.

Abroad, Cameron has had a bumpy ride in Europe, which was not helped by the prolonged economic crisis in the eurozone throughout most of the parliament. In June 2013, he achieved the most significant EU budget rebate since Thatcher and won the grudging support of Merkel for his referendum move. If the Conservatives win the 2015 election, the referendum will be held in 2017, but it is far from clear what the substance of any successful 'renegotiation' in advance of that referendum might be. The stakes are very high.

Indeed, Cameron's freedom to manoeuvre on exacting concessions from the EU is severely constrained. A significant bloc of British voters will be satisfied with nothing less than concessions to the principles of free movement and equal treatment, concessions that would strike at the very heart of the European project. Cameron may find himself forced to set out explicit red lines on these issues in the 2015 election campaign and in the build-up to the 2017 referendum, from which it would be humiliating to have to retreat later. Compounding matters, attempts to reform these areas will be confronted by severe resistance from the EU. Domestically, if he fails to secure the promised concessions then he will be unable to maintain his authority over the Tory party unless he delivers upon his threat to advise the British public to vote to leave the EU. This issue will define the first half of his next government if he remains in Number 10 after May 2015.

Cameron decided early in his premiership to set a date of 2014 for the return of British forces from Afghanistan. This brought to an end the long British involvement in that chronically unsettled country and left Afghanistan with an uncertain future. Cameron was a stickler, after all the furore over Blair's sofa government in the run up to the Iraq war in 2003, for correct form. This decision was thus formalised and overseen by the National Security Council, a new body Cameron set up soon after the general election and his most significant personal innovation in the prime minister's machinery. After the tensions of the Brown years, relations with the military improved greatly, although there were disagreements over the speed of withdrawal from Afghanistan and the extent of budget cuts. Concerns came in several areas, including his readiness his commit British forces in Libya so soon after mothballing the naval strike wing.

There are two particular question marks over Cameron's foreign policy. First, was he so preoccupied with battles at home that he failed to focus sufficiently on foreign policy? Second, when it comes to foreign policy, was he more of a reacter than a shaper? His veto at the EU Council in December 2011, for example, was received with an uproarious response at home. It is an open question whether Britain's standing in the world is much greater now than it was in 2010.

A backdrop of challenges and constraints

Cameron benefited from some good fortune as prime minister, including having Ed rather than David Miliband as Labour leader from the autumn of 2010, and the lack of any viable alternative leader within his own party. Nevertheless, on balance, Cameron faced a set of factors that were fundamentally adverse, and adverse to a greater extent than has been faced by many other political leaders. In 2008, when he first learned about the extent of the problem, Cameron was shocked by the economic outlook and need for harsh cuts, and the ongoing problems in the eurozone provided a difficult backdrop to his premiership. From early 2011 until mid-2014, the critical right-wing press he faced contrasted with what a Conservative leader would typically expect. The lack of an overall Conservative majority in parliament and the requirement to work with the Lib Dems were constraints that no postwar prime minister of any party has had to face, with the exception of Jim Callaghan (1976–79).

Cameron himself, of course, was the architect of the coalition, seeing it in part as a way of restraining his right wing, and as offering real opportunities for furthering his own agenda. It is no surprise that his backbenchers remained a constant thorn in his side. The concessions they secured, either claimed or real, included the defeat of Cameron's proposal to intervene in Syria, the reduction in the EU budget (as opposed to a mere freeze), halting any increase in petrol duty, and defeat over Lords reform. No Conservative prime minister since 1945 – with the exception perhaps of John Major (1990–97) – has faced such angry and independent-minded backbenchers.

Backbenchers have seen their power over the government significantly enhanced by the Wright reforms, introduced in 2010. This has allowed them to schedule debates on topics that are embarrassing for the government. In October 2011, 81 Conservative MPs defied a three-line whip to vote for an EU referendum. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011, devised to stop the coalition from breaking apart, also contributed to the newly increased confidence of backbenchers. Having lost the power to choose the date of a general election, the prime minister can no longer frighten their backbenchers into line with threats of an early election.

