Writing in the Evening Standard yesterday, former Conservative Special Adviser Julian Glover set out a brief and fascinating history of his Party’s problematic relationship with Europe. As he pointed out, the roots of the madness engulfing the Party this week can be traced back to the 1960s. Since then, he said, there have been many Tories who have contributed to our current national paralysis surrounding Brexit.
Glover does a great job in tracing the history of Euroscepticism amongst Tories, what he describes as their “virulent madness”. He names a number of Conservatives over the years who might be blamed for getting us to where we are now. But Glover actually tells only half the story.
In fact the guilty men and women are more numerous, and have been spread across the parties. Few mainstream, ‘Establishment’, politicians are wholly innocent, since all have failed to spell out the reasons for us being in the European Union, failed to laud the benefits that it has brought, failed to excite and enthuse. Many have been far worse than that, deviating from their support for Brussels all too easily, pandering to those concerned about Eastern European migration rather than explaining its benefits, scoffing at rules about bent bananas, posturing about how we were somehow ‘apart’ from the project. It is this cynicism, arrogance and indifference, this weakness in the face of newspaper bullying and internal party splits, that has got us to where we are today.
In short, it is those who claim to be Europhiles who have screwed this up. With one big, mop-topped blond, exception, the Eurosceptics, the Leavers, have been entirely consistent and principled. It is people like Tony Blair and George Osborne and a host of others who now regard membership of the EU as a vital necessity who allowed mistrust and contempt for Europe to grow, who didn’t listen to the growing chorus of complaints about free movement, who never bothered to spell out why we were even in the Club – and thus prepared fertile ground for Leave.
But there is an individual, specific, stand out villain. After all, one man alone was responsible for allowing a referendum to take place: David Cameron. There are so many things to criticise about his conduct it is hard to know what is worst. For starters he shares in the Establishment’s culpability for being half-hearted and cynical about the European Union. Under pressure from the Tory head-bangers he caved in rather than faced them down, giving them, and their UKIPer Referendum Party outriders, exactly what they wanted. These are Bad Things, actions that undermine his place in history. But they are not the worst.
No, there are at least two other Bad Things. For one, having ‘won’ the Scottish independence referendum Cameron and his acolytes seem to have believed their own hype, thinking that all they needed to do was turn up to win this new one on Europe. They campaigned weakly, and allowed the lacklustre and hapless Stronger In group to take the lead, failing to intervene despite its many obvious shortcomings. The fact that he then dished out honours to this bunch as he left office only makes it worse. Yet even this awful complacency is not the reason Cameron should hang his head.
No, by far the worst of the Bad Things David Cameron did was allow the referendum to be a Yes / No battle: should we be in or out? Hindsight is 20:20 vision, of course, but as this week has reminded us, this was a grievous mistake. Everyone opposed to Europe, with all their different dreams and ambitions for what ought to come next, with all their fractiousness, could coalesce behind a simple we-must-leave, we-must-take-back-control, banner. No detail of what that might look like, what the impact might be, what the arguments against ought to be. And no guidance, so much needed now, on what Brexit would actually mean, what people were actually voting for (as opposed to against).
Cameron allowed the referendum to become the concrete vs the abstract, the reality of being in the Union vs the dream of a better tomorrow. And in doing that he not only made life infinitely easier for the Leavers during the campaign, he also left us in the mess that we are in today. Yes, May has made poor choices: siding with the Hard Brexiteers at the outset of her premiership, thus allowing them to define what Brexit means, was a huge mistake. Boris Johnson has behaved irresponsibly and at times appallingly, undermining his leader and putting personal gain ahead of any principle, and probably tipping the referendum result to Leave. Nick Timothy has to carry the can for an election campaign that left his boss weakened and at the mercy of left and right, of Leave and Remain. Several newspaper bosses have fanned the flames, making compromise impossible. The posturing of Michel Barnier and his chums has not helped. But all of these people are dealing with what they inherited, trying to solve an impossible conundrum not of their making.
This is why David Cameron is the worst of the lot, not Boris, not Theresa, not Nigel or Jeremy, but Call Me Dave. By opting for Yes/No he made a Leave victory more likely and left no clear mandate for what should happen next. And so he turned a problem into a disaster. As he sits at home today, slowly writing his memoir (which, by the way, will surely be entirely dated and irrelevant by the time it finally appears), he ought to feel a profound sense of shame. I bet he doesn’t.