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'Some people I will never convince': Cameron reflects on his Brexit legacy 'Some people I will never convince': Cameron reflects on his Brexit legacy
(about 4 hours later)
Towards the end of our conversation about his new memoir, For the Record, David Cameron’s mobile rings. His daughter Nancy is on the line. She wants to know if he will be free to come and see her awarded a school prize. “I’ll be there, darling,” he assures her. “I’ve almost finished all these hideous interviews.”Towards the end of our conversation about his new memoir, For the Record, David Cameron’s mobile rings. His daughter Nancy is on the line. She wants to know if he will be free to come and see her awarded a school prize. “I’ll be there, darling,” he assures her. “I’ve almost finished all these hideous interviews.”
For the past week, and for the first time in more than three years, Cameron has barely been off the airwaves or out of the media. The hideous interviews have come thick and fast. Some of the headlines they have made have been calculated, like the settling of scores with Boris Johnson and Michael Gove over Brexit. Others have been inadvertent, like the revelation that Cameron lobbied for the Queen to “raise an eyebrow” about the Scottish independence campaign during the referendum in 2014.For the past week, and for the first time in more than three years, Cameron has barely been off the airwaves or out of the media. The hideous interviews have come thick and fast. Some of the headlines they have made have been calculated, like the settling of scores with Boris Johnson and Michael Gove over Brexit. Others have been inadvertent, like the revelation that Cameron lobbied for the Queen to “raise an eyebrow” about the Scottish independence campaign during the referendum in 2014.
At his launch party on Tuesday, the former prime minister joked that there were two hardback bestsellers being published this month. “One’s a book about a riven society and a dangerous dictatorship,” he told guests. “And the other’s by Margaret Atwood.” His own book, it is clear from our interview, has a wider purpose. Three years after his premiership collapsed in the wake of the vote to leave the EU, Cameron is trying to regain the right to be heard, above all on Brexit and on the referendum that swept him from office.At his launch party on Tuesday, the former prime minister joked that there were two hardback bestsellers being published this month. “One’s a book about a riven society and a dangerous dictatorship,” he told guests. “And the other’s by Margaret Atwood.” His own book, it is clear from our interview, has a wider purpose. Three years after his premiership collapsed in the wake of the vote to leave the EU, Cameron is trying to regain the right to be heard, above all on Brexit and on the referendum that swept him from office.
“I totally understand that there will be some people I will never convince, who will say you should never have had it,” Cameron says of the 2016 vote. He knows that millions of remain voters blame him viscerally for everything that has happened since then and probably always will. “But I think there are a lot of people who can also see that there was a growing inevitability about having a referendum and, yes, there was a problem in the Tory party, but the relationship with the EU was a far bigger one. Britain’s position was becoming more tenuous, and we had to fix it. I hope that I can convince people that it was an honest and thought through attempt to deal with the issue.”“I totally understand that there will be some people I will never convince, who will say you should never have had it,” Cameron says of the 2016 vote. He knows that millions of remain voters blame him viscerally for everything that has happened since then and probably always will. “But I think there are a lot of people who can also see that there was a growing inevitability about having a referendum and, yes, there was a problem in the Tory party, but the relationship with the EU was a far bigger one. Britain’s position was becoming more tenuous, and we had to fix it. I hope that I can convince people that it was an honest and thought through attempt to deal with the issue.”
This is the nub of the case that weaves its way right through the 700 pages of Cameron’s memoir and through much of what he has said in interviews this week. The UK’s relationship with the EU was always both necessary and contingent, he argues. Until now, every prime minister for the last 40 years has simultaneously wanted a seat at the top table and a special deal for Britain. Every one of them, even Tony Blair, felt they had to fight off moves to political union. “These weren’t pretend ghouls and ghosts,” Cameron says. “They were real.” It’s a useful reminder that Cameron, so often dismissed as an insouciant optimist, is at heart a very practical politician.This is the nub of the case that weaves its way right through the 700 pages of Cameron’s memoir and through much of what he has said in interviews this week. The UK’s relationship with the EU was always both necessary and contingent, he argues. Until now, every prime minister for the last 40 years has simultaneously wanted a seat at the top table and a special deal for Britain. Every one of them, even Tony Blair, felt they had to fight off moves to political union. “These weren’t pretend ghouls and ghosts,” Cameron says. “They were real.” It’s a useful reminder that Cameron, so often dismissed as an insouciant optimist, is at heart a very practical politician.
