In a new book, David Cameron details his time as UK Prime Minister and his reaction to losing the country’s referendum on EU membership. George Kassimeris writes that future historians are unlikely to be any kinder to Cameron than today’s political commentators, and his unwillingness to offer an apology for the turbulence that followed the referendum will do little to restore his reputation.
It is now easy to forget, with everything that has gone on over the last three years, that David Cameron used to be a brilliant politician. On 7 December 2005 in his first dispatch box encounter, as opposition leader, with Tony Blair halfway through an exchange during Prime Minister’s Questions, Cameron suddenly pauses for 3 full seconds, then looks directly at Blair and says to the ecstatic delight of Tory MPs: ‘I want to talk about the future. He was the future once’. All a flustered Tony Blair, a formidable political performer in his own right, could come back with was jabbing his forefinger at him. It was a terrific and unforgettable piece of political theatre.
David Cameron’s ascent to the top was as effortless as it was meteoric. In fact, it was a classic trajectory of a typical British elite. Son of a City stockbroker is sent to posh Eton College following his father and elder brother, then to Oxford where despite mixing with individuals like Boris Johnson he still gains a first-class degree, marries the daughter of an aristocrat, becomes a Conservative MP and not long after the leader of the party.
When in 2010 David Cameron crossed the iconic black door of 10 Downing Street, he became the youngest British prime minister for two centuries, having successfully managed to form the first coalition government since the Second World War with a party (the Liberal Democrats) that, before it entered government, was the sworn enemy of the Conservatives. It goes without saying that considerable credit for this unlikely bipartisan relationship (which ought not to have lasted a year, let alone a full parliament) goes to Lib Dem leader at the time Nick Clegg but it was Cameron’s strategic vision and audacity to think it possible and his relentless team-building efforts to realise it.
Five years later, in 2015, David Cameron against all odds led the Conservatives to their first outright election victory since 1992. With hindsight, that unexpected electoral win came at a high price primarily because in his anxious attempt to hold his increasingly fractious party together on Europe and thus improve its chances of re-election, Cameron made a pledge to hold an in-out referendum on EU membership. It was that pledge in 2013 and his fateful decision three years later to actually press ahead with the referendum that will forever define (blacken, perhaps, is a more accurate word) his political career, irrespective of whatever else he achieved in his six years as prime minister.
Credit: Number 10/Arron Hoare (Crown Copyright)
When historians come to tell the story of the 2016 referendum, I very much doubt that they will be any kinder to David Cameron than today’s political commentators. Cameron’s decision, they will record, to go to the people with a straight in-or-out vote on British membership was a reckless, unnecessary gamble taken by an over-confident prime minister for narrow party-political purposes which when failed, injected massive quantities of poison into the bloodstream of the British body politic.
David Cameron’s new 752-page memoir, entitled For the Record, should have been used as an opportunity, after 3 years of national chaos and hurt, to make amends and give real meaning to the book’s title by actually issuing a proper, unreserved apology for taking a gamble with his own country’s future and losing.
Every apology needs to start with two simple words: “I’m sorry,” or “I apologise.” This is essential because only these words can express remorse over one’s intended or unintended damaging actions. Judging from the publication of serialised key extracts from his memoirs and the interviews he has given this week, it has become infuriatingly obvious that David Cameron cannot bring himself to utter them.
Cameron’s idea of atonement for what his fellow Tory and Brexit supporter Michael Portillo called ‘the greatest blunder ever made by a British prime minister’ is to write that he ‘deeply regrets the outcome and accepts that his approach failed’. And that he also ‘thinks about it every day, and worries desperately about what is going to happen next’.
Words, at times of national crisis, matter intensely. Considering what a deeply humiliating and humbling process Brexit has been, one would have hoped that after 3 years of supposed critical self-reflection Cameron would choose to emulate the example of his predecessor, Tony Blair, with whom he shared several political traits. Following the Chilcot inquiry’s criticisms of his costly decision to lead Britain to war in Iraq, Blair found the courage to express ‘more sorrow, regret and apology than you can ever know or believe’ for mistakes made in planning the conflict and for the consequences of the war.
It is this absence of a heartfelt mea culpa that is in my opinion the most disturbing aspect of the David Cameron Brexit story. That is his biggest failure. Not that he made a mistake however catastrophic and held a referendum that should have never been held. Nor that he made out of sheer complacency zero contingency plans for the event of a leave victory, however remote it was thought at the time. Not even that he resigned the day after the result effectively abrogating responsibility and leaving others to deal with the mess he created. David Cameron’s legacy is sealed but having had the grace to offer a full apology, even on paper, would have gone some way towards restoring his reputation.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.
George Kassimeris – University of Wolverhampton
Professor George Kassimeris is chair in security studies at the University of Wolverhampton. He tweets @GKassimeris