Cameron was unusual in that his straitjacket was as tight in foreign policy as it was in domestic policy. The weakest US administration on foreign policy since Jimmy Carter (1977–81) did not help; the UK is always stronger when the US walks tall in the world. The Arab spring, the issue of militant Islam and a newly assertive Russia under Vladimir Putin provided challenges to which there were no ready answers, any more than there was low-hanging fruit to pick in Europe. Rather than seeing all prime ministers as playing on a level field, it is against the backdrop of all these constraints that we must judge Cameron.

How history will judge Cameron

The general election still looks wide open, and is complicated for Cameron by the uncertainties of the Ukip vote and the need to fight on three fronts at once. The loss of the boundary changes that would have taken effect for the 2015 general election – revenge exacted by the Lib Dems for their failure to achieve AV and Lords reform – has undoubtedly damaged Cameron's prospects. These changes would have badly dented the Lib Dems' prospects, as they would have lost the benefit of incumbency in settled constituencies; this defeat, therefore, should have come as no surprise. Now the electoral logic is stacked against the Conservatives, with Miliband needing as little as 34 per cent of the popular vote to win a majority, while the Tories will need close to 40 per cent. Douglas Carswell's defection to Ukip is yet another wildcard in a highly volatile electoral position. The failure of the electorate so far to respond to improved economic news, which the Conservatives had counted on, is not helping their cause. This election may well go down to the wire.

Cameron's standing in the eyes of his contemporaries will depend greatly on whether he wins an outright majority in 2015, especially after his failure to do so in 2010. The judgment of history upon the years 2010–2015 will be far less dependent upon the result of the 2015 election. Indeed, Cameron's place in history is already secure: by holding together the coalition for five years, significantly improving the economic outlook from a desperately weak starting point, overseeing some steady if still unproven domestic reforms, and possibly winning the Scottish referendum, Cameron has ensured that he will be seen as a prime minister of enduring importance. In particular, Cameron accomplished two profound achievements as prime minister: sticking to 'plan A' on the economy, and sticking with the coalition. The 'big, open and comprehensive offer' to the Lib Dems was very much his own initiative. For better or worse – and I think better – the coalition was his, and history will judge him for it.

Osborne's contribution to this government will rank as high in history as that of any Conservative chancellor since 1945. The critical decisions at the Treasury were clearly Osborne's, and he was also responsible for much of the government's tactical thinking. Osborne is a more natural political operator than Cameron, and possesses the quickest mind among the PM's advisors as to what to do and who to promote or dismiss.

Regardless of the debate among economists about the pros and cons of austerity, it can be said with absolute certainty that by working together so successfully, the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition provided the country with political stability at a time when it was desperately needed, and that this stability made a significant contribution to the economic recovery.

From Cameron's personal perspective, his reputation might well be higher if he loses the 2015 election. The biggest cloud on Cameron's horizon, should he win, will be the EU referendum, promised for 2017. As already noted, one of Cameron's critical mistakes was to underestimate the Ukip threat until it was too late; Carswell's defection (with the possibility of more to come) was widely seen as a harbinger of a long-awaited split on the right over Europe. Cameron now finds himself backed into a corner from which the only escape – if the EU refuses to agree to his demands – may be to take Britain out of the EU. This is something that Cameron undoubtedly feels would be disastrous for Britain, though he dare not say this publicly.

The worst-case scenario for Cameron in 2015 might be winning the general election with a very small majority, leaving him prey to the whims of his Eurosceptic and right-wing backbenchers. His skills as a leader were ideally suited to the fudges and compromises of coalition politics. A new era might call for a leader with an entirely different skillset, and a clearer set of defined beliefs. 'Cometh the hour, cometh the man' might well be Cameron's epitaph. The 'hour' was 2010–15; the man, David Cameron. All successful leaders need a degree of luck; Cameron's was to be prime minister at this particularly febrile point in British history.

Anthony Seldon is a political historian and biographer of former prime ministers Major, Blair and Brown.

This article appears in edition 21.2 of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas.