For Arabs in Israel, a house is not a home

Three representatives of Hamas have been forced to seek sanctuary at the Red Cross compound in East

Day 33 of the sit-in at the Red Cross compound in East Jerusalem began much like those that preceded it. The three Hamas parliamentarians who have been charged with disloyalty to a state whose jurisdiction they do not recognise awoke at 6am in the meeting room on the second floor of the white stone building in the Sheikh Jarrah area. Ahmad Atoun, who was an imam before he began his brief political career, led the first prayers of the day. The men washed in a bucket, ate breakfast and at ten o'clock came down to the L-shaped courtyard that has become the site of their protest. The plain white walls of the courtyard are decorated with posters that explain their case: "Jerusalem Is An Occupied City." "We Will Stay Here For Ever." "We Will Not Leave Our Homes."

Photographs of the three bearded men, and a fourth colleague who is in prison, were superimposed on an image of the gold-plated Dome of the Rock - the holiest site in the city in which they were born, and from which the Israeli authorities are attempting to expel them.

When I arrived five minutes later, a television crew was setting up outside the green metal gates at the entrance to the courtyard, and one of the teenage boys who attends to the men and their guests was updating the sign that keeps a tally of the length of their confinement. As the numerals changed from 32 to 33, Mohammed Totah, Khaled Abu Arafeh and Ahmad Atoun took their seats beneath the canopy where they would spend the day receiving guests. The chairs lined up against the walls in the traditional Arab manner are constantly in use, and sometimes the courtyard is full to overflowing: on Friday lunchtimes, an awning is erected in the street, and an imam says prayers to the assembled crowd. According to Red Cross officials, most of East Jerusalem society has passed through the courtyard. Three British peers - Jenny Tonge, Nazir Ahmed and Raymond Hylton - have been among the guests.

Despite the uncomfortable conditions in which they live, the three men at the centre of the protest were smartly dressed in pressed shirts and dark trousers. Until 2006, Moham­med Totah taught business administration at al-Quds University and Abu Arafeh was an engineer, while the preacher, Ahmad Atoun, worked for various Islamic charities. Yet their lack of experience did not prevent them from standing as candidates for the "Change and Reform" movement, as Hamas was called in the legislative elections held in the Palestinian territories in January 2006; if anything, it was an advantage, because the endemic corruption of the Palestinian Authority, which was dominated by Yasser Arafat's Fatah party, had turned the voters against the political elite. "People knew we were good Muslims and they trusted us," said Mohammed Totah, a tall and well-mannered man with thinning hair and a neatly trimmed beard.

Hamas, which was set up in the Gaza Strip in 1988, is known in the west for the crude, anti-Semitic rhetoric of its founding charter and for its terrorist activities. Its paramilitary wing has killed several hundred Israeli citizens, through the use of suicide bombers and other means, yet it also runs a network of charitable organisations in the Palestinian territories, and is respected for the even-handed way in which it distributes resources. In 2006, it won 44 per cent of the vote; Mohammed Totah and Ahmad Atoun won two of the 74 seats that gave it a majority in the 132-seat parliament, the Palestinian Legislative Council, and Abu Arafeh became minister for Jerusalem affairs.

“The world witnessed that we were democratically elected," Abu Arafeh said through his colleague Mohammed Totah, who speaks the best English of the three. But the men had little chance to implement their mandate. "The European Union said there must be democratic elections, and we must accept the results," says Mohammed Totah. "But afterwards, they said, 'No, we will not accept Hamas.'"

Four months after the election, the then Israeli minister of the interior revoked the men's rights to residency in Jerusalem and ordered them to leave Jerusalem and Israel "permanently". Events prevented the order being carried out: before the 30-day limit had expired, the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped by Hamas militants in Gaza, and Israel began arresting officials and representatives of the movement. The three men, together with their colleague Sheikh Mohammed Abu Teir (who is distinguished in the many posters by his bright red beard, which he dyes in honour of a tradition supposedly established by the Prophet Muham­mad), spent the next three and a half years in Israeli prisons.

