You might love to hate him, but David Cameron did nothing wrong

We had it coming. It was utterly inevitable. Sooner or later the British were going to have to face up to their basic unhappiness about the European project of ‘ever closer union’

Danny Dyer calls David Cameron a 't*** at the BAFTAs

I never voted for David Cameron. I didn’t much like him, from what I could see, which, often as not, was a picture of him and his other over-privileged mates, including Boris Johnson, dressed up in their Bullingdon Club rig-out.

This, you may recall, was a secret Oxford student society that required as one of its initiation ceremonies a new member to burn a £20 note (later £50) in front of a homeless person. Maybe he did do this, maybe he didn’t, but it doesn’t say much for his judgement that he was prepared to hang out with people who would, and did.

That unconfirmed story about him placing his honourable member in a pig’s gob (a dead one) may have been another of his youthful misjudgements. A man who is prepared to do those things and then to go on to feign support for Aston Villa/West Ham is not someone who is going to be especially easy to like: Just a sort of rubberised Blair-clone, really. I very much doubt his forthcoming memoir will prove me wrong. His reputation remains low, even though the 2010-15 Con-Lib Dem coalition feels like a paragon of strong and stable government at this distance.

More than anything, for course, Cameron is blamed – scapegoated, really – for the Brexit crisis and the damage it has inflicted on the country. Specifically, he draws fire for holding the 2016 EU referendum, which he promised, fought, lost and then ran away from.

It is widely regarded as his worst misjudgement by far – but this is where he has been hard done by. He did nothing wrong in promising that referendum back in 2013, and here is why.

First, we had it coming. It was utterly inevitable. Sooner or later the British were going to have to face up to their basic unhappiness about the European project of “ever closer union”. As Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, unkindly but accurately observed this week: “The British since the very beginning were part-time Europeans. What we need are full-time Europeans.”

The 1975 referendum, on remaining in the then-European Economic Community, set the precedent. The inexorable process of European integration did the rest. Treaty after treaty was passed and ratified, and without much recourse to the voters. It was entirely right, in principle, to consult the people on a great issue of sovereignty, which is what Europe had become.

In fact, it was often put forward, by all parties. It was Liberal Democrat policy under Nick Clegg to have an In/Out referendum to settle the issue once and for all. New Labour promised a referendum on joining the euro in the 1997 election, and in 2004 and 2005 Tony Blair, as prime minister, made some slightly wobbly promises about a referendum on the new European “constitution”. Lots of other EU countries were having referendums on Europe all the time. It wasn’t a weird or a uniquely Cameronian idea.

Look back to the fateful speech Cameron gave at the HQ of Bloomberg in London, on Wednesday 23 January 2013, and you can see the force of his case: “People also feel that the EU is now heading for a level of political integration that is far outside Britain’s comfort zone. They see treaty after treaty changing the balance between member states and the EU. And note they were never given a say.

“They’ve had referendums promised but not delivered. They see what has happened to the euro. And they note that many of our political and business leaders urged Britain to join at the time. And they haven’t noticed many expressions of contrition. And they look at the steps the eurozone is taking and wonder what deeper integration for the eurozone will mean for a country which is not going to join the euro.

“The result is that democratic consent for the EU in Britain is now wafer thin.”

Of course, being “wafer thin” might have meant that a referendum could well go the wrong way, and Cameron certainly overestimated his ability to win the argument, and badly underestimated his opponents, as the 2016 campaign painfully demonstrated. He was, it has to be said, also let down badly in the 2016 campaign by Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s lukewarm support.

The point about consent, however, remains, as it would have done had he won. As Cameron said in 2013: “That is why I am in favour of a referendum. I believe in confronting this issue – shaping it, leading the debate. Not simply hoping a difficult situation will go away.”

Certainly, his critics were never going to go away. If Cameron hadn’t offered a referendum at that moment, then his party would have sacked him and found someone else who would – and there were plenty of eager Tories on the make who would have been all too happy to take his place. The Tory party, then as now, had more than its share of Eurosceptic fanatics, but they were alternately emboldened and spooked by the success of Nigel Farage and Ukip in successive rounds of elections and the opinion polls. Cameron, like many in his circle, despised this bunch of “fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists”. But he could not ignore the electoral damage they were threatening to inflict on his party and his career.

Maybe they overestimated the power of Ukip to deprive them of a majority at the election that arrived in 2015. Certainly Europe was not much on the voters’ minds at the time, at least directly, and Ukip was usually a convenient bin for protest votes. But the collective judgement of the Conservative Party was that Ukip needed to be neutralised, and the party united around an agreed line – the referendum was the ideal way to do it.

Cameron could not have resisted the movement within his own ranks, and nor could anyone else have. The days when the likes of Ken Clarke or Michael Heseltine could have conceivably been the kind of personality the Tories would have had lead them were long, long gone by the 2010s.

Thus, it is Cameron’s party, responding to the voters and acting on its own ideological Euroscepticism, that you can “blame” for the EU referendum, not Cameron personally. Perhaps if he had placed his leadership on the line, or made the positive case for Europe, or just fudged and dodged the issue a little longer, he might have got away with it.

Perhaps the gamble that the Lib Dems would form a coalition with him again and prevent him from carrying out his promise might have worked – his majority in 2015 was slender.

Yet sooner or later he or a successor would have been forced to hold that public vote. It had been promised by too many leaders of all the main parties for far too long, and Ukip was taking votes away from all of them.

The one tactical error that Cameron and his allies did make was to insist the referendum was binding, at least politically, with that infamous passage in the official government pamphlet that went out after his “renegotiation” of the terms of UK membership:

“This is your decision. The government will implement what you decide.”

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In fact, even that followed the 1975 precedent, when the prime minister, Harold Wilson, stated that “it is your vote that will now decide. The government will accept your verdict.” Had it have been merely and explicitly consultative, then the closeness of the 2016 vote might have allowed Cameron to set off to Brussels for a further renegotiation. Maybe. It’s all a bit hypothetical.

Of course, the thing to do now would be to have another referendum on the terms of Brexit, the Final Say that The Independent has been campaigning for. In the future we might have more referendums on the UK’s position in the EU, or on specific new commitments or treaties. Referendums are not absurd things to do, much as it feels that way now, but they have to be run properly, with plans in place for what happens if they go one way or another.

If he believed in the power of a referendum to resolve the issue in 2013, and again in 2016, then Cameron should now be arguing for another referendum on that very same basis.

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