Argument

David Cameron Was a Historic and Disastrous Failure

The prime minister wanted to modernize the Tory Party and unify the United Kingdom. He accomplished exactly the opposite.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 24:  British Prime Minister David Cameron resigns on the steps of 10 Downing Street on June 24, 2016 in London, England. The results from the historic EU referendum has now been declared and the United Kingdom has voted to LEAVE the European Union.  (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 24: British Prime Minister David Cameron resigns on the steps of 10 Downing Street on June 24, 2016 in London, England. The results from the historic EU referendum has now been declared and the United Kingdom has voted to LEAVE the European Union. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

This is how a political life ends: with a crash, not a whimper. David Cameron’s place in history is now assured. He is the man who took the United Kingdom out of the European Union. As we wait for the full impact of Thursday’s referendum to be felt, he may be remembered as the prime minister who presided over the beginning of the end of the United Kingdom, too. Scottish independence, defeated as an idea just two years ago, is back on the table.

Cameron’s ten years as leader of the Conservative party and six as prime minister now boil down to these solitary facts. Nothing else matters; nothing else will be remembered. Cameron gambled everything on one roll of the dice and lost it all.

No prime minister in living memory has suffered a defeat of such cataclysmic proportions; none has been so thoroughly humiliated by his own electorate. Cameron lost control of his party and then his country. The consequences of that carelessness will be felt, in Britain and internationally, for years to come. Future political historians will ponder a melancholy question: what was the point of David Cameron? And their judgment is likely to be severe.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Cameron was to be a different kind of Tory, one comfortable with the face and reality of modern Britain. He was elected leader on a modernizing platform that stressed the party’s need to change. He would lead a gentler, more inclusive, Conservative party that would be economically conservative but socially liberal. Tax cuts and gay marriage; welfare reform and a marked increase in spending on international aid for the world’s poorest countries.

Above all, he insisted, the Tory party would have to stop “banging on” about Europe. The EU, he recognized, was a distraction from more immediate and pressing concerns. Besides, Cameron appreciated that Tory divisions over Europe helped bring about Margaret Thatcher’s demise and crippled John Major’s premiership.

A year ago, Cameron didn’t even expect he would have to honor his party’s platform promise to hold a referendum on EU membership. But that was before he won a surprising majority in last year’s general election. Suddenly he found himself trapped by his own manifesto promises — promises made to placate the Euroskeptics in his own party and see off the threat posed to his right flank by the virulently anti-European UK Independence Party. A referendum would have to be held.

Even so, Cameron was confident — or complacent — enough to think winning it would be an easy task. After all, most of the British establishment was firmly in the pro-Europe camp and so, overwhelmingly, was British business. Economic self-interest would surely persuade voters to set aside their concerns about the EU and endorse the status quo. They might not do so with any great measure of enthusiasm but a reluctant vote Remain was all Cameron, and his government, needed.

But, if Cameron understood that there was anti-establishment sentiment in his country, he was entirety too confident he could placate it. Cameron’s attempt to win over Euroskeptics by renegotiating the terms of British membership was an embarrassing, even humiliating, flop. He had disastrously misjudged his room to maneuver. Britain was already a semi-detached member of the EU, granted exemptions from the single currency and the common Schengen travel area; there was not much further autonomy for Britain to win within the confines of the EU. Cameron’s attempt to do so was an inevitable failure, and an unforced strategic blunder.

Any remaining hope the Remain side might cruise to a comfortable victory evaporated when Boris Johnson, Cameron’s most probable successor and arguably the most charismatic and popular politician in Britain, declared he would campaign for Leave. Worse still, the temper and character of the times offered Cameron little encouragement. Populism is the currency of the age and “elites” are fair game everywhere. The EU, which has never inspired much enthusiasm in Britain, was easily depicted as an unaccountable undemocratic, and out of touch. More relevantly, though perhaps less fairly, the same held true Cameron, with his privileged background and aristocratic manner. The would-be “One Nation conservative” came to be dismissed by his countrymen as a hapless toff.

It did not help matter that all Cameron could offer, in response to the Leave campaign’s promise to “take back control” and restore British parliamentary sovereignty, was a parade of “experts” — ranging from the World Bank and the IMF to Barack Obama — all of whom warned against leaving the EU. Experts, too, are out of fashion in Britain. “We are about democracy, they are about economics” said Johnson, while Michael Gove, a former key Cameron ally turned impassioned Leave campaigner, remarked that “I think people in this country have had enough of experts”.

Above all, the Leave campaign concentrated its fire on the issue of immigration. Cameron once promised to cut net inward migration to Britain to less than 100,000 people a year. It is a promise he has had ample cause to regret, not least since figures released just before Thursday’s vote revealed that, in 2015, immigration increased the UK’s population by 330,000 people. Half of that figure was accounted for by EU citizens traveling from elsewhere in Europe to live and work in Britain.

Cameron hoped rhetorical feints against immigration — warnings about “swarms” of migrants from a refugee camp in Calais and the like — could purchase him the credibility his policies would not. He was, again, mistaken; his rhetoric was dismissed by true migration skeptics as just that. Enough is enough, the Leave campaign insisted, only leaving the EU can give Britain the power to control its own borders.

So this morning Cameron finds himself the laughing-stock of Europe. His reinvention of the Conservative party, reviving it in the aftermath of three shattering election defeats at the hands of Tony Blair, counts for nothing. His party is split in two; his country faces an impossibly uncertain future as the full impact of Thursday’s extraordinary vote begins to be felt.

Most of all, Cameron must reflect on the manner in which he lost the confidence of the British people. The roots of this crisis run long and deep but they are connected to the ongoing impact of 2008’s financial crash. The British people have put up with six years of “austerity” government but have never done so enthusiastically.

We used to think Cameron was a lucky politician at his best in a crisis. He had the good fortune to face two Labour leaders — Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband — who were in their different ways almost heroically unpopular. In 2014 he saw off the threat of Scottish independence and, until just a few weeks ago, looked like seeing off the threat of Brexit too.

That analysis no longer holds. This plebiscite was a revolt against Westminster just as much as it was an expression of anti-European animus. The British people have tired of the governing officer class and gleefully took the opportunity of kicking Cameron in the shins.

The referendum result revealed a picture of a sharply polarized Britain. Older voters voted to Leave while their grandchildren overwhelmingly voted to Remain. Middle-class university graduates voted to Remain but working-class high-school graduates voted to Leave. London and Scotland endorsed the EU, the so-called “heartlands” of “middle England” backed Leave. Britain this morning is a country divided by class and geography as almost never before. That too is part of Cameron’s legacy; the proof of a failed premiership.

At some point and eventually, even lucky generals find their good fortune runs out. Cameron has proved no exception to that immutable law of politics. Almost all political lives end in failure but few in quite such a devastating fashion as this. This is a shipwreck and Cameron is the captain who drove HMS Britain onto the rocks. That is his legacy; that is what he will be remembered for. And deservedly so.

Photo credit: Matt Cardy / via Getty Images

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