That none of them has been accused of terrorist offences is irrelevant as far as Israel is concerned - it regards Hamas's paramilitary, political and charitable activities as inextric-ably linked and mutually reinforcing, and the men's attitudes to Hamas's use of violence would do little to persuade it that it is wrong. If they could "secure their rights" by peaceful means, Mohammed Totah said, then they would do so, but negotiations have led nowhere, and under international law they have the right to use all available means to resist the occupation. "It isn't violence," he insisted repeatedly, "it's resistance - and even if you don't want to resist, the occupation will give you no choice. It will come to your house, it will kill your children, it will take your land, it will put you in prison."

The four men were released at the end of May, and the Israeli authorities promptly "unfroze" the 30-day order that had been issued in 2006. Mohammed Abu Teir - the eldest of the four, and the most experienced politician, who has spent a total of 30 years in Israeli prisons - was told to leave Jerusalem by 19 June. The others were told to leave by 3 July.

The concern their case provoked was sufficient to overcome the bitter factional dispute between Fatah and Hamas. All four men went to see Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, at his office in Ramallah on two occasions during the 30-day period. He told the men that the deportations were "a red line" and they couldn't be permitted to proceed. In public, he described the decision to deport them as a "grave act", and yet he was unable to do anything to prevent it.

Mohammed Abu Teir said that he would not leave the country where his family has lived for 500 years, or renounce his membership of a parliament to which he was democratically elected, and he was arrested and imprisoned "for staying in Israel illegally". The other three knew their time would come, and sought sanctuary at the Red Cross compound on 1 July. The aim of their protest is simple, says Mohammed Totah: "We want our rights - nothing more - and we will stay here until the international community recognises the justice of our case."

It is not the first time that Israel has attempted to deport Hamas representatives: on 17 December 1992, it responded to the killing of a border police officer by deporting 415 of the organi­sation's leading figures to Lebanon. The tactic was meant to destroy Hamas, but instead it provoked a wave of international condemnation that enhanced its status. "Everyone wanted to meet with them, Hamas became stronger, and, in the end, Israel was forced to bring them back," said Abu Arafeh.

On 18 December 1992, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 799, which expressed "its firm opposition" to the measure, and reaffirmed that the "deportation of civilians constitutes a contravention" of Israel's obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention, which applies "to all the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967, including Jerusalem". Eighteen years later, the men's lawyers have urged the Security Council to hold Israel accountable by Resolution 799, though Israel is unlikely to comply, simply because it does not recognise East Jerusalem as occupied territory. The international community regards Israel's decision to annex the areas of East Jerusalem that it captured during the Six Day War of 1967 as illegal, but the Israelis insist that Jerusalem is the "eternal and indivisible capital" of the Jewish people.

Since 1967, they have built settlements for 250,000 people on occupied land and devised various policies to combat demographic trends which indicate that the Jewish proportion of the city's population could fall to no more than 50 per cent by 2035. One-off measures, such as the decision to exclude almost a third of the Arab-Palestinian population from the city's first census, and the construction of the "separation wall" along a route designed to "remove 50,000 Arabs from East Jerusalem", as one official put it, are complemented by a long-term policy of revoking and restricting Palestinian residency rights. There are said to be at least 10,000 unregistered children in East Jerusalem; a child who has only one parent with residency rights does not receive a Jerusalem ID, and a person without residency rights cannot win them by marriage - though a person with them may well lose them. Residency rights can be revoked if a resident of East Jerusalem cannot fulfil stringent bureaucratic requirements to prove that the city is their "centre of life", or if they are said to have "severed their connection" to the city.

Israel revoked the residency rights of 8,558 Palestinians between 1967 and 2007, yet this is the first time that it has attempted to do so on the grounds of "disloyalty". Whether rumours that Israel has drawn up a list of 315 people who are next in line for revocation of residency status are true or not, the vagueness of the charge concerns the parliamentarians' lawyer, Hassan Jabareen, general director of the human rights organisation Adalah. "If this decision is final," he told me, "the conclusion is that residency can be revoked from any Palestinian engaging in public political activity. Today it's a Hamas member; tomorrow they'll revoke the residency of a Fatah member, or a senior PA adviser. Or a Palestinian journalist."

The protest tent at the Red Cross compound is just one of several that have been set up across Jerusalem in the past two years. There is another in the village of Silwan, where a group of settlers that controls the archaeological site and visitor attraction known as the "City of David" is attempting to expand the Jewish presence, and another on the far side of Sheikh Jarrah, where settlers have displaced two Palestinian families from their homes.

