David Cameron's fatal mistake? Two years ago, he sacked Michael Gove

Had one or two friendships played out differently, Britain might not have voted for Brexit.

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As pundits who missed the populist mood (I did, too) now try to explain it, I will look for answers in the opposite direction. This column will make the case that even a movement as emotive and unpredictable as Brexit owed much to a couple of personal relationships. The motives and actions of the principal players may be better explained by exploring the intricacies of their personal circles than by assuming that they “sensed the will of the people”. Had one or two friendships ­developed differently, Britain would not have voted for Brexit.

This personal argument leads on to an institutional one. The dysfunctional alliances that now shape British politics – intimately bound up with the estrangement of the people from their political elite – creates the need for a major realignment of party identities. With both main parties in disarray, the opportunities presented by changing course have never been greater.

It is already received wisdom that David Cameron “miscalculated” in calling for a referendum. Yet another critical miscalculation is ignored: Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle on 14-15 July 2014. The Prime Minister, advised by his electoral strategist Lynton Crosby that Michael Gove was a vote-loser, sacked the then education secretary, a role Gove had performed with energy and conviction.

Gove’s importance to Cameron cannot be overstated. The Cameroonian movement lacked ideas, Gove had ideas; Cameron was said to stand for nothing but power, Gove was driven by reforming zeal; Cameron struggled to connect with Conservatives who see government as more than just a matter of steadiness and competence, Gove was the solution. Gove, as an intellectual, legitimised a project that could appear intellectually lightweight.

Then the Prime Minister was told that Gove could not be trusted in a close general election. Sack a friend, win an election; listen to the expert psephologist, overlook a debt of loyalty; win the game, lose conscience. A ruthless pragmatist? A sentimental loser? The headline is determined by the outcome, but the reality is that every leader, in every sphere, faces such dilemmas. Cameron, miscalculating that the election was on a knife edge, concluded that Gove had to go. Post-referendum, that decision is now recast in the most uncomfortable of all categories: politically ruthless and also, over the long term, a political mistake.

Had Cameron backed himself to win the election with Gove still at Education, it is unlikely that his former close friend would have been the first big-name Tory to declare for Leave. With the Brexit think tank led by Gove – who brought with him an inner circle of serious minds – a perception of intellectual equivalency entered the debate.

I am not arguing that Gove personally persuaded the disillusioned voters of Hartlepool and Lincolnshire. A referendum, however, though it ends in a simple headcount, is powered by a far more complex set of influences. Gove swelled the wave that is now crashing down on Cameron and the entire political establishment.

Without Gove, would Boris Johnson have made the jump? Even if Johnson had declared for Leave, a coalition of Ukip, Johnson and a few others is not a movement. It would have felt like the usual suspects and a maverick star player looking for something to do.

In a prescient column a year ago, the historian Andrew Roberts invoked “Cowling’s law” to explain how Johnson would play Brexit. Maurice Cowling, the conservative Cambridge political philosopher, had a theory of British politics that there were about six politicians who mattered at any one moment. The six were always in competition with each other, regardless of party, always searching for a surge of popular opinion that they could commandeer. Cowling argued that whenever five of those six all said the same thing about a great issue of the day, the sixth would say the opposite.

Under Cowling’s law, Roberts concluded, Boris would lead the “No” campaign. Even if Johnson didn’t win, he would at least draw attention to himself. The point, in ­retrospect, is that the six weren’t split 5-1, but 4-2. And that was enough to confer populist disaffection with intellectual energy and confidence.

So my first argument relates to the intricacies of high politics; my second applies to structures. The growing realisation that the two main parties are scarcely fit for purpose is linked to the fact that really important arguments – going to war, leaving the EU – are being led by the wrong party. Much of the bad blood in British politics flows from an open wound created when a Labour prime minister, having first benefited from the electoral desperation of the Labour Party, then used it to form a military alliance with a American Republican president. Normally, the case for an unblinking alliance with Washington, if it had to be made at all, should have been presented by a Conservative prime minister. The Labour Party has not recovered its bearings or its confidence since that debilitating episode.

Now the case for staying in the EU has been made to the British people by a Conservative leader who was never instinctively proud of Britain’s place in Europe, and a Conservative Party that has either advocated or appeased outright Euroscepticism for my whole adult life. Thanks to its inept leader, Labour, far more instinctively Europhile, became a bit-part player in a defining debate. Again, the wrong party led an argument of central, national importance.

The intellectual and political establishment is reeling. How can this have happened? Ah, Cameron miscalculated! A far graver miscalculation would be to assume that Britain’s upside-down politics can muddle along as it is, with its leading agents residing in outdated party shells.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article appears in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies