Quite rightly, David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage are taking the brunt of the blame for the folly that is Brexit. One can imagine a different Conservative leader who would not have risked his country’s stability in order to solve a tactical internal party problem. Without the mendacity and dissimulation of Johnson, Gove and Farage, Leave would not have won.
But it is one thing to blame. It is another to explain and understand.
If we are to understand why Cameron embarked on the course he did some four years ago – when he first promised the Europhobes in his party a referendum – we must let go of the idea that he was incredibly short-sighted.
Yes, he committed a gross misjudgement. But it wasn’t because he couldn’t foresee the possible consequences. If anything, he was too clever by half.
When he told his then deputy prime Minister, Nick Clegg (the Liberal Democrat leader in the then coalition government), of the referendum commitment he gave his own party, Clegg immediately pointed out that, in order to get through the week, Cameron was risking his country’s future for decades.
Cameron sighed and said he knew that but had no real alternative.
As for the consequences of a Brexit vote for a second Scottish referendum on independence, they were pointed out in this column in February 2014, as soon as the date of the first referendum was announced. If a Maltese pundit scribbling to a deadline could see it so clearly – at the time, there was also the palpable risk that a win for Scottish independence could ensure Brexit in the referendum that followed – you can be sure Cameron could see it as well.
So why did he do it? In part, because he had done it before and got away with it. He only became Conservative leader because – at a point where he risked being eliminated from the contest – he won three crucial MP votes by promising to pull the party out of the alliance with the EPP in the European Parliament.
It was a promise that came at great political cost, souring his relations with Angela Merkel and endangering his liberal credentials, since he had to enter an alliance with some bigoted political partners (promoting, say, homophobic policies, just when Cameron made a great show of going to watch the gay film du jour, Brokeback Mountain).
In other words, he gambled his party’s political reputation. But somehow he muddled through.
Meanwhile, when he made the Brexit referendum promise, the composition of the Commons was different. The Liberal Democrats, a Europhile party, was a strong third force in Parliament. Labour were led by a committed European, Ed Miliband, and its policy was against a referendum.
In the circumstances, it was reasonable to expect that, in the next Parliament, there might not even be a majority in favour of holding the referendum at all (the Conservatives at that point could only hope for a second period of coalition government). And, if there was, Cameron could count on the Liberal Democrats and Labour to campaign strongly for the Remain side.
Cameron always prided himself on being a pragmatic Eurosceptic – sceptical for practical reasons, not ideology
Unfortunately, that reasoning was blindsided by an unpredictable chain of events. The 2015 election saw Cameron win an unexpected majority. The Lib Dems were annihilated. Labour reversed the policy of opposing a Brexit referendum. Moreover, completely alienated from its core vote in the north of the country, it elected a leader from the Eurosceptic hard left.
The blame for a referendum happening at all must fall on almost the whole of the House of Commons. It voted, 11 to one, to pass the referendum law. Only 53 MPs voted against – the Scottish National Party.
Let’s pause to take that in. A Parliament made up overwhelmingly of MPs in the Remain camp voted for the referendum law – a law in which the destiny of the country depended on a 50 per cent plus one threshold, with no special majorities or second plebiscites necessary.
Given the actual turnout, it is a law that permitted some 36 per cent of the eligible population to tilt the country’s destiny for decades to come. Some responsibility for that must be borne by every MP who voted for the law.
Meanwhile Labour’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, needed a long time to come out in favour of Remain. His support was always tepid, to the extent that both Labour voters and Labour MPs weren’t sure of his real position. Only a tweet on voting day reassured some people that he had, after all, voted Remain.
He made perhaps only 10 campaign speeches in as many weeks; in a national election campaign he’d have been expected to make two a day. His statements were always watered down to impersonal language. Labour activists were forbidden from engaging with voters’ key concern: immigration. There is circumstantial evidence that his core team of advisors were at odds with the work of the wider Remain campaign.
Corbyn’s supporters say that he still delivered 60 per cent of the Labour vote to Remain. They add that Corbyn’s internal critics, like Hilary Benn and Margaret Hodge, couldn’t even convince a majority of their own constituents to vote Remain.
But this is a disingenuous argument. Leadership matters. The core authorised message matters as it constrains the door-to-door activists. Just because Benn is not of leadership material (which he himself admits) doesn’t mean he cannot point out that Corbyn is not an effective leader, either.
Corbyn’s election as leader left seasoned observers of British politics incredulous even as it happened. It was only much later that the implications for the Brexit referendum were realised, when Corbyn’s 1990s left-wing criticisms of the EU as an anti-working class, neo-liberal project, were quoted back at Labour spokesmen like Benn.
Meanwhile, Cameron himself had no positive vision to offer. He had always prided himself on being a pragmatic Eurosceptic – sceptical for practical reasons, not ideology; a sceptic in favour of remaining. For much of his career, that worked. Without that position, he could not have become party leader. But it also meant he could never be a national leader for the European cause.
When Cameron committed himself to an In/Out referendum, the three major political forces in the UK were the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems. By the time the referendum was held, the Lib Dems had no voice and the two major parties did not have a leader between them who could offer a compelling vision of the UK in the EU. (The new third force, the Scottish Nationalists, do have such a leader, and Scotland voted overwhelmingly for Remain.)
None of this should relieve Cameron of his burden of responsibility. But it should help us understand better where and why he went wrong. It is not because he saw too little. In a way, he saw too much. He saw how he could finesse his way around the various forces pitted against him and make them work on his behalf.
Against those forces it was even reasonable to think he might succeed. But he reckoned on one set of forces and had to face an entirely different set. His previous strengths became weaknesses. And a referendum promise that helped him achieve his 2015 electoral triumph – ‘the sweetest victory’ he called it – has ended in bitterness.
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