To date, it has been little recognised that by far the worst error of David Cameron’s career was his speech and resignation on 24 June. Apparently, moments before resigning, in what sounds like the foot-stamping of a petulant teenager, Cameron told members of his inner circle “Why should I do all the hard s***?” Of course, the correct answer to that question is “Because you’re the PM, and it’s your job. You caused this mess, you clean it up.”
What a statesmanlike Prime Minister would have said is something like this:
The Referendum has shown that there are deep divisions within our country, but the result is not overwhelming. As Leave campaigners themselves said, 48:52 is unfinished business. If the referendum had been binding it would have required a supermajority of 60 or 66%, and most likely a threshold of the total electorate too. If this advisory referendum had shown a clear majority of that sort, our course would be clearer, but in the current circumstances I therefore propose to consult with my colleagues in Parliament to decide how we should proceed.
Instead he mouthed platitudes including “The British people have voted to leave the European Union, and their will must be respected” and “The will of the British people is an instruction that must be delivered”. He thereby set the tone for all the following debate, and condemned the country to chaos for years to come. For everything else I can forgive him, but for his cowardly resignation and for that speech there can be no forgiveness.
OK, it’s a crowded field; Cameron’s leadership was full of bad decisions, although I think the 24 June is the one mistake that stands head and shoulders above all others. But let’s briefly look at some of the other candidates.
Cameron’s first mistake, and one that haunted him throughout his leadership, was that he failed to confront the Eurosceptics in late 2005 when he was first elected leader. From then on, he was always looking over his shoulder; it drove him to promise a referendum, for example, and to give confrontational speeches about our relationship with Europe, rather than getting involved in building a better EU for all nations.
The referendum campaign itself was full of errors too, mostly brought on by putting the interests of the party above those of the country, and an over-confidence that the vote would be an easy win.
Let’s look at Cameron’s history in more detail.
Cameron was elected leader of the Tory party in December 2005, beating David Davis by 90 votes to 57 in the final MP round, and polling 68% of the membership. At the time, UKIP was an irritating bunch of troublemakers which had polled just 2.3% in the recent general election, although they had managed 16% in the 2004 European elections. The Tories were in disarray, having been drubbed by Blair who still held a 66-seat majority (down from 160), despite his unpopularity over the Iraq war. The Conservative campaign under Howard had majored on immigration control, crime reduction and public service efficiency savings.
Here was Cameron’s first big error. It was the perfect time to force his part to make up its mind on Europe. There was a big schism between pro- and anti-EU factions, a state which had existed for decades (and still exists now, of course). The bunch that John Major described as ‘bastards’ in an accidental revelation in 1993 were still agitating against Europe, but they were definitely in the minority. So, Cameron could have gone either way, but pro-Europe would be easier. That would have left UKIP out on a limb, with all three major parties pro-EU, the purples would have looked like the dinosaurs that they are. Admittedly they would have been strengthened by a few defectors from the Tory Eurosceptics, but most of the Tory party would have chosen to back their leader. The Conservative rank and file have a long tradition of choosing the side on which their bread is buttered.
If Cameron had shut down the Eurosceptics he would have been left with a united, progressive Tory party able to focus on all the other stuff that they wanted to do, with a good chance that he’d have won a decisive majority in 2010. I don’t think that would have been good for the country, but it would have been great for Cameron’s party.
Having failed to be statesmanlike at the start of his premiership, Cameron was left trying to steer a fragmented party which was always trying to veer to one side or another (often both at the same time). This time the mistake was probably a forced error. In a desperate attempt to keep the Eurosceptics happy, Cameron promised a referendum on Europe if he won the 2010 election. He announced this in a very Eurosceptic broadcast, challenging Gordon Brown to fulfil the Labour pledge to hold such a referendum. As usual, Cameron was playing the politics of his own party rather than thinking rationally about the best future for the country. The fence-sitting just made him look weak, and contributed to failing to get an overall majority.
At least being in coalition gave him an excuse to postpone the referendum but, in yet another misjudgement, he renewed the referendum pledge in 2013. By this time, Britain had been an EU member for four decades; the majority of the population had lived their whole adult lives within the EU, and had no idea what the alternative might be like. But UKIP under the charismatic leadership of Nigel Farage had been making steady gains for almost a decade, and was now a real threat.
Kenneth Clarke (an ardent pro-European) was furious at the announcement which apparently Cameron made without consultation with his cabinet colleagues. As history has revealed, Clarke was right; it has proved to be a decision far more disastrously fateful than the Liberal Democrats’ pledge on tuition fees. It has been suggested that Cameron did not expect to win the 2015 General Election with the majority required to put him in a position to have to carry through on his promise; he certainly did not consider any outcome other than winning the referendum and thereby silencing his own Eurosceptics for good. Perhaps he was relying on the Lib Dems to save him from his pledge again. Another misjudgement.
This brings us to the election win of 2015, which is when a whole series of howlers begin. With only a margin of twelve, Cameron is now in total thrall to the Eurosceptic troublemakers of his own party. Any misstep and they will bring him down, if not the government. As a result, with blind confidence that everything will be all right, he brings forward legislation to enact the referendum. Crucially, he capitulates to the pro-leave demands by gerrymandering in three ways:
- not allowing youngsters to vote, despite the precedent of the Scottish Independence Referendum;
- excluding long-term ex-pat British citizens living abroad, contrary to a 2014 pledge that they would be included in UK elections;
- excluding UK residents who were citizens of other EU countries, flying in the face of the age-old ‘no taxation without representation’ mantra.
High on the list of post-2015 errors is the embarrassing visit to Brussels in February 2016. With an ideal opportunity to encourage the EU to start the process of internal reform it so badly needs, he instead adopts a selfish, blackmailing approach which puts up the backs of all the 27, and results in just a few minor concessions. A plea for reform would have found much support from many in the EU, including Guy Verhofstadt, the highly-influential leader of the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). It would also have played well in the UK, and spiked one of the major guns of the Leave campaign: that the EU is too cumbersome ever to reform. Instead, Cameron is left to spin as best he can the minor concessions he has twisted out of the 27. Amazingly, he doesn’t even manage to spin that well; the concessions he did get were worth more than the public gave him credit for.
The many mistakes of the campaign itself have been well documented elsewhere. Suffice it to say that Cameron totally underestimated the skilled mendacity of his opponents, and in his overconfidence was more focussed on holding together his fracturing party than on actually ensuring a win for Remain. Muddling the message over whether the Referendum was advisory or not was also pretty silly. One can’t help being critical of the civil service over that: they should have questioned the advisability of an official leaflet carrying the unconstitutional promise “the government will implement what you decide”.
Updated 24th Jan 2017: Slight re-ordering of content to make a brief read more informative.