Sheikh Jarrah is a typically run-down district of East Jerusalem, though also home to many of the city's embassies, hotels and international NGOs. On my way back to the Red Cross compound later in the afternoon, I watched an Orthodox Jew in tailcoat and ringlets emerge from the turning to the contested houses - 300 metres beyond the hotel where Tony Blair maintains lavish headquarters on his rare visits to the Middle East - and walk past a patch of derelict land where a group of Palestinian kids were playing. Such sights are increasingly common in East Jerusalem.

Mahmoud Abbas insists that Israel must stop building settlements as a precondition for starting peace talks, but President Barack Obama's administration has failed to force Israel to comply. Last November, Binyamin Netanyahu's right-wing administration agreed to a ten-month, partial freeze on settlement-building in the West Bank, but it insisted that Jerusalem was exempt. And in March, the interior minister, Eliyahu Yishai, precipitated the most severe breach in US-Israeli relations in years when he announced, during a visit by the US vice-president, Joe Biden, the construction of 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem.

The previous day, George Mitchell, the US peace envoy to the Middle East, had announced that the Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to hold four months of indirect peace talks - the first since December 2008, when Israel began the three-week assault on Gaza that it called Operation Cast Lead. Biden had begun the day by asserting America's "absolute, total, unvarnished commitment to Israel's security", but finished it by condemning "the substance and timing of the announcement".

Abbas, whose democratic mandate has expired, and whose credibility with the Palestinian electorate has been severely weakened, had little choice but to pull out of the talks. When they eventually began in May, they made no progress, and yet the Americans pressured both parties to move to face-to-face negotiations.

On 20 August, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, announced that Netanyahu and Abbas will meet in Washington, DC on 2 September. It is highly unlikely that these new talks will lead to a successful conclusion: unless the Israelis renew their moratorium on settlement development, which expires in September, there will be only the briefest opportunity for engagement on the possibility of creating a circumscribed Palestinian state on the West Bank. And in any case, the other final status issues - the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the future of Jerusalem - are likely to prove insurmountable.

The parliamentarians' fate would form no more than an insignificant footnote in any negotiation, and yet it is indicative of the deadlock over the city's status. When I arrived at the compound, I was told that the Palestinian Authority's chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, had been to see them earlier in the day. It had been a busy afternoon.

At three o'clock, the men had retired upstairs to pray and sleep, and at five they had handed out school leaving certificates to four coachloads of students. In the evening, the men's families arrived to see them. Each man has at least four children, and by eight o'clock, as the call to prayer from a nearby mosque drifted through the evening air, there were as many as 50 people in the courtyard. The men and women formed separate lines facing the wall of the building, their discarded shoes heaped beside the carpets that served as prayer mats, as Ahmad Atoun intoned prayers in a rich baritone.

Afterwards, the guests sat on the chairs beneath the awnings, or remained seated on the mats as a boy distributed bitter coffee in plastic cups and a girl in a blue headscarf passed round an ice-cream tub filled with home-made fig rolls. Children ran in and out of the gates, or darted through the open doors of the Red Cross building. Mohammed Totah gestured towards a girl in a dark dress. "I have an eight-year-old daughter, and she says to me that families all over the world live under one roof - why aren't you allowed to come home?"

The men say the attempt to deport them will prove as counterproductive as the mass deportation of 1992: they see it as another step on the long road to Palestinian liberation. Yet such optimism seems at odds with the precariousness of their situation. The Red Cross does not enjoy diplomatic immunity, and the main police station in East Jerusalem is no more than a hundred metres up the hill.

Israel has recently begun inquiries into the deaths of nine Turkish activists on the Mavi Marmara, the ship that was attacked by Israeli forces as it attempted to carry aid to Gaza in May. Mohammed Totah believes it is only the disastrous consequences of that raid that have prevented their rearrest. "There are no red lines for the occupation, but after they killed nine people on the ship, they don't want to add another crime to their account. They don't want to do it now, but they will come, sooner or later - maybe after a few days, maybe less."

Edward Platt is a contributing writer for the NS. He is working on a book about Hebron.