He is insistent that British ambivalence has origins that long predate the migration crisis or the rise of Nigel Farage. Cameron traces the roots back to Margaret Thatcher’s support for the EU single market in the 1980s. “The single market was both the best thing and the worst thing for Conservatives. We created it. But then we didn’t like the legislation that was needed to make it work.”He is insistent that British ambivalence has origins that long predate the migration crisis or the rise of Nigel Farage. Cameron traces the roots back to Margaret Thatcher’s support for the EU single market in the 1980s. “The single market was both the best thing and the worst thing for Conservatives. We created it. But then we didn’t like the legislation that was needed to make it work.”
“The EU is a law-based organisation that doesn’t like exceptions,” he continues. “The differing speeds issue had to be addressed, especially with the eurozone.” Cameron thinks the balancing act would have had to continue even if remain had won in 2016. He quotes the downbeat assessment of an anonymous official (surely the Bank of England deputy governor, Jon Cunliffe) telling him “it would have kept us in the EU for another 10 years”.“The EU is a law-based organisation that doesn’t like exceptions,” he continues. “The differing speeds issue had to be addressed, especially with the eurozone.” Cameron thinks the balancing act would have had to continue even if remain had won in 2016. He quotes the downbeat assessment of an anonymous official (surely the Bank of England deputy governor, Jon Cunliffe) telling him “it would have kept us in the EU for another 10 years”.
“My biggest regret”, he says, is that he let expectations about his 2015-16 renegotiation get too high. “I should have made it clear that some of the things my colleagues were arguing for were not available – picking and choosing which laws to obey, radical cuts in the budget, some sort of country club membership. These things are not possible.” He thinks there was more substance to the renegotiation deal he brought back from Brussels in February 2016 than is now acknowledged. The concessions he achieved were “a big deal for the EU. They hated it.”“My biggest regret”, he says, is that he let expectations about his 2015-16 renegotiation get too high. “I should have made it clear that some of the things my colleagues were arguing for were not available – picking and choosing which laws to obey, radical cuts in the budget, some sort of country club membership. These things are not possible.” He thinks there was more substance to the renegotiation deal he brought back from Brussels in February 2016 than is now acknowledged. The concessions he achieved were “a big deal for the EU. They hated it.”
Some of that defiant confidence drains away when Cameron talks about the referendum process itself. He thought “a lot” about writing a enhanced majority threshold into the referendum legislation, but it never happened. “I agonise about that one.” He thought the Electoral Commission “got it wrong” by insisting the choice on the ballot was between remain and leave, not yes (Cameron wanted a yes-to-Europe campaign) and no. He had always thought June 2016 would be the optimum date. Now he is not so sure. “We lost the vote so it’s worth asking the question.” He is scathing about Labour’s role in the campaign under Jeremy Corbyn. “They were awol.”Some of that defiant confidence drains away when Cameron talks about the referendum process itself. He thought “a lot” about writing a enhanced majority threshold into the referendum legislation, but it never happened. “I agonise about that one.” He thought the Electoral Commission “got it wrong” by insisting the choice on the ballot was between remain and leave, not yes (Cameron wanted a yes-to-Europe campaign) and no. He had always thought June 2016 would be the optimum date. Now he is not so sure. “We lost the vote so it’s worth asking the question.” He is scathing about Labour’s role in the campaign under Jeremy Corbyn. “They were awol.”
Cameron’s own stance on Europe has not changed three years on. “I’m a remainer,” he says, without equivocation. And it is as a remainer, albeit a pragmatic one, that he has watched events unfold – and now unravel – since he walked away in July 2016.Cameron’s own stance on Europe has not changed three years on. “I’m a remainer,” he says, without equivocation. And it is as a remainer, albeit a pragmatic one, that he has watched events unfold – and now unravel – since he walked away in July 2016.
He says supportive things about Theresa May. “She was definitely a moderniser.” But his disagreement with her Brexit strategy is barely concealed. He approves of the fact that “she got a deal”. He “shares her frustration” that it was then voted down by “the people who most wanted Brexit”. But, crucially, he says that “picking one of the existing models, a Norway-style model, would have been a safer and more secure way to deliver Brexit while safeguarding the economy.”He says supportive things about Theresa May. “She was definitely a moderniser.” But his disagreement with her Brexit strategy is barely concealed. He approves of the fact that “she got a deal”. He “shares her frustration” that it was then voted down by “the people who most wanted Brexit”. But, crucially, he says that “picking one of the existing models, a Norway-style model, would have been a safer and more secure way to deliver Brexit while safeguarding the economy.”
