Cameron hurries out of office tarnished by failed Brexit gamble
Instead of leaving the UK in a better place, the prime minister leaves it bitterly divided
David Cameron spent much of yesterday afternoon touring 10 Downing Street, shaking hands with staff and thanking them for their service over the past six years. Earlier, he was greeted with prolonged banging of the table when he chaired his 215th, and final, cabinet meeting.
While all this was happening, a large removal van was parked behind the house, loaded with the Cameron family’s possessions. By this afternoon, Cameron will be gone, his career and his reputation destroyed by his failed gamble with Britain’s membership of the European Union.
During the cabinet meeting, Cameron spoke about his government’s achievements, saying it had worked to do more for those who have the least.
Theresa May, who will succeed him today, praised Cameron’s role in controlling public spending, managing the terrorist threat and a range of foreign policy issues.
George Osborne, Cameron’s closest ally since he became Conservative Party leader a decade ago, identified what he saw as the highlights of his six years in power. They included education reform, the introduction of an apprenticeship scheme, the national minimum wage and same-sex marriage.
Then Osborne said the entire cabinet agreed that the prime minister should be proud that he had left the country a better place. This is a highly debatable claim.
Cameron has left his country bitterly divided after a referendum he did not have to call, facing a difficult and potentially expensive divorce from its EU partners.
The break-up of the United Kingdom, which he avoided by defeating the Scottish independence referendum, is now more likely than ever.
And the Northern Ireland peace process, arguably the greatest British political achievement of recent times, is at the very least undermined by the constitutional uncertainty created by Brexit.
The radical, almost revolutionary change Cameron leaves in his wake is an unlikely legacy for this small “c” conservative who has shunned ideological extremes throughout his political career. A moderniser who shifted his party towards the centre, he shied away from the most radical reforms espoused by his former adviser Steve Hilton.
Hilton, who campaigned for Brexit, was for many years seen in Downing Street as the keeper of Cameron’s conscience, and saw it as his mission to ensure that his government actually carried through on reform.
Hilton believed that the Conservatives could harness capitalism to produce social good and could encourage an idea of society which was distinct from the state.
Although he retained the prime minister’s ear, Hilton was to find that Cameron would avoid any initiative he saw as too radical and would always choose the mildest version of any reform on offer.
Cameron’s consensual approach, allied with a quiet, political ruthlessness, helped him to make a success of his coalition with the Liberal Democrats, before he almost wiped out that party with his successful electoral strategy in 2015.
If Hilton was Cameron’s conscience, Osborne was his political fixer, the man the prime minister depended on to ensure that he would win elections. Cameron, who liked to surround himself with a coterie of like-minded colleagues, had little appetite for glad-handling Conservative backbenchers.
Cameron outsourced party management to Osborne, who cultivated a rich web of patronage, which he hoped would help to deliver him the keys to Number 10 one day. Despite his occasional, spectacular blunders, Osborne has a fine political instinct, particularly for stealing tactical advantage.
Cameron’s poor party management and his failure to win an overall majority in 2010 left him vulnerable to the anti-European ultras on his backbenches.
Spooked by the threat to the Conservatives from Ukip, he bought off his internal opponents with the promise of an in-out referendum on the EU.
Unexpectedly returned to power last year with a small overall majority, Cameron decided to move quickly on the referendum, which he was determined to hold in the first half of 2016. When it came to his negotiations with EU partners, he was short on political capital, not least because of his 2011 veto of an EU-wide fiscal treaty, which instead became an agreement for the euro zone alone.
His renegotiation left Conservative Eurosceptics unimpressed and, after years complaining about the EU, he found himself unable to make a positive case for it in the referendum campaign. At Osborne’s urging he focused almost exclusively on the economic risks of leaving, a strategy which failed to counter the more emotionally charged message of “taking back control” of the pro-Brexit campaign.
Before last year’s election, Cameron said he would step down before the end of the current parliament, a move he hoped would give him control over the timing and the manner of his departure.
Instead, he finds himself bundled out of Downing Street with two days’ notice, leaving behind him a society with the young pitched against the old, the educated against the unskilled, London against the rest of the country and Scotland heading for the exit.