How Hamas works

The role of Hamas - considered a terrorist organisation by the EU and US - divides broadly into two main spheres of operation: social programmes such as building infrastructure, and the militant operations carried out by the underground Izz ad-Din al-Qassam.

Given its beginnings as a guerrilla movement, Hamas retains a degree of secrecy about its power structures. Gaza is led by the disputed prime minister Ismail Haniyeh (who was dismissed in 2007 by President Mahmoud Abbas but ignored the decree). However, most of the day-to-day decisions are made by the political bureau, chaired by Khaled Meshal and made up of about ten members, many of whom live in exile in Syria.

Major policy decisions are made by the Shura Council, an internal parliament consisting of roughly 50 members inside and outside the Palestinian territories. It cannot meet often, because some of its members are unable to travel into Gaza or the West Bank for fear of assassination.

Meshal's political bureau in Syria is the main fundraising arm of Hamas, and manages relations with Arab and Muslim countries. Some argue that this makes the bureau more pragmatic than the leadership within the territories. However, there is a question mark over how much control Meshal, though the group's leader, has in this uncohesive organisation.

Samira Shackle

This article first appeared in the 30 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Face off

PETER NICHOLLS/REUTERS
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David Cameron's fatal insouciance

Will future historians remember the former prime minister for anything more than his great Brexit bungle?

On 13 July 2016, after a premiership lasting six years and 63 days, David Cameron left Downing Street for the last time. On the tarmac outside the black door, with his wife and children at his side, he gave a characteristically cool and polished parting statement. Then he got in his car for the last journey to Buckingham Palace – the picture, as ever, of insouciant ease. As I was watching the television pictures of Cameron’s car gliding away, I remembered what he is supposed to have said some years earlier, when asked why he wanted to be prime minister. True or not, his answer perfectly captured the public image of the man: “Because I think I’d be rather good at it.”

A few moments later, a friend sent me a text message. It was just six words long: “He’s down there with Chamberlain now.”

At first I thought that was a bit harsh. People will probably always disagree about Cameron’s economic record, just as they do about Margaret Thatcher’s. But at the very least it was nowhere near as bad as some of his critics had predicted, and by some standards – jobs created, for instance – it was much better than many observers had expected. His government’s welfare and education policies have their critics, but it seems highly unlikely that people will still be talking about them in a few decades’ time. Similarly, although Britain’s intervention in Libya is unlikely to win high marks from historians, it never approached the disaster of Iraq in the public imagination.

Cameron will probably score highly for his introduction of gay marriage, and although there are many people who dislike him, polls suggested that most voters regarded him as a competent, cheerful and plausible occupant of the highest office in the land. To put it another way, from the day he entered 10 Downing Street until the moment he left, he always looked prime ministerial. It is true that he left office as a loser, humiliated by the EU referendum, and yet, on the day he departed, the polls had him comfortably ahead of his Labour opposite number. He was, in short, popular.
On the other hand, a lot of people liked Neville Chamberlain, too. Like Chamberlain, Cameron seems destined to be remembered for only one thing. When students answer exam questions about Chamberlain, it’s a safe bet that they aren’t writing about the Holidays with Pay Act 1938. And when students write about Cameron in the year 2066, they won’t be answering questions about intervention in Libya, or gay marriage. They will be writing about Brexit and the lost referendum.

It is, of course, conceivable, though surely very unlikely, that Brexit will be plain sailing. But it is very possible that it will be bitter, protracted and enormously expensive. Indeed, it is perfectly conceivable that by the tenth anniversary of the referendum, the United Kingdom could be reduced to an English and Welsh rump, struggling to come to terms with a punitive European trade deal and casting resentful glances at a newly independent Scotland. Of course the Brexiteers – Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Daniel Hannan et al – would get most of the blame in the short run. But in the long run, would any of them really be remembered? Much more likely is that historians’ fingers would point at one man: Cameron, the leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, the prime minister who gambled with his future and lost the Union. The book by “Cato” that destroyed Chamberlain’s reputation in July 1940 was entitled Guilty Men. How long would it be, I wonder, before somebody brought out a book about Cameron, entitled Guilty Man?

