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Brexit is David Cameron’s historical reckoning – but will he own up in his new book?

David Cameron announces his resignation (Photo by Kate Green/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

History is unlikely to judge former prime minister David Cameron well. But as the former PM gets ready to tell his side of the story in a new book, JOHN KAMPFNER has a stab at what it might contain

In the admirable updated edition of the Guilty Men, the latter-day Cato the Younger (a pseudonym for a well-known contemporary historian-cum-writer) names those most responsible for the disaster that is Brexit.

His hall of shame ranges from pantomime baddies Arron Banks and Dominic Cummings, to media miserabilists Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch. Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker receive walk-on parts for their role in rebuffing Britain’s entreaties. Man of the moment Boris Johnson has copious references, alongside his unwitting referendum accomplice Jeremy Corbyn.

Star of the show, however, is David Cameron. Three chapters are devoted to him. The former prime minister is called out for his decision to call the vote in 2016, his failure to negotiate anything substantial with the EU ahead of it, and for the many mistakes of the campaign itself.

Cato has form. In his original he lampooned the leaders of Ancient Rome. In the 1940s, he reappeared to denounce the Establishment’s appeasement of Hitler. (One of the three writers turned out to be Michael Foot). In 2017, he was back, to cast his verdict on those responsible for our Brexit follies.

Since leaving Number 10, Cameron has popped up from time to time, jovially gracing society parties with his presence or giving well remunerated speeches. Most of the time he has lain low, partly to protect himself from opprobrium and partly to write his memoir, from his luxury shed in the Cotswolds (the £25,000 abode with double bed, woodburning stove and Farrow and Ball paint).

From September 19, he will be back centre stage. That is publication day for his long-delayed tome. He was hoping to hold it back, beyond October 31, but was told by his publishers that they could wait no longer. Book buyers and audiences at festivals from Cheltenham to Harrogate will be queuing up to hear his words of wisdom. Journalists are primed to pounce on his every negative utterance about Johnson, Theresa May or anyone else in politics.

Just as he has breezed through his professional life, Cameron is unlikely to dwell too deeply on the tragedy he has inflicted on his nation. It is not that he is heartless or unintelligent. The reason he behaved the way he did is that he knew no other way. Eton had drained any lingering self-doubt from him. Having wafted away Nick Clegg’s referendum challenge over electoral reform, having seen off Nicola Sturgeon and her presumptuous independence aspirations for Scotland, what could possibly go wrong? This is the man who declared, when asked why he wanted to be prime minister: “Because I think I would be good at it”.

I could be wrong, but I will wager that Dave won’t wield the knife in his book, at least not in any significant way (the publishers may well have persuaded him to insert a few bits and bobs to shift more copies). He doesn’t do angry. Because underneath it all he has never cared that much. He could just as easily have been a barrister like his brother or gone into the City like many of his school or Oxford chums.

Nevertheless, for political junkies like me, Cameron’s recollections will be worth a read, just as those of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and others have been. Autobiographies fascinate because of what they say, and what they leave out or play down.

What exactly will Cameron say about the events leading up to, and during, June 2016? The story, on the face of it, seems clear. He believed he would win, so he didn’t fight hard enough to extract concessions on immigration from Merkel. (She later admitted that, had she known how bad things would get, she would have given the Brits more. But Dave gave every impression that it would be fine, that he was merely going through the motions). As for the campaign itself, where does one begin?

Why on earth did Downing Street think it was best placed to control it? Why did it think the poshest of posh incumbents was the best choice to win over the angry unconverted? Why did it refuse ever to make a positive case for Europe, particularly to galvanise young people? Why did it demonise those contemplating voting Leave? And why did it focus on the economy, to the exclusion of all else? This was a values-free campaign, devoid of passion, so de haut en bas that it failed to understand what was driving so many people to commit an act of clear self-harm?

The socio-economic element tends to revolve around two catch-all words, globalisation and austerity. They help the analysis, in part. Cameron, and particularly his Chancellor, friend and partner-in-Brexit-crime George Osborne, became so obsessed with the numbers game on bringing down the debt, they failed to see the consequences. From homelessness, to the hollowing out of high streets, to this month’s stats on drug addiction, Britain has seen its community infrastructure crumble. Cameron didn’t start any of this, but his insouciance accelerated many of the country’s ills.

Hence May’s determination, on the steps of Downing Street on taking over, that she would focus on the many burning injustices. Was she being insincere? Or was she ground down by the daily parliamentary battles over her attempted deal? More likely the latter. Cue Johnson and similar laments about the state of Britain. Is he being insincere? Almost certainly. Because that is who is he.

Cameron didn’t even try. He belonged to an era (like Blair), in which economic orthodoxy prevailed. The maxim ran: if you don’t fix the headline figures – inflation, growth, unemployment, debt – you can’t get anything done. That may still be true, but the opposite no longer applies. In other words, if you do fix them all, that doesn’t mean you are presiding over a healthy society. If you are someone who has not received a real-terms pay rise in a decade you are not enjoying the proceeds of growth. If you in a job, but it is precarious, exploitative and is ruining your family, you will not consider yourself particularly fortunate.

The story of the left behinds is now well told, and applies not just to the UK, but to all the countries that have succumbed to nationalist-populists, from Trump to Salvini. I will be intrigued to see what Cameron has to say about the underlying causes of Brexit, even if he declines to shed further light on the who-said-what-to-whom narrative.

Every politician makes mistakes. Some are bigger than others. Blair was affected by Iraq. It may be too much to say that he was tormented by it. But his friends say that rarely a day passes when he doesn’t chew it over in his mind. Does “chillax” Cameron suffer similarly over Brexit? If he does, he makes a good fist of pretending otherwise. I would venture to suggest that he regards it as just one of those things. It would have happened, one way or another, at some time or another, because Britain has always struggled to decide on its place in Europe. C’est la vie. It isn’t zeal, but a calm casualness that was his undoing – and will be his historical reckoning.

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