Belfast Telegraph

It's convenient to blame David Cameron for the Brexit mess, but it is also incredibly lazy to do so

Talking point: Former Prime Minister David Cameron at the launch of his new book, For the Record, this week
Talking point: Former Prime Minister David Cameron at the launch of his new book, For the Record, this week

By Matthew d'Ancona

At his book launch this week, David Cameron remarked that, even pre-publication, his memoir was vying with Margaret Atwood's The Testaments for the top slot in the bestseller list. One book explored the origins of a society "riven by dictatorship"; and the other was a book by Margaret Atwood. Well, he had to slip an anti-Boris gag in there somewhere, didn't he?

The party was a good-humoured gallery of a once-mighty regime. Most poignant was the presence of Sam Gyimah, Cameron's former parliamentary private secretary, who defected to the Lib Dems last weekend. The loss of this talented politician - already stripped of the Tory whip by Boris Johnson - is as potent a symbol as one could conceive of how grievously, and perhaps irrevocably, the Conservative Party has veered from the modernising path upon which Cameron set it when he became leader 14 years ago.

It was inevitable that the former Prime Minister's book, For the Record, would be greeted by a hail of anger and recrimination even before its official release. Britain is now in the middle of a political and constitutional crisis that can trace its immediate origins back to the referendum of 2016. For his part in this, Cameron cannot possibly escape judgment. Nor, to be fair, does he seek to do so.

All the same, there is an underacknowledged risk of over-correction: that Cameron is blamed for every single one of the 17.4 million votes for Brexit; for all the complex and deep-seated forces that congealed in the referendum result; for the follies and disasters of the past three years; and for the pound-shop populists who govern us today.

Some perspective: inheriting a deficit that - unless you believe in unfettered borrowing - was scaling dangerous heights, the Government embraced a strategy of fiscal conservatism that was as economically necessary as it was politically perilous. By the end of 2017 - a year and a half after Cameron had left office - the current budget, which covers day-to-day spending, finally achieved surplus.

In an era when the electorate seems minded to deprive governments of decent majorities - or a majority at all - Cameron held together a coalition with Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats for five years, weathering storms of disagreement over the NHS, electoral reform, Europe and much else. And if you think that's easy, try to imagine any of the present party leaders sitting round a Cabinet table for longer than five minutes.

Yes, Cameron made serious errors - doing much too little (for example) on climate change, the taxation of wealth, affordable property and the translation of the "Big Society" from billboard slogan to policy reality. And on the referendum? I always thought that he should use the powers enshrined in the 2011 European Union Act to hold a confirmatory vote on the next EU Treaty. This, it seemed to me, would give the people a chance to express a view on the trajectory of the EU - their first since 1975 - without betting the farm.

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All the same, it is simply incorrect to suggest that Cameron's decision to hold a referendum at all was recklessly capricious or wholly driven by internal Tory party politics.

The pressure for such a vote had been building up since the early Nineties: initially on membership of the euro, and then on the EU Constitutional Treaty (how easily it is forgotten that Tony Blair performed a U-turn to commit himself to such a referendum).

The rot really set in with the Lisbon agreement - a revival of the Constitutional Treaty in all but name - which Gordon Brown refused to put to the people. By the time Cameron entered Downing Street, Lisbon was part of EU law. But that was no consolation to those who were, in increasing numbers, starting to regard the failure of successive governments to consult the people as deeply symbolic of a much broader elitist contempt. In this respect, the UK Independence Party (Ukip), or rather what it became under Nigel Farage, was much more than a breakaway sect from the Tories: it was a new kind of populist movement, grafting hostility towards immigration onto longer-standing resentment over the EU.

Its grievances were cultural, not legal; it scratched at the scab of identity, not abstruse anxieties about sovereignty.

It exploited those being caught in the brutal crosswinds of globalisation and persuaded them that there was a quick fix.

Had all this been about internal Tory tribal politics, Cameron's promise in 2013 of a referendum would have done much to fix the problem. But it wasn't - the problem was much deeper-seated - and Ukip, far from losing support after Cameron's pledge, finished top in the 2014 European elections.

The point is this: the forces that drove Cameron to call a referendum in the first place, converged in the result, and poison our politics still, would have caused an eruption at some point. I suspect that, to an extent that has been radically underestimated, the 2011 riots were an early warning of what was to come.

Uncomfortable as it is to concede, there would have been a reckoning whether or not Cameron had taken his fateful decision in the form he did.

It is convenient, and neat, to blame him for all of it. But it is also incredibly lazy. History has ragged edges and is full of nuance; and, however this particular book is received, history will be kinder to Cameron.

© Evening Standard

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