Naturally, all this may prove far too pessimistic. My own suspicion is that Brexit will turn out to be a typically European – or, if you prefer, a typically British – fudge. And if the past few weeks’ polls are anything to go by, Scottish independence remains far from certain. So, in a less apocalyptic scenario, how would posterity remember David Cameron? As a historic failure and “appalling bungler”, as one Guardian writer called him? Or as a “great prime minister”, as Theresa May claimed on the steps of No 10?

Neither. The answer, I think, is that it would not remember him at all.

***

The late Roy Jenkins, who – as Herbert Asquith’s biographer, Harold Wilson’s chancellor and Jim Callaghan’s rival – was passionately interested in such things, used to write of a “market” in prime ministerial futures. “Buy Attlee!” he might say. “Sell Macmillan!” But much of this strikes me as nonsense. For one thing, political reputations fluctuate much less than we think. Many people’s views of, say, Wilson, Thatcher and Blair have remained unchanged since the day they left office. Over time, reputations do not change so much as fade. Academics remember prime ministers; so do political anoraks and some politicians; but most people soon forget they ever existed. There are 53 past prime ministers of the United Kingdom, but who now remembers most of them? Outside the university common room, who cares about the Marquess of Rockingham, the Earl of Derby, Lord John Russell, or Arthur Balfour? For that matter, who cares about Asquith or Wilson? If you stopped people in the streets of Sunderland, how many of them would have heard of Stanley Baldwin or Harold Macmillan? And even if they had, how much would they ­really know about them?

In any case, what does it mean to be a success or a failure as prime minister? How on Earth can you measure Cameron’s achievements, or lack of them? We all have our favourites and our prejudices, but how do you turn that into something more dispassionate? To give a striking example, Margaret Thatcher never won more than 43.9 per cent of the vote, was roundly hated by much of the rest of the country and was burned in effigy when she died, long after her time in office had passed into history. Having come to power promising to revive the economy and get Britain working again, she contrived to send unemployment well over three million, presided over the collapse of much of British manufacturing and left office with the economy poised to plunge into yet another recession. So, in that sense, she looks a failure.

Yet at the same time she won three consecutive general elections, regained the Falklands from Argentina, pushed through bold reforms to Britain’s institutions and fundamentally recast the terms of political debate for a generation to come. In that sense, clearly she was a success. How do you reconcile those two positions? How can you possibly avoid yielding to personal prejudice? How, in fact, can you reach any vaguely objective verdict at all?

It is striking that, although we readily discuss politicians in terms of success and failure, we rarely think about what that means. In some walks of life, the standard for success seems obvious. Take the other “impossible job” that the tabloids love to compare with serving as prime minister: managing the England football team. You can measure a football manager’s success by trophies won, qualifications gained, even points accrued per game, just as you can judge a chief executive’s performance in terms of sales, profits and share values.

There is no equivalent for prime ministerial leadership. Election victories? That would make Clement Attlee a failure: he fought five elections and won only two. It would make Winston Churchill a failure, too: he fought three elections and won only one. Economic growth? Often that has very little to do with the man or woman at the top. Opinion polls? There’s more to success than popularity, surely. Wars? Really?

The ambiguity of the question has never stopped people trying. There is even a Wikipedia page devoted to “Historical rankings of Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom”, which incorporates two surveys of academics carried out by the University of Leeds, a BBC Radio 4 poll of Westminster commentators, a feature by BBC History Magazine and an online poll organised by Newsnight. By and large, there is a clear pattern. Among 20th-century leaders, there are four clear “successes” – Lloyd George, Churchill, Attlee and Thatcher – with the likes of Macmillan, Wilson and Heath scrapping for mid-table places. At the bottom, too, the same names come up again and again: Balfour, Chamberlain, Eden, Douglas-Home and Major. But some of these polls are quite old, dating back to the Blair years. My guess is that if they were conducted today, Major might rise a little, especially after the success of Team GB at the Olympics, and Gordon Brown might find himself becalmed somewhere towards the bottom.

