To Neville Chamberlain and Anthony Eden we must now add the name David Cameron. A prime minister who will be remembered for just one thing; a catastrophic error of judgment. Not just the error itself, but his response to it, when he walked away rather than make any effort to deal with the mess he had created. Stupidity and cowardice will be the only words carved onto his legacy tombstone.
In some ways he was actually worse than Chamberlain and Eden. They, at least, thought they were doing the right thing in the broader interests of the country. Cameron opted for a referendum because he thought he was bound to win it and, in doing so, would push Nigel Farage and Ukip (and this was just after Ukip’s success in the 2014 Euro elections) back into the electoral fringes of British politics. In other words, he acted solely in the interests of the Conservative Party and himself.
He also made the same mistake he made in the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014, when he remained mostly on the sidelines, assuming that victory for the Union was assured. So he didn’t bother making a case for the Union, opting instead for the sort of fear-mongering approach he later deployed in the EU referendum.
He may be right that there were a lot of lies and myths peddled by elements of the Leave campaign, but there were also many lies peddled by Remain. At no point did he set out a vision for the UK inside the EU to counter the Leave vision. He just assumed that Remain would carry the day because enough people would be afraid of a leap into the unknown.
But what he never understood – and it’s clear from his memoir that he still doesn’t understand – was that millions of people were more concerned about specific problems within the UK (a place many of them no longer recognised nor identified with) than with the relationship the UK had with the EU.
In other words, the referendum was never really about the EU at all; it was always about much bigger issues and concerns. None of which Cameron addressed. None of which the Remain campaign addressed. None of which they have bothered addressing since then – hence the ongoing rise of populism within the Conservative Party and the emergence of the Brexit Party.
Cameron thought he couldn’t lose. And that’s why he never prepared for defeat. There is no evidence whatsoever that he gave instructions to key strategists, advisors and civil servants to prepare – the just in case option – for defeat. Which explains why he ran from office. I’m not suggesting that had he remained in office it would have made a huge difference; but, at the very least, he could have spent a few months talking to the opposition parties in Parliament, working up a game-plan for his own party, talking to the EU and preparing the ground for his successor. He did none of that. He ran. And in running he fuelled the very chaos which provided the framework for what became a full-blown crisis; something which wasn’t inevitable in the early hours of June 24, 2016.
To be honest I don’t know why he bothered writing his memoir. There is no hint of a mea culpa. There isn’t really all that much to talk about in terms of other aspects of his legacy. He isn’t even a particularly good or interesting writer. He doesn’t need the money. There is no reputation to salvage at this point.
Some people have suggested that it’s an act of revenge. Hmm. Political revenge works best when at least one side in a dispute still likes, respects or supports you, but both Remainers and Leavers can’t stand him. Theresa May’s memoirs will be much more interesting because she did her best in extraordinarily difficult circumstances to pull something out of the hat. I say that as someone who disagreed with her overall strategy, but I do acknowledge she had a courage he so obviously lacked.
I can’t avoid the conclusion that he wrote the book because he just wants to be liked. He has referred to the hostile reaction he still gets from the public (both sides of the debate), mentions his sleepless nights and hints at depression.
Since the evidence of his stupidity, cowardice, miscalculation and self-interest is so overwhelming there is little or no chance of being able to ‘set the record straight’. The fact that the chaos is worse now than it was when he left Downing Street in July 2016 means that there is no distance from which to judge objectively. He doesn’t appear to have many friends in the media or politics anymore; and there’s hardly a queue of people rushing to the studios or print to defend him.
Look at John Major, for example. A horrible time as prime minister. Relentlessly mocked. Worn down by a civil war with his Euro-sceptic rebels. Led the party to one of the worst defeats in its history. Yet a lot of people, even his detractors, had a soft spot for him: and still do. His memoir (John Major: The Autobiography) was also well written and nicely self-deprecating. The irony for Cameron – particularly given his background and upbringing – is that he probably wants to be as liked as Major.
In the same way that he ran from office too quickly, he has also produced this book (vanity project comes to mind) too quickly. He may now despise some of his former closest friends (Johnson and Gove in particular), yet he is the one who created the platform and provided the circumstances which paved the way for their actions. There were always risks with a referendum. Cameron ignored them. He didn’t prepare for defeat. He was an unenthusiastic, almost lazy, champion for Remain. He scuttled rather than regrouped, leaving his successor an almost impossible task. He will be remembered as maybe our worst PM. He deserves to be.