But there’s another reason why he might lament his mighty miscalculation: Why did he refuse Chris Grayling’s resignation as a Cabinet Minister in the first week of 2016 – referendum year?
One of the more jaw-dropping revelations in The Gatekeeper, the memoir published today by his former deputy chief of staff Kate Fall, it exposes, inadvertently or otherwise, a misjudgment which, arguably, changed the course of history in what became a game of power politics.
Both Fall and Ed Llewellyn, Cameron’s chief of staff, noticed missed calls on their mobile phones from Grayling, the then Leader of the Commons, after a disastrous stint as Justice Secretary, demanding an urgent word with the PM.
She writes: “Just as we suspect, Chris wants to resign – to fight for Leave. Our sense is that he has mused over his career during the Christmas break and decided (rightly) that it’s not going in an upward trajectory.”
Fall believes Grayling has calculated that it will be impossible, as the senior ‘outer’, to be marginalised in a post-referendum reshuffle – regardless of the result – and says pulling him “back from the brink” is like “stopping a JCB digger heading over a field”. And it also leaves the PM compelled, like it or not, to give Ministers freedom to campaign for Leave or Remain as they so wish. “A text comes from Chris: he’s in. David announces on January 5 that the party will have a free vote,” writes Fall breathlessly.
If only (those two words again) Cameron had called Grayling’s bluff – and allowed him to become the face of Leave. There’s every chance that Britain might still be in the European Union – and the North’s rail services spared from ruination by Grayling when he became Transport Secretary under Theresa May and who, just like her predecessor, thought this most incompetent of Ministers was indispensable.
Fall later concedes that contending with Boris Johnson and Michael Gove is “a whole different ball game” to Grayling and former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith leading the Brexit charge.
But what this book does reveal, however, is the extent to which the Cameron premiership lost sight of growing public mistrust over the EU because of petty rivalries and jealousies at heart of power. After Cameron won an unexpected majority in 2015, making a referendum inevitable, there was talk of appointing May as Foreign Secretary. But George Osborne, the Chancellor, vetoed it – he apparently then didn’t want to do a ‘job swap’ with May if and when he decided to leave the Treasury. Such distractions clearly became destablilising.
A clear lesson for Boris Johnson whose support is, I believe, exaggerated by Labour’s continuing disarray, The Gatekeeper also reveals how under-prepared the Cameron administration was for the Brexit vote. The inner circle is having a strategy day at Chequers when Douglas Carswell defects from the Tories to Ukip and triggers a by-election. They can’t get the TV to work as they consider candidates to stand in the Suffolk seat. “Boris? A quick text gives us a firm reply: F*** off,” reveals Fall.
But – and this is key – there is a realisation that it’s difficult to make the emotional case for Remain because of a failure to coalesce around a leader and the failure to cut net immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’.
Here Fall’s analysis is telling. “Had we focused less on picking up the pieces of Labour’s open door policy, we might have spent more time building a progressive argument around immigration, as we had on welfare and schools, right from the start of David’s leadership,” she concludes. “We might have been able to encourage a national debate about what is both tough but fair – a debate that embodied the British values of generosity, kindness and tolerance.”
This at a time, says Fall, when “David (Cameron) has morphed into a sort of king, looking affectionately at George (Osborne) – his bumptious, ambitious heir apparent. There’s a feeling that George’s team think they are the future whilst the No 10 team are the past.”
And then there’s Boris Johnson – bounding into a lift at a conference to tell Cameron and Fall not to accede to Osborne’s support for a third runway at Heathrow Airport. “Boris sees everything through this prism of how George plans to torture him next,” adds Fall.
Further evidence of how not to run a country – or totemic referendum – it confirms the extent to which David Cameron, as Prime Minister, lost touch with voters. It is why his epitaph will be ‘If only’. If only he had fought for greater concessions from Brussels over reform to EU governance – and if only he had accepted Chris Grayling’s resignation.
Tom Richmond is Comment Editor of The Yorkshire Post. Follow him on Twitter via @OpinionYP.