***

So what makes the failures, well, failures? In two cases, the answer is simply electoral defeat. Both ­Arthur Balfour and John Major were doomed to failure from the moment they took office, precisely because they had been picked from within the governing party to replace strong, assertive and electorally successful leaders in Lord Salisbury and Margaret Thatcher, respectively. It’s true that Major unexpectedly won the 1992 election, but in both cases there was an atmosphere of fin de régime from the very beginning. Douglas-Home probably fits into this category, too, coming as he did at the fag end of 13 years of Conservative rule. Contrary to political mythology, he was in fact a perfectly competent prime minister, and came much closer to winning the 1964 election than many people had expected. But he wasn’t around for long and never really captured the public mood. It seems harsh merely to dismiss him as a failure, but politics is a harsh business.

That leaves two: Chamberlain and Eden. Undisputed failures, who presided over the greatest foreign policy calamities in our modern history. Nothing to say, then? Not so. Take Chamberlain first. More than any other individual in our modern history, he has become a byword for weakness, naivety and self-deluding folly.

Yet much of this picture is wrong. Chamberlain was not a weak or indecisive man. If anything, he was too strong: too stubborn, too self-confident. Today we remember him as a faintly ridiculous, backward-looking man, with his umbrella and wing collar. But many of his contemporaries saw him as a supremely modern administrator, a reforming minister of health and an authoritative chancellor who towered above his Conservative contemporaries. It was this impression of cool capability that secured Chamberlain the crown when Baldwin stepped down in 1937. Unfortunately, it was precisely his titanic self-belief, his unbreakable faith in his own competence, that also led him to overestimate his influence over Adolf Hitler. In other words, the very quality that people most admired – his stubborn confidence in his own ability – was precisely what doomed him.

In Chamberlain’s case, there is no doubt that he had lost much of his popular prestige by May 1940, when he stepped down as prime minister. Even though most of his own Conservative MPs still backed him – as most of Cameron’s MPs still backed him after the vote in favour of Brexit – the evidence of Mass Observation and other surveys suggests that he had lost support in the country at large, and his reputation soon dwindled to its present calamitous level.

The case of the other notable failure, Anthony Eden, is different. When he left office after the Suez crisis in January 1957, it was not because the public had deserted him, but because his health had collapsed. Surprising as it may seem, Eden was more popular after Suez than he had been before it. In other words, if the British people had had their way, Eden would probably have continued as prime minister. They did not see him as a failure at all.

Like Chamberlain, Eden is now generally regarded as a dud. Again, this may be a bit unfair. As his biographers have pointed out, he was a sick and exhausted man when he took office – the result of two disastrously botched operations on his gall bladder – and relied on a cocktail of painkillers and stimulants. Yet, to the voters who handed him a handsome general election victory in 1955, Eden seemed to have all the qualities to become an enormously successful prime minister: good looks, brains, charm and experience, like a slicker, cleverer and more seasoned version of Cameron. In particular, he was thought to have proved his courage in the late 1930s, when he had resigned as foreign secretary in protest at the appeasement of Benito Mussolini before becoming one of Churchill’s chief lieutenants.

Yet it was precisely Eden’s great asset – his reputation as a man who had opposed appeasement and stood up to the dictators – that became his weakness. In effect, he became trapped by his own legend. When the Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in July 1956, Eden seemed unable to view it as anything other than a replay of the fascist land-grabs of the 1930s. Nasser was Mussolini; the canal was Abyssinia; ­failure to resist would be appeasement all over again. This was nonsense, really: Nasser was nothing like Mussolini. But Eden could not escape the shadow of his own political youth.

This phenomenon – a prime minister’s greatest strength gradually turning into his or her greatest weakness – is remarkably common. Harold Wilson’s nimble cleverness, Jim Callaghan’s cheerful unflappability, Margaret Thatcher’s restless urgency, John Major’s Pooterish normality, Tony Blair’s smooth charm, Gordon Brown’s rugged seriousness: all these things began as refreshing virtues but became big handicaps. So, in that sense, what happened to Chamberlain and Eden was merely an exaggerated version of what happens to every prime minister. Indeed, perhaps it is only pushing it a bit to suggest, echoing Enoch Powell, that all prime ministers, their human flaws inevitably amplified by the stresses of office, eventually end up as failures. In fact, it may not be too strong to suggest that in an age of 24-hour media scrutiny, surging populism and a general obsession with accountability, the very nature of the job invites failure.