And he is critical of her failure to adapt her strategy after the 2017 election. “If you think about it like that, then the red lines, the election result and not reaching out more until too late to other support have had an impact. You need Labour support for a partnership Brexit. If you go back to the beginning, to 2016 and particularly after 2017, you might have been able to get more buy-in. The government went in a different direction, with the red lines and all the rest of it.”And he is critical of her failure to adapt her strategy after the 2017 election. “If you think about it like that, then the red lines, the election result and not reaching out more until too late to other support have had an impact. You need Labour support for a partnership Brexit. If you go back to the beginning, to 2016 and particularly after 2017, you might have been able to get more buy-in. The government went in a different direction, with the red lines and all the rest of it.”
And, now, today, under the very different leadership of Boris Johnson? Cameron’s answer may surprise many, since he admits he is open to a second referendum if Johnson fails to make a deal. “I think it is more difficult now. Logically, where we are is either Boris gets his deal and brings it back and passes it, or there are three options: you can find another deal, you can have a general election, or you can have a second referendum. We’re running out of ways to get unstuck what is stuck.And, now, today, under the very different leadership of Boris Johnson? Cameron’s answer may surprise many, since he admits he is open to a second referendum if Johnson fails to make a deal. “I think it is more difficult now. Logically, where we are is either Boris gets his deal and brings it back and passes it, or there are three options: you can find another deal, you can have a general election, or you can have a second referendum. We’re running out of ways to get unstuck what is stuck.
“I think the first choice is to deliver the first referendum with a deal. But I’m not keen at all on no deal. That would be a big risk for the country. But if we get stuck, it [a second referendum] should be an option and it shouldn’t be ruled out. I think we’re better off in, trying to fight for Britain’s interests rather than trying to form a partnership which I think we could make work but which isn’t the answer.”“I think the first choice is to deliver the first referendum with a deal. But I’m not keen at all on no deal. That would be a big risk for the country. But if we get stuck, it [a second referendum] should be an option and it shouldn’t be ruled out. I think we’re better off in, trying to fight for Britain’s interests rather than trying to form a partnership which I think we could make work but which isn’t the answer.”
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Cameron’s memoir ranges wide across many issues. He remakes the case for his Tory party modernisation project during the opposition years from 2005 and for the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition’s austerity programme after 2010. Though he admits that “some of the early speeches were a bit ‘Hello birds. Hello trees.’” he is convinced that his 11-year leadership has been hardwired into “a modern compassionate Conservative party”. The book also contains some very good anecdotes about everything from Brussels summits to visiting Balmoral. Many who read the pages on the death of his son Ivan in 2009 will be moved to tears.Cameron’s memoir ranges wide across many issues. He remakes the case for his Tory party modernisation project during the opposition years from 2005 and for the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition’s austerity programme after 2010. Though he admits that “some of the early speeches were a bit ‘Hello birds. Hello trees.’” he is convinced that his 11-year leadership has been hardwired into “a modern compassionate Conservative party”. The book also contains some very good anecdotes about everything from Brussels summits to visiting Balmoral. Many who read the pages on the death of his son Ivan in 2009 will be moved to tears.
In the end, though, everything in Cameron’s story always comes back to Brexit. “It is very difficult to try to put Brexit to one side because it’s so massive,” he admits. But he sticks to his fundamental argument about his defining legacy. “It wasn’t some cranky view that there would have to be a referendum. The idea that this was just a Tory party drama, a Tory obsession, is not correct. Yes, it was a particularly big problem for the Conservative party and the pressure was growing and growing. But I was wrestling with a genuine problem. The trouble was I lost.”In the end, though, everything in Cameron’s story always comes back to Brexit. “It is very difficult to try to put Brexit to one side because it’s so massive,” he admits. But he sticks to his fundamental argument about his defining legacy. “It wasn’t some cranky view that there would have to be a referendum. The idea that this was just a Tory party drama, a Tory obsession, is not correct. Yes, it was a particularly big problem for the Conservative party and the pressure was growing and growing. But I was wrestling with a genuine problem. The trouble was I lost.”
David CameronDavid Cameron
BrexitBrexit
Politics booksPolitics books
Autobiography and memoirAutobiography and memoir
Biography booksBiography books
European UnionEuropean Union
EuropeEurope
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