David Cameron began 2016 in 10 Downing Street and ended it at DePauw University in a small Indiana town, speaking for a reported £120,000 an hour. The former British prime minister is now paid almost as much for a 60-minute speech as he used to earn in a year, as he tries to make sense of his own historic failure: Brexit.
Whatever he says now, Mr Cameron’s political epitaph is already written. Peter Mandelson, former British trade minister and European commissioner, said: “History will remember David Cameron simply as the prime minister who took us out of the EU. I don’t think there will be anything else. A man who took this tactical risk, which then turned into a strategic blunder.”
His former colleagues in Britain and the EU are left to pick up the pieces. One British minister, reflecting on Mr Cameron’s legacy and the country after the vote to leave the EU, says: “Our starting position should be: ‘Oh shit’.”
Although armed with a fresh mandate for a second five-year term as Conservative prime minister, Mr Cameron was sitting on a powder keg. Why did he promise the EU referendum that brought him down and set Britain adrift from its European moorings? Why did he not negotiate a better deal for Britain in the EU? And why was his Remain campaign such a failure?
The Financial Times has spoken to key participants to piece together the story of a remarkable year in British and European politics, a story of political hubris, strategic mistakes, tactical blunders and gut-wrenching despair as Britain’s establishment was swept aside by a populist uprising.
‘The main driving force’?
Mr Cameron claimed at DePauw that he had little choice, because Europe was “beginning to poison British politics”. In fact, opinion polls consistently showed voters were much more concerned about issues such as the economy and health than Britain’s relations with the EU. The former Tory leader was more accurate when he said: “It was certainly poisoning politics in my own party.”
The referendum, resisted for many years by Mr Cameron and finally conceded in January 2013, under pressure from the UK Independence party, was very much his own decision. George Osborne, his chancellor, argued strongly against holding a plebiscite, warning it would split the Conservative party and could end in defeat.
Intriguingly, Michael Gove, one of the leading Tory ministers in the Leave campaign, wrote a private note to the prime minister pleading with him not to do it. One ally of Mr Gove told the FT the minister feared the referendum would “divide the country, cause carnage in terms of party management and drive a wedge between the two of them”.
To win this, you have to hit Cameron and Osborne over the head with a baseball bat with ‘immigration’ written on it
Mr Cameron believed his friend Mr Gove would fall in line because the issue was so important. “Cameron didn’t grasp that Michael wouldn’t fall in line precisely because it was so important,” says one friend of the former education minister.
Rupert Harrison, former chief of staff to Mr Osborne, says: “It’s fair to say that the prime minister was the main driving force behind the referendum. He felt it was the right thing to do. The British people had not been given their say on the EU for 40 years and the institution had changed beyond recognition. If it had only been about party management I think in the end it would have been too high a risk to take.”
Oliver Letwin, Mr Cameron’s former policy chief, argues that his former boss had little choice but to concede the referendum in 2013 because of the threat at that time that Ukip could steal many seats from the Tories at the 2015 election, forcing on the prime minister “a referendum on Ukip’s terms”.
The need for a better EU deal
Mr Cameron embarked on an effort to secure new terms for Britain from the EU. But his breezy confidence did not always convey to fellow European leaders that he was playing for very high stakes. The prime minister’s allies insist he always warned that defeat was a possibility, but one senior EU official recalls Mr Cameron telling colleagues at the G20 summit in Brisbane in 2014: “We’re going to win. Maybe by 70:30.” In the end he lost by 52:48.
Lord Mandelson says Mr Cameron relied far too much on Angela Merkel to deliver a better deal on limiting the free movement of people; in the end the German chancellor refused to grant Britain an “emergency brake” to suspend EU migration — a policy that might have changed the course of the referendum.
Eastern European countries were strongly opposed to any dilution of the EU’s free movement rules. Lord Mandelson says Ms Merkel wanted to be helpful but had other responsibilities. “She’s not going to sacrifice European unity in order to help David Cameron out of an internal domestic political jam.” One British diplomat joked in early 2016: “Cameron’s policy isn’t ‘Merkel first’, it’s ‘Merkel only’.”
Mr Letwin insists the deal, struck on February 19,which included protections for Britain’s status as a “euro-out” country, was a good one. But it was barely mentioned by the Remain side in the referendum campaign. “We made a big error in the way the campaign was fought,” he says. “We allowed people who said the deal didn’t amount to anything to make the running.”
Daniel Hannan, a Eurosceptic Tory MEP who was covertly putting together an alternative Leave campaign, says: “I’m convinced that the day the Leave vote won was when the prime minister came back with no powers returned.”
Johnson jumps ship
The deal was not good enough to persuade Boris Johnson, the former London mayor, to back Remain. His decision to join the Leave camp was crucial, giving the campaign a significant figurehead. Mr Harrison admits that it was a mistake not to “nail down what Boris was going to do beforehand”.
I’m convinced that the day the Leave vote won was when the prime minister came back [from the EU] with no powers returned
Mr Letwin telephoned Mr Johnson at his home at the eleventh hour to try to win him over with the promise of a “sovereignty bill”, only for him to put the call on speakerphone so that Michael Gove could listen in. That was the moment the Leave campaign gained critical mass. Mr Letwin recalls with a rueful smile: “It was the moment at which I realised it was very likely that Boris and Michael were going the other way.”
Mr Johnson and Mr Gove would go on to become a potent force in the final months of the referendum battle.
Meanwhile, the cross-party Remain campaign was struggling to take off, hobbled by the fact that Jeremy Corbyn, the opposition Labour party leader, was a long-time Eurosceptic who shared little of his party’s enthusiasm for the EU.
