David Cameron quits Downing Street with a ruined legacy

The Economist, 24.06.2016

The British people have voted to leave the European Union and their will must be respected”. With these words David Cameron acknowledged an outcome that he doubted would materialise: the country had voted for Brexit. His lip quivering and his wife at his side, he proceeded to announce that he would be stepping down: staying on as a caretaker while his party holds a leadership contest to be concluded by the time of its conference in October. No candidates have put their names forward, but it is to be expected that Boris Johnson and Theresa May, and probably others, will throw their hats into the ring.

The move, so hard to imagine just hours earlier, had become nigh-on inevitable as, at around 5am, the prime minister’s defeat in the referendum was confirmed. Mr Cameron has spent the past months touring the country telling voters that a Brexit would be disastrous. He would not have wanted to stay on and make the disaster a reality. And in any case his mostly anti-EU members would not have tolerated him. He had to go.

The resignation speech, when it came, was an emotional attempt to remind the world of the best of his six-year premiership: with nods to his one-nation reforms, an emphasis on the importance of stability in the coming months and a patriotic peroration about “this great country”. It was a touching bid to leave office with some scraps of dignity and honour.

It was ineffectual. With stockmarkets around Europe crashing, recriminations whizzing through the ether and the full weight of Britain’s terrible decision to leave the EU looming over them, his achievements in office seemed, however unfairly, puny.

Most unedifying was his attempt to imbue the referendum result, easily one of the most ill-conceived and profoundly damaging political events of Britain’s post-war history, with some nobility. It had been a great democratic exercise, the prime minister told the crowds. It had been important to answer such a pressing question. The people had spoken.

To put it kindly, this was a fantasy. Mr Cameron took the reckless decision to pledge to hold a vote (against the better wisdom of George Osborne, the chancellor, who is also bound to go) back in 2013. He had not needed to. The public was certainly not clamouring for one. His motive was to placate his cranky backbenchers. His consideration given to the risks and realities of such a promise was lacking. His understanding of the “renegotiation” of Britain's EU membership, on which he rested his strategy, was cursory at best.

The prime minister’s gamble was underwritten by the assurance that he could handle it, that his powers of persuasion and credibility (which, to be fair, are considerable) would save the day. In the months and years after his 2013 speech, he wasted opportunity after opportunity to roll the pitch for the referendum; to build, over time, a durable case to stay in the EU. Under-advised and overconfident, he turned the renegotiation from an asset to a stick with which Brexiteers could beat him. His referendum campaign, for all its flashes of skill and conviction, was too little, too late. The whole exercise was a spectacularly foolhardy act of overreach. The unanticipated outcome will be a Britain poorer, more isolated, less influential and more divided.

A time will come for reflection on the good in Mr Cameron’s leadership of the Conservative Party and his premiership, on his fundamentally correct vision for a one-nation Tory party in possession of the centre ground. But it will surely be dwarfed by this giant, nation-changing misstep, one guaranteed to scar the country for decades and diminish his place in the history books. He leaves office in ignominy.

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