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The wisdom of David Cameron

Published in Newsroom (Wellington), 1 April 2019

Of all the people in the world, former British Prime Minister David Cameron is probably the last person anyone wants to listen to on Brexit. After all, it was Cameron’s idea to hold the 2016 referendum that started the downfall.

Cameron obviously miscalculated his chances of winning a majority for staying in the EU. He also gained no meaningful concessions from the EU that might have helped him. His Remain campaign also lacked the emotional appeal Vote Leave generated.

Despite all that (or maybe even because of it), no person is better qualified to give advice to his party now. Consider Cameron’s rare intervention in British politics last week.

When asked by an ITV reporter about the tumultuous state of Brexit, Cameron summarised it succinctly: “The basic problem is that Parliament is stuck. There are four groups in Parliament – people who want the Prime Minister’s deal, people who want no deal, people who want a second referendum, and people who want a softer Brexit.”

Indeed, that is how Parliament is split. But what to do about it? On that, Cameron recommended: “The Government has to try and find a way of getting at least two of those groups to work together to combine their options and to compromise to find that partnership agreement and I hope that’s what will happen.”

On the basic arithmetic, Cameron is right. Combine almost any two of the four groups, and a Parliamentary majority could be found.

There is only one minor problem: These four groups have become so adamant, stubborn and radical, it is almost impossible to pull them out of their respective corners.

The divisions in British politics today are so deep that local Conservative Party branches are even deselecting long-serving MPs if they hold different views on Brexit than the grassroots activists – as if no other policies, principles or achievements matter. It just happened to former Attorney General Dominic Grieve and former Minister Nick Boles.

The irony of Cameron’s call for unity and compromise is he did not pursue either when he was still an active politician. Instead of trying to reconcile the Eurosceptics and Europhiles in the Conservative Party (if that is even possible), Cameron simply avoided the issue for as long as he could.

He had his reasons.

Europe has been a traumatic issue for the Conservative Party for many decades. For Cameron personally, it would have been a formative experience.

Back in 1992, as Britain crashed out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism on 16 September (the famous ‘Black Wednesday’), a then 25-year-old Cameron was political advisor to Norman Lamont, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. By working with Lamont, Cameron saw first-hand how this European issue had plunged the party into crisis, divided the cabinet, and paralysed Prime Minister John Major.

When Cameron became an MP in 2001 and party leader in 2005, he stayed clear of European issues. He talked about many things – especially those that Conservative politicians rarely talked about. But Europe, that toxic issue which had brought his party to its knees and doomed the premierships of both Margaret Thatcher and John Major, was nowhere to be seen or heard around Cameron.

That explains why Cameron treated Europe like Pandora’s Box: best left untouched. Privately, it was understood that Cameron was a Eurosceptic himself. He just would not want to talk about it.

The strategy worked – for a while. As long as the party and then the country followed Cameron on his initiatives around climate change, social policy or gay marriage, there just was not enough time to also hold a big debate on Europe.

That Cameron eventually promised the ‘In or Out?’ referendum had nothing to do with him wishing to resolve the European question once and for all. It was a political response to the rise of UKIP, the populist Eurosceptical party.

But even in promising the referendum, Cameron still tried to dig an escape route. He said in 2013 he would hold the referendum only if he won the 2015 election, which given the Conservatives’ polling back then not even Cameron expected to win. Besides, he knew that a repeat of the coalition with the pro-EU Liberal Democrats would provide enough cover for ditching the referendum idea after the election.

Unfortunately for Cameron, he won an absolute majority in the 2015 general election – and was honour bound to deliver the referendum. It also meant he had to campaign against his own Eurosceptic instincts, all the while presiding over a party still deeply divided on Europe.

In hindsight, Cameron’s assessment that Europe was an issue too toxic to touch has proven right. His treatment of it as the Tory version of Pandora’s Box may have been cowardly but it was his only way he could lead the party for more than a decade.

Following the Brexit referendum, it was no longer possible to avoid the hard questions Cameron had so successfully ignored for so long.

His successor Theresa May should have tried having a debate between the various factions of her party (and the opposition). However, she turned out even less able than Cameron to properly talk about Europe. Her people skills are no match for Cameron’s.

It almost sounds as if Cameron now regrets never having tried to reconcile his party (let alone the country) on Europe. He postponed and avoided the issue, and that is one of the main reasons for Britain’s existential crisis now.

Maybe it is somewhat rich for Cameron to come out of political retirement and talk about building bridges between the warring parts of the Conservatives when he never did that as leader and Prime Minister.

However, that does not mean Cameron is wrong. The only sensible way out of the Brexit mess is to seek compromise across diametrically opposed groups.

Incidentally, if that is the case, then almost anyone is better suited to close Pandora’s Box than Theresa May.

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