In one sense the entire of Brexit in Context is about David Cameron and why he held and lost a referendum on European Union membership. This article began as a chapter towards the end of the book as part of a People section that did not make it into the published text. Other key figures will similarly have chapters devoted to them fr that purpose, but as the key personality in the referendum this chapter on Cameron is the longest of these brief biographies. Much of this chapter will be repetition for those who have read the rest of the book, but hopefully will provide a useful summary.
When David Cameron won the Conservative Party leadership election in 2005 he had been an MP for just four years. He won the leadership in a final run-off with David Davis and ironically 11 years later Cameron would resign after losing a referendum on European Union membership, while David Davis was restored to cabinet as the Secretary for State for Exiting the European Union. Cameron was a throwback to the past in that he was firmly from the establishment and was the first Eton educated leader since Alec Douglas-Home in 1965 and with the brief exception of Iain Duncan Smith (2001-2003) its only leader since then who was did not attend a state funded school. That Old Etonian background would define Cameron's leadership as he surrounded himself with an inner circle of primarily establishment figures and together with his chancellor George Osborne (who attended St Paul's School, a few steps down the ladder from Eton) was accused of governing for the rich against the poor. Ironically when he became leader Cameron was facing Tony Blair, who was educated at the Scottish equivalent to Eton, Fettes College. Indeed the previous Conservative leader Michael Howard had once quipped that as a grammar school boy he would not take lessons on privilege from a public school (i.e., privately educated) boy. It was not that unusual for the trades union backed Labour Party to be led by public school boys, but it appeared to be Cameron's mission to restore Eton to its former role as the school for future Conservative prime ministers.
The Conservative Party was deeply divided over the European Union in 2005, while Blair was probably the most europhile prime minister since Ted Heath (the first state educated Conservative prime minister) led the United Kingdom into the bloc in 1973. When Cameron became leader the European Union was undergoing a crisis as both France and the Netherlands had rejected the European Union constitution in referendums the previous summer. Yet Cameron was aware that the euroscepticism of the party was damaging its electoral prospects and famously appealed at the 2016 annual conference for it to stop banging on about Europe. However within a year Cameron had taken to banging on about a European Union referendum. In June 2007 Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair as Labour leader and prime minister and at a summit a month later the European Council (the meeting of heads of government of European Union member states) quietly buried the failed constitution and began putting together the Lisbon Treaty, which was signed in December 2007. Although Blair had been promising a referendum on the European Union constitution, Brown decided that the Lisbon Treaty did not hand over any further sovereignty to Brussels and therefore no referendum would be held. In response Cameron in January 2008 promised a Lisbon Treaty referendum if he became prime minister before all 28 member states had ratified it. Not to be outdone Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg one month later offered an in out referendum on European Union membership for the first time since 1975. This was the first time since 1983 that a major British political party had proposed a referendum on European Union membership. The strongly europhile Clegg would come to regret putting that option on the agenda.
In July 2009 Cameron led the Conservative Party to win the European Parliament elections for the third time in succession on a manifesto of holding a Lisbon Treaty referendum. Just four months later Cameron had to drop that referendum promise because in October the final obstacle to the Lisbon Treaty was lifted when the Irish electorate approved it at the second time of asking. So in November 2009 Cameron switched from a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty to amending the 1972 European Communities Act to grant a referendum on any future ceding of sovereignty to the European Union. In essence that meant that Cameron was adopting the Liberal Democrat policy that they had set out in opposition to his previous call for a Lisbon Treaty referendum. Less than a year later the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats entered into a coalition government. Cameron achieved his dream of restoring the tradition of having an Old Etonian Conservative prime minister and Liberal Democrat leader and Westminster School Old Boy Nick Clegg became deputy prime minister. The programme for government unsurprisingly included their common policy to hold an in out referendum if there was any further sacrifice of sovereignty to the European Union, although the Liberal Democrats had to drop their manifesto commitment to hold an EU membership referendum.
The coalition government did hold a referendum on changing the voting system, which was a long held Liberal Democrat aspiration as the first past the post system (i.e., the candidate with the most votes becomes MP) favours the Conservative and Labour parties. Cameron threw the full weight of the Conservative Party machine into campaigning for a no vote (i.e., to keep first past the post), much to Clegg's annoyance. The electorate overwhelmingly rejected changing the voting system and relationships between the two coalition parties were never the same again. This was particularly case after 23 January 2013 when David Cameron announced that a majority Conservative government would hold an in out referendum by the end of 2017. This was a break from the previously shared policy of an in out referendum if there was any further sacrifice of sovereignty. In 2014 Nick Clegg stood up to pressure from his party president Tim Farron to match the offer in the Liberal Democrat manifesto, insisting that a further sacrifice of sovereignty was a necessary pre-condition for an in out referendum. As a result the stance of the European Union became the major dividing point between the coalition parties.
On the same day that the Alternative Vote referendum was lost Alex Salmond led the Scottish National Party to form the first majority government since the Scottish Parliament was set up in 1997. He used that position of strength to push for his manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on Scottish independence. Cameron was reluctant to comply, but in the Edinburgh Agreement of 15 October 2012 agreed that the Scottish government could plan towards such a referendum. The referendum campaign galvanised the Scottish public and it looked like the electorate might vote for independence, so Cameron mobilised his fellow party leaders Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrats) and Ed Milliband (Labour) to travel to Scotland to campaign together for a no vote. On 18 September 2014 the Scottish electorate rejected independence and Cameron was emboldened, because he had twice persuaded the electorate to reject constitutional change in referendums.
In May 2015 Cameron led the Conservatives to an unexpected majority victory and he set about planning towards a referendum to be held in 2016. In an echo of the 1975 referendum he planned to negotiate better membership terms for the United Kingdom, so that he could then argue for a third time that the electorate should reject change in the referendum. The renegotiations did not go as well as Cameron had hoped, but he proceeded with the referendum, even though he barely mentioned the renegotiated terms in the campaign. Instead e focused on the economic angle that he believed had led to his victories against Scottish independence and in the 2015 general election. He kept to that economic argument even when the remain side was failed to open up the expected clear lead in the polls over leave. Despite creating a system that unfairly favoured the remain side Cameron lost this referendum, resigned immediately as prime minister, and shortly after Theresa May succeeded him as prime minister resigned from parliament. Cameron won a general election for the first time in May 2015, but thanks to the European Union referendum defeat he was only prime minister of a Conservative government for 13 months. Worse was to follow as his dream of restoring Eton to the role of a training ground for prime ministers was shattered as his fellow wealthy elite members, George Osborne and Boris Johnson, declined to stand for the leadership as the party took a decisive swing back towards state educated leadership.
David Cameron will go down in history as the prime minister who became over confident about his ability to persuade the electorate to reject change in referendums. Ironically he will probably fulfil his own call of stopping the Conservative Party banging on about Europe, because his referendum defeat will eventually led the United Kingdom to leave the European Union.
© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved