David Cameron on the campaign trail with Labour mayor of London Sadiq Khan
Whatever the result of this week’s vote on the United Kingdom’s place in Europe, one man will emerge from the ruins of this referendum with his reputation in tatters.
David Cameron, for it is he, will either have been responsible for the single biggest disaster in British politics since Sir Anthony Eden engineered the invasion of Suez; or he will be the man who put the future of the United Kingdom, and its place in the world, in mortal danger.
Win or lose, he is a busted flush. He will go down in history as a spineless and weak prime minister who chose the path of political opportunism rather than principle.
He has pretentions to be the leader of ‘One Nation’; instead he has opened up rifts in the body politic that will take generations to heal.
Cameron’s culpability is manifold. First off, he should not have conceded the referendum. Across the political spectrum there is broad consensus that we are better in Europe than out of it. His duty as prime minister – an office that transcends party – is to act for the greater good. He should have managed this critical political issue by building and maintaining that cross-party consensus. True he had the irritation of the unreconstructed hard right – a block of MPs who have consistently opposed Britain in Europe. But nothing will ever satisfy them. They are bullies and the only way to deal with bullies is to see them down.
Cameron, a party apparatchik for most of his adult life, chose to kick the hard right problem down the road rather than confront his opponents head on. In doing so he allowed them time to lay a trap, and into it he has naively walked.
His second mistake was to set too high the expectations of his renegotiation with Europe. He talked big, he made much of his own Euro-scepticism, he made much of his red lines. If he had come back with Angela Merkel’s head on a plate it would not have lived up to the promises he made. Even those of us who vehemently support continued membership of the European Union know that he came back with his nakedness covered by a fig leaf. His opponents see his embarrassment all too well.
And then we turn to the referendum debate itself. Here it was to be hoped that reason would prevail. The arguments for continued membership – social, economic and philosophical – are unassailable. After centuries of warfare, the European Union has provided an unprecedented period of peace and stability. Not only have countries flourished economically (even in the face of the recent financial crisis) but wealth has spread to areas – including in this country – that were incapable of lifting themselves out of poverty.
But few of those arguments have been made during the course of this debate. The political discussion has been more about the future of the Tory Party rather than the future of the United Kingdom in Europe. We have had lies, damned lies and Brexit statistics; the race card has been played in the most divisive way; blind prejudice has been presented as fact.
The referendum has been run like an extension of the Oxford Union – varsity chums ragging one another and scoring cheap debating points by being loose with the truth.
But this is not play-acting. The matters at stake here are the stuff of real life. Whether we will have enough jobs, whether we will have the resources for health and social care, whether we will be able to bring the collective will of hundreds of millions of Europeans to bear on the global challenges we face.
Yes Europe needs reformed; yes its leadership has become disconnected from the people they serve; yes it could do more to improve the lives of its citizens. But much the same could be said for Westminster; indeed much the same could be said for Stormont, and in Northern Ireland no-one is more than an hour-and-a-half from the centre of power.
But the best way of getting the best out of Europe is by being in it: making compelling arguments for change, building consensus, working with fellow Europeans to improve the lives of people in all our communities.
When he connived in the invasion of Suez Anthony Eden was a sick man and drugged up to the eyeballs. Cameron has no such excuse. The unintended consequences of his political gamesmanship could result in the return of the Irish border, the disintegration of the United Kingdom, and the decline and fall of the European dream – a bad day at the office indeed.
Whatever the outcome of the vote, Cameron should go.
- A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on June 16 2016