“The Labour party had days left open for them [to campaign] but we would find out late in the day that people weren’t prepared to do media rounds,” recalls Sir Craig Oliver, then Mr Cameron’s communications chief.
Roland Rudd, treasurer of the Britain Stronger In Europe campaign, admits that the “cross-party” effort was fatally compromised because it became “the tool of the Number 10 campaign”. Mr Cameron, he says, refused to sanction “blue on blue” attacks on Mr Johnson and Mr Gove. “We needed to attack them,” he adds.
“When our campaign came up with a brilliant poster showing Boris Johnson in the pocket of Nigel Farage [the Ukip leader], Number 10 initially agreed,” Mr Rudd recalls. “But in the afternoon, without telling the board, they scuppered them. They didn’t want to unleash a Conservative civil war. It was criminal in the situation we were in.”
Across the river Thames at the headquarters of Vote Leave — the official Brexit campaign — Matthew Elliott could not believe his luck. “I was surprised they didn’t go after Michael Gove and Boris Johnson more,” the campaign chief executive says. “I thought they were going to lash them in with Nigel Farage and Ukip and make out they were all part of the same gang, all crazy, rightwing nutters.” Mr Elliott adds: “That would have been terminal for us.”
[Number 10] didn’t want to unleash a Conservative civil war. It was criminal given the situation we were in
Sir Craig admits Mr Cameron was not willing to sanction attacks on his colleagues, partly because he was wary of “pumping more poison” into a party that he hoped to reunite after the June 23 vote. He also feared it might distract attention from economic arguments on the EU, focusing instead on questions of the Tory succession.
Both sides agree that May 26 was the turning point in the campaign, as official net migration figures hit 330,000 — more than three times higher than the government target. At Vote Leave, Mr Johnson and Mr Gove were also wary about “blue on blue” attacks on their government’s record, but turned out to be less squeamish than Mr Cameron.
“There was a tense meeting,” says one Vote Leave insider, who recalled how Dominic Cummings, the mercurial director of the campaign, told Mr Johnson and Mr Gove: “If you want to win this, you have to hit Cameron and Osborne over the head with a baseball bat with immigration written on it.”
With only four weeks to go before the vote, Mr Cameron’s political future was now looking much more perilous. As Vote Leave focused relentlessly on immigration — and the distant possibility that Turkey might join the EU — the Remain side had failed to decisively win the economic arguments of Brexit. Mr Osborne’s threat of a post-Brexit Budget — dubbed a “punishment Budget” by his critics — backfired.
“Some of the messaging, particularly towards the end, was very black and white and less credible for that,” admits Mr Harrison.
Lord Mandelson, an exponent of “message discipline” during the New Labour era, pleaded with the Remain side to broaden its argument away from the economy but was rebuffed. “I’m apparently one of the inventors of tight-knit communications,” he says. “But I never dreamt of taking it to the extent, literally, of saying absolutely nothing about anything else — and simply saying the same thing over and over again.”
All Mr Cameron could do was wait. On the day of the referendum Remain pollsters told the prime minister to relax: as the big day approached, voters had shifted decisively in his favour and that he was on course for a historic victory.
“It’s going to be 60:40, maybe better,” Mr Cameron was told.
When the Sunderland result came through, it felt like you’d been walking on a path to safety, only to suddenly drop into quicksand
Business donors to the Remain campaign gathered to celebrate at Villandry, in London’s exclusive St James’s district. “George Osborne came — he was nervous but quietly confident,” recalls Mr Rudd. The first major result from Sunderland saw a much bigger than expected vote for Brexit and came as a sickening blow to those gathered. “You kept hoping for the cities to come to one’s rescue. But by 3am it was absolutely clear we had lost. By that time the mood was bleak.”
Sir Craig, who was in Downing Street with the prime minister, says: “When the Sunderland result came through, it felt like you’d been walking on a path to safety, only to suddenly drop into quicksand.”
At Vote Leave headquarters overlooking the Palace of Westminster, Mr Hannan broke into a Shakespearean soliloquy in tribute to his ragtag band of Brexiters. But the celebrations became more muted as dawn broke and Britain woke up to find sterling in meltdown and to discover that Mr Cameron was to resign.
Sir Craig says Mr Cameron was right to quit. “He didn’t believe in Brexit,” he recalls. “I also thought it was the dignified thing to do. I don’t think that David Cameron ever at any stage disagreed with that, and that was pretty much his view from the off.”
It nevertheless came as a surprise to Mr Johnson and Mr Gove as they convened at Vote Leave for a victory press conference. “We were shell shocked that the prime minister resigned,” Mr Elliott says. Certainly messrs Gove and Johnson looked stunned at the moment of their triumph.
“The reason they were not gloating is because David Cameron had just resigned,” says Mr Hannan. “But I couldn’t have been happier and I couldn’t be more optimistic now.”
Almost six months on and Mr Cameron has left the political stage for the lucrative American speaking circuit; Mr Osborne has made £500,000 since being sacked by Theresa May, Mr Cameron’s successor, for just nine speeches, describing the searing experiences of 2016. Sir Craig and many of the others who worked on both sides of the campaign have been snapped up by public affairs companies, and now earn a living offering advice to companies on the consequences of Brexit.
Meanwhile, Britons wait with trepidation to see what happens next. Mr Hannan admits there was a sense of “shell shock”. He adds: “Shall I tell you what that was? It’s the shock of finding yourself back in control again. It’s the shock of the convalescent who, bedridden for weeks, finally gets out of bed, crosses the floor, throws the door open and strides out into the garden.
“And there is a little moment of shock, but my goodness, it’s a good shock.”