***

In Cameron’s case, it would be easy to construct a narrative based on similar lines. Remember, after all, how he won the Tory leadership in the first place. He went into the 2005 party conference behind David Davis, the front-runner, but overhauled him after a smooth, fluent and funny speech, delivered without notes. That image of blithe nonchalance served him well at first, making for a stark contrast with the saturnine intensity and stumbling stiffness of his immediate predecessors, Michael Howard and Iain Duncan Smith. Yet in the end it was Cameron’s self-confidence that really did for him.

Future historians will probably be arguing for years to come whether he really needed to promise an In/Out referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, as his defenders claim, to protect his flank against Ukip. What is not in doubt is that Cameron believed he could win it. It became a cliché to call him an “essay crisis” prime minister – a gibe that must have seemed meaningless to millions of people who never experienced the weekly rhythms of the Oxford tutorial system. And yet he never really managed to banish the impression of insouciance. The image of chillaxing Dave, the PM so cockily laidback that he left everything until the last minute, may be a caricature, but my guess is that it will stick.

As it happens, I think Cameron deserves more credit than his critics are prepared to give him. I think it would be easy to present him as a latter-day Baldwin – which I mean largely as a compliment. Like Baldwin, he was a rich provincial Tory who posed as an ordinary family man. Like Baldwin, he offered economic austerity during a period of extraordinary international financial turmoil. Like Baldwin, he governed in coalition while relentlessly squeezing the Liberal vote. Like Baldwin, he presented himself as the incarnation of solid, patriotic common sense; like Baldwin, he was cleverer than his critics thought; like Baldwin, he was often guilty of mind-boggling complacency. The difference is that when Baldwin gambled and lost – as when he called a rash general election in 1923 – he managed to save his career from the ruins. When Cameron gambled and lost, it was all over.

Although I voted Remain, I do not share many commentators’ view of Brexit as an apocalyptic disaster. In any case, given that a narrow majority of the electorate got the result it wanted, at least 17 million people presumably view Cameron’s gamble as a great success – for Britain, if not for him. Unfortunately for Cameron, however, most British academics are left-leaning Remainers, and it is they who will write the history books. What ought also to worry Cameron’s defenders – or his shareholders, to use Roy Jenkins’s metaphor – is that both Chamberlain and Eden ended up being defined by their handling of Britain’s foreign policy. There is a curious paradox here, ­because foreign affairs almost never matters at the ballot box. In 1959, barely three years after Suez, the Conservatives cruised to an easy re-election victory; in 2005, just two years after invading Iraq, when the extent of the disaster was already apparent, Blair won a similarly comfortable third term in office. Perhaps foreign affairs matters more to historians than it does to most voters. In any case, the lesson seems to be that, if you want to secure your historical reputation, you can get away with mishandling the economy and lengthening the dole queues, but you simply cannot afford to damage Britain’s international standing.

So, if Brexit does turn into a total disaster, Cameron can expect little quarter. Indeed, while historians have some sympathy for Chamberlain, who was, after all, motivated by a laudable desire to avoid war, and even for Eden, who was a sick and troubled man, they are unlikely to feel similar sympathy for an overconfident prime minister at the height of his powers, who seems to have brought his fate upon himself.

How much of this, I wonder, went through David Cameron’s mind in the small hours of that fateful morning of 24 June, as the results came through and his place in history began to take shape before his horrified eyes? He reportedly likes to read popular history for pleasure; he must occasionally have wondered how he would be remembered. But perhaps it meant less to him than we think. Most people give little thought to how they will be remembered after their death, except by their closest friends and family members. There is something insecure, something desperately needy, about people who dwell on their place in history.

Whatever you think about Cameron, he never struck me as somebody suffering from excessive insecurity. Indeed, his normality was one of the most likeable things about him.

He must have been deeply hurt by his failure. But my guess is that, even as his car rolled away from 10 Downing Street for the last time, his mind was already moving on to other things. Most prime ministers leave office bitter, obsessive and brooding. But, like Stanley Baldwin, Cameron strolled away from the job as calmly as he had strolled into it. It was that fatal insouciance that brought him down. 

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian, broadcaster and columnist for the Daily Mail. His book The Great British Dream Factory will be published in paperback by Penguin on 1 September

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author. His books include Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. He writes the What If... column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser