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Did referendum rage get the better of David Cameron?

25 June 2016

11:33 AM

25 June 2016

11:33 AM

I suspect a lot of people who voted out have mixed emotions this weekend, especially given how emotional the debate became. People on both sides did go a little bit mad. My Twitter feed reminded me of that Danny Boyle film 28 Days Later: you watch with horror as friend after friend (on either side of the debate) is infected with the Human Rage Virus. All of a sudden, it’s not possible to have friendly disagreements: you turn into The Enemy for them. And it’s not just a social media thing: there are still people, this weekend, afraid to tell their friends and family how they voted. Alex Massie’s piece warning England about referendum rage turned out to be prophetic.

And I suspect that Cameron, himself, suffered a bit of referendum rage. Perhaps he genuinely believed some of the wilder claims he was making about Brexit bringing on Armageddon. Today’s Sun reveals that he quit after asking aides: ‘Why should I have to do the hard shit for someone else, just to hand it over to them on a plate?’ The answer is that he’s the Prime Minister; that’s what it’s about. You do the hard shit because a lot of people are counting on you to do so. As Cameron himself knows: he has done plenty of hard shit over the years, and did so with almost superhuman cheeriness. I can understand how he’d blurt out something like that, and how it may have informed his decision to resign that morning. But I think it was the wrong decision.

And I don’t think it was inevitable that he had to go immediately. Of course, he would have to go eventually but the Brexit talks need not start for some time. As I say in today’s Daily Telegraph, there’s a case for invoking Article 50 after the French and German elections to let heads cool in Europe and have politicians elected on a promise to strike a free trade deal with Britain, a massive importer of European goods. The idea of tariffs, for the sake of political vengeance, is the classic example of something that would suit the EU but harm Europeans. Brexit will likely remind everyone that people like the shots to be called by those they represent. The more power shifts back to national parliaments, the better the deal Britain can expect.

The other reason why he should have stayed is that the Conservative Party is now bruised, and sending it plunging into a leadership election denies it the chance it needs to convalesce. It may also give a narrow choice of candidates. Cameron himself owes his career to the fact that Michael Howard stayed on for another six months after losing in 2005, giving his party time to heal and allowing other unusual candidates – like Cameron – to prepare and come forward. Howard was rejected in 2005, he would have woken up feeling furious and minded to say: to hell with you all. But there is much to be said for hanging on, for the sake of your party. Ed Miliband’s refusal to do so last year plunged his party straight into a leadership battle, with catastrophic results. Had Miliband stayed longer, and did for his party what Michael Howard did for the 2005 Tories, he may have given one of the moderate candidates time to get their act together.

And perhaps more than anything else, if Cameron was to (for example) stay until Christmas then he would have a decent amount of time to work on his legacy. He was on to something with his ‘one nation’ Conservatism: all the pieces were in place (falling inequality, state schools outperforming private schools) and he was so close to pulling them together and making something coherent. Something to remember him by, other than his calamitous miscalculation of the EU referendum.


Cameron could have been remembered as a transformative Prime Minister; had 1.7pc of the electorate voted the other way then maybe he would have been seen as an all-conquering hero. As Douglas Murray says, Cameron’s great gift to his party is the politicians he has brought up behind him: I can’t think of a time when the Conservative party had so much talent outside of the Cabinet. So much of his legacy will be secure, and built upon. But I doubt that it will, now, be remembered as his legacy. 

Most Conservative supporters voted Leave last week; I suspect most also felt awful when watching Cameron walk the plank. The man who led the party into an historic majority victory last year, saving us from Ed Miliband, had decided to quit immediately. He referred to a ‘great country’ – and one made all the greater for the reforms he oversaw. Radical education and welfare reform, a jobs miracle, plunging crime, falling inequality. And all ended by his fatal miscalculation over Europe. There are, to be sure, many Tories who have long wanted him gone. I wasn’t one of them.

When I said that I found it ‘awful’ to watch him resigning my friend Phil Collins reproached me: how can I vote for leave, and then complain at the consequences? It’s what the Leave voters have wrought. Robin Harris also made this point on Twitter: those who voted for Brexit forfeit the right to feel any unhappiness about the immediate consequences.

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But was Cameron really “destroyed” or “slaughtered” by those who voted for Britain to leave the European Union? He had already decided to go within three years; this EU referendum was about the next three decades and beyond. Unlike general elections, it was a one-off: if this opportunity was passed up, it would not come again.

If you can concede that some of Cameron’s genuine admirers genuinely believe Brexit to be in the long-term interests of the country, then you can (hopefully) understand how a Brexiteer feel awful when watching his resignation. Voting Remain would be easier short-term: it would (if you’re a Tory) sustain a winning formula, at least until the next political crisis. It would have protected (for a while) the Prime Minister that you admire. As a Europhile who had believed in the aims of the EU project (for reasons I explained here), it’s a decision taken with much sadness.

In fact, I suspect that very few Brexiteers skipped into the polling booth cheerfully. It was a tough decision: and the definition of a tough decision is knowing that it’s a mixture of good and bad. The good outweighs the bad, which is why you take the decision. 

So I would selfishly argue those voted Leave are entitled to feel awful when they watched him resign yesterday morning. And regret that he did not heed the ‘Brits don’t quit’ advice he was dispensing to us only three days ago. Better for his party and his own legacy that he had waited, stuck it out. But if this patient, tireless Prime Minister had finally grown tired of being patient – especially given all that he has achieved for Britain – I can certainly understand it.

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