Washington, DC, United States – It is unusual for the audience at an author reading event to be greeted by a volunteer taking written questions in advance, and to be told: “The questions are pre-selected – maybe you’ll get lucky”.
Tuesday night’s “sold out” event saw David Cameron – the former prime minister of the United Kingdom, now memoirist – come to town to sign and sell his book, and “to provide, for the first time, his perspective on the EU referendum and his views on the future of Britain’s place in the world following Brexit”.
But by the time the doors to George Washington University’s 244-seat Jack Morton Auditorium were closed, dozens of seats remained unclaimed. And despite the timing of his memoir, the final chapters of his true legacy – that of Brexit, a high-stakes socioeconomic drama that threatens to ruin the world’s sixth-largest national economy – have yet to be written.
The book, which retails for $36, is titled For the Record, though any form of video recording or photography was strictly banned from this event, enforced by university security guards – separate from Cameron’s security detail – patrolling the aisles.
This short US tour is something of a respite for the former PM, during which he can get away with signing books backstage, far from either gushing or inquisitive readers.
What is not being answered is why, three years after leaving politics, Cameron has now left his $31,000 shepherd’s hut – in which he reportedly wrote his book – to continue to avoid the public, in Britain or even in its former colony.
“To say that he will receive a hostile reception [at a UK book launch event] is an understatement,” wrote the New Statesman’s Martin Fletcher in September. “Much of the [British] population consider him the most disastrous prime minister of modern times – with only his two successors coming close.”
But while escaping the deluge of negative UK commentary, his jaunt to the US is not without its own stinging rebuke served up by this nation’s literary class: the US’s most-trusted book reviewers and publications have given it the silent treatment – even though, published by HarperCollins, the book has been on the shelves for nearly two weeks.
If it happens, Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union will be a seismic break from the formal trade and political consortium of which the UK has been part for more than 40 years. Brexit, the result of a 2016 referendum that Cameron instigated and oversaw, remains uncertain – as no exit treaty has yet been agreed with the EU, and a majority of parliamentarians fiercely oppose leaving the union without an agreement.
In Washington, DC, after the audience was shown a four-minute-and-20-second video of Cameron’s greatest political hits, the former prime minister delivered his Brexit narrative. He claimed that because all the other EU nations agreed in December 2011 to bypass Britain and sign a euro treaty he had previously vetoed, he was essentially forced to act on behalf of Britain’s national interests.
“At that moment I could see that we did have a really serious problem as well as the political pressure for a referendum,” Cameron told the audience. “And so I set out, a little bit late, three years before the referendum, the case for renegotiation or a referendum. But as you can tell this did not work out the way that I wanted it to.”
He added: “I felt that I was trying to deal honestly with a genuine problem in front of the country. And I think the role of politics and politicians is to try and deal with problems rather than to put them off. And when you’re prime minister, you do get to realise that not doing something is also a decision.”
The decision not to do something appears to have been the choice of publications on this side of the Atlantic. While coverage of Cameron’s US book tour has produced a mere handful of interviews, reviews of For the Record are notable by their absence from any of US’s well-established arts review publications, including the New York Review of Books and the New York Times Book Review. They are simply not there.
Over on Amazon.com’s best sellers lists, Cameron’s book was on Friday ranking in 26,098th position overall. It is the 1,655th most-popular memoir available on the site. That is a long way behind the Audible audiobook edition of Permanent Record, the memoir of rogue US whistle-blower Edward Snowden, which sits in 10th place, with 4.5 out of a possible five stars, which was also published at the end of September.
Cameron’s autobiography has garnered just 1.8 stars, from just four customer reviews, three of which are unambiguously negative, with the remaining one being lukewarm.
One reader review was titled, “Pointless, self-serving … at least the material matches the man!”
Another wrote: “In addition to a deep lack of genuine basic political acumen, the prime minister’s flawed historic call shows a serious level of pompous hubris, adolescent cockiness, and audacious inexperience.”
The coup de grace review was titled “Printed on the wrong sort of paper”. Reader Greg LP, who gave For the Record two stars, began by writing, “I admit my bias by saying that I believe Mr Cameron to be by far the greatest British Prime Minister since Hugh Grant.”
He continued: “To my immense disappointment, I soon discovered the pages were made of rather tough and abrasive paper … Had the pages been made out of soft, triple ply, paper, preferably perforated, I would have easily given this book five stars.”
And, for the record, this reporter’s question at Tuesday’s event – “If there is another referendum, will you actively support a campaign to remain in the EU?” – was not selected by the aides to the former prime minister.