A principled, talented politician has bequeathed to his successor a constitutional crisisby Oliver Kamm / July 1, 2016 / Leave a comment
Prime Minister David Cameron announces his resignation following a “Leave” victory in Britain’s referendum of its membership of the European Union. 24th June 2016 ©NEWZULU/Ian Davidson/NEWZULU/PA Images Read more: Who is the real David Cameron? David Cameron succeeded in restoring the dominance of the Conservative Party at horrendous cost to the national interest. Though he didn’t intend the destructive part of that outcome, it is his handiwork and will be his political legacy. His premiership will be defined, like Anthony Eden’s, by a single disastrous decision. Unlike the Suez debacle, however, Cameron’s misjudgement has caused a rupture not just with Britain’s most important ally but with all our allies simultaneously. The referendum on EU membership, for which there was no reason beyond the internal politics of the Conservative Party, will have costs that are as yet unknown but are certain to be heavy. Britain will be poorer materially and culturally because of Cameron’s gamble. There may cease to be a United Kingdom altogether. How did it come to this? When he unexpectedly won the Conservative leadership in 2005 against the uninspiring David Davis, Cameron had an acute sense of his party’s problems. Against Tony Blair, the dominant centrist politician in Europe, the Tories had collapsed in electoral support and public respect. They still bore a reputation for economic failure after the 1992 sterling crisis and a succession of leaders (one of them of awesome incompetence) had failed to make headway. Cameron at least perceived that the party was out of step with the mores of modern Britain. He purged the remains of a rancid xenophobia from the party and positioned it as force for social liberalism. If history had been only slightly different, he’d probably be remembered above all for the great social reform of same-sex marriage—on which he lost the faith of a predominantly elderly base of party support yet judged it necessary. Even so, and against a Labour prime minister who handled the financial crash well yet was temperamentally unsuited to high office, the Tories lacked the breadth of social support across the UK that they needed to win office on their own in 2010. Cameron was bold in seeing the possibilities of a formal coalition government and played his hand skilfully. He yielded little to his Liberal Democrat partners beyond a referendum on electoral reform (an issue of consuming interest to Lib Dems but few others) and offices of state—including Danny Alexander as chief secretary to the Treasury, who became an important and constructive ally to the chancellor. On the economy, Cameron was lucky. Britain emerged from the crisis with a budget deficit of more than ten per cent of GDP. All parties recognised that, in a world of weak inflationary pressures, this was dangerous. Yet George Osborne adopted an excessively tight fiscal policy on becoming chancellor. Having its own currency and central bank, Britain had the capacity to stabilise its public debt market and could have gone slower. As it turned out, the coalition government did ease up on austerity from 2012. It was the right decision, allowing recovery while still bringing down the budget deficit to around 4.5 per cent of GDP by the end of the parliament. In foreign policy, Cameron was hamstrung by the indecisiveness of the Obama administration but played a constructive role in western diplomacy to curb Iranian nuclear adventurism. The Nato intervention in Libya was ultimately ill-fated but in truth Cameron had no choice if he was to avoid the moral stain of allowing the Gaddafi regime to slaughter a civilian population. The overwhelming failure of western diplomacy in Cameron’s premiership was in Syria, as President Assad – the dimmest ophthalmologist ever to emerge from British medical school—launched a barbarous assault on a captive civilian population. But it was primarily Obama’s failure, not Britain’s. Cameron confounded his critics by winning a narrow majority for the Conservatives in 2015. In retrospect it seems obvious that Labour could make little headway given that its ratings were poor on economic policy and leadership, yet it didn’t seem that way at the time. Cameron managed to unload the unpopularity of the coalition government on to the Lib Dems while benefiting from Labour’s collapse in Scotland. Yet the implosion of Cameron’s premiership had its origins in that election campaign. He promised a referendum on EU membership, believing he would prevail as he had done in the referendums on electoral reform and Scottish independence. It was a colossal misjudgement, in which the partisan aim of binding Conservative divisions took precedence over the country’s alliances and its interests as an open, trading economy. Cameron’s allies maintain that there was no way in which he could avoid promising a referendum given the state of Conservative opinion and the challenge on the party’s right flank from Ukip on the issue of immigration. Maybe. But in that case, he should have willingly lost the 2015 election. A government patched together by Ed Miliband would have been undistinguished but would have been a price worth paying to avoid an outcome in which for the long term Britain is set to be poorer, more unequal and less tolerant than it would have been. Cameron is a politician of principle and talent who bequeaths to his successor a legacy of constitutional crisis, diplomatic isolation and economic danger. The provisional judgment on his premiership must, in the circumstances, be that it is pure failure.