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13 July 2016

David Cameron’s epic failure

The outgoing prime minister is one of the guilty men of Brexit. 

By Jason Cowley

Who is to blame for Brexit? Bernard-­Henri Lévy asked during a flamboyant performance at a Henry Jackson Society event at Westminster on Tuesday afternoon. Immaculate in his trademark unbuttoned white shirt and well-cut dark-grey suit, tanned and with his thick hair elaborately combed over, the French philosopher-journalist expressed “great concern and anxiety” about Brexit and the decline of Europe. His address was a lament and a sustained accusation. “Who is to blame?” he asked again and again. “Those who voted. Those who lied to the voters for sure. Those foreign leaders from the extreme right [he cited Marine Le Pen, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump] who encouraged it.” He never once mentioned David Cameron as one of the guilty men of Brexit but the former prime minister was implicated in much of what was said, all the same.

European field of ruins

Lévy, or “BHL”, as he is known, also scourged the “excessive progressivism” of the European Union as well as those politicians and bureaucrats who with “eyes shut” were prepared to “sit quietly in the back seat of history” believing that “the European project was insinuated in the providential course of history”. BHL said that the leaders of the Remain campaign made, at best, only a merchant’s case for staying in the EU. They were never able to say that “Europe is great, because they did not feel it”. (At times, he conflated Europe and the EU; the UK of course remains of the former if for not much longer of the latter.) The Remainers suffered from a lack of soul, of ideas and of spirit. You might say that BHL suffers from a surfeit of all of these. “For Europe,” he said, “Brexit is worse than for the United Kingdom. I cannot imagine a Europe without the spirit, the participation, the involvement and the inspiration of the UK.” For now, he concluded sadly, we must wander in the “field of ruins” that is the European dream.

Cameron’s biggest blunder

When the end came, it was merciless: David Cameron was hurried out of Downing Street a humiliated and defeated man, brought down by his own insouciance and gambler’s instinct. His is an epic failure, comparable to what befell Anthony Eden after the Suez crisis (Eden won a comfortable majority at the general election of 1955 but was gone less than two years later) or Neville Chamberlain, who is for ever stained by the shame of appeasement. Cameron is the prime minister who lost Europe as a result of an attempt to settle an internal party dispute, and perhaps, ultimately, the United Kingdom as well.

As Michael Portillo wrote in a piece for Portland Communications, “David Cameron’s decision to promise a referendum on British membership of the EU will be remembered as the greatest blunder ever made by a British prime minister. There was nothing inevitable about it. It was a calculation made when he led a coalition and had little hope of gaining a majority at the election that loomed in 2015 . . . But in any case, if he seriously thought that leaving the EU would be calamitous for Britain, there is no defence for taking that national risk in an attempt to manage his party or to improve its chances of election.”

I am told by allies of the former PM that he is “devastated”, as no doubt he is. This week, he said farewell with characteristic good grace: one never doubted his fluency or essential decency. What you doubted was his conviction, his soul, his spirit. The one moment of authentic passion he showed during the referendum campaign was when, during a BBC Question Time programme, an audience member likened Cameron’s botched EU renegotiation to Chamberlain’s boast that he had returned from Munich having secured peace with honour. The reference to Chamberlain seemed to panic Cameron, and suddenly you saw something of his passionate nature. But BHL is right: he did not love Europe enough. He did not believe in it. He did not feel it.

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May’s monumental task

In the speech that helped Cameron to win the leadership of the Conservative Party in 2010, he said of the Labour government: “It has made promises that no one believes, passed powers to an EU that nobody trusts . . .” It’s true, he did not trust or believe in the EU. What he believed in were his own powers of persuasion, his charm, if you will. Yet he won the general election largely because his chief opponent, Ed Miliband, was so feeble and because voters in England feared a Labour-SNP coalition. Now Cameron must live with the consequences of that mistrust, and Theresa May has the monumental task of trying to prevent the break-up of the UK while simultaneously negotiating a post-Brexit settlement as well as keeping her own Eurosceptic ultras onside. That’s quite some inheritance.

French cordiality

I watched the France-Portugal Euro final at a party hosted by the French ­ambassador, Sylvie Bermann (an occasional New Statesman contributor), at her official residence in London. It was a cool evening but guests mingled contentedly in the garden until, just before kick-off, we were drawn inside by a cry of “It’s the Marseillaise”.

We watched on the big screen as the French players sang the national anthem and soon nearly everyone in the room was joining in as well. The French are passing through a prolonged period of torment and mourning: but at least the Euros offered some respite. “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people,” wrote the historian Eric Hobsbawm, and this was especially so for the French at this tournament, at this time.

The final score, with Portugal scoring late in extra time to win, was not what any of us would have wished. Even so, something strange and moving happened at the residence as the referee blew the final whistle: rather than expressions of resentment there was only gracious and spontaneous applause. Vive la France.

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This article appears in the 13 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit PM