An emotional Prime Minister – close to tears of his own making– had no choice after concluding, correctly, that the country needed a new captain to steer it through the looming political storms as the UK extricates itself from the EU four decades after joining the Common Market.
It was Mr Cameron who embarked upon the referendum strategy in spite of the massive economic risks repeatedly highlighted by Chancellor George Osborne as part of the Remain campaign’s fatally flawed Project Fear. If the gamble was that great, why did the Tory leader not stand up to his backbenchers? As a political strategy, this has to be one of the most naive and misguided ever to be undertaken.
And it was Mr Cameron who presided over a disastrous campaign which effectively became a referendum on his leadership, credibility and trustworthiness because the Remain camp was unable to make the positive case for EU membership without denigrating its opponents – even though the narrow nationalism of Ukip’s Nigel Farage and co wastruly contemptible.
The writing was on the wall two weeks ago when I foresaw, ahead of Mr Cameron’s final campaign visit to Yorkshire, that the Tory leader would be the biggest casualty of all because his closest confidants were already taking the country for granted.
At least a bereft Mr Cameron recognised that the outcome was not only a personal humiliation but also a vote of no confidence in the Government’s economic strategy after the electorate rejected its fear-mongering in a truly damning indictment of the politics of fear. The only surprise is that Mr Osborne, again missing in action at a time of crisis, did not fall on his sword with immediate effect. He should have done.
Although the referendum will be Mr Cameron’s defining legacy after he ill-advisedly decided not to follow Harold Wilson’s statesmanlike example in 1975 and stay above the fray, history will – in time – be slightly more charitable towards the Prime Minister.
Until the referendum rumpus and his tactical ineptitude, Mr Cameron presided over Britain’s first peacetime coalition and began the process of rebuilding a broken economy before the Tories won a narrow majority in May last year. If only the Conservatives had not decapitated the Lib Dems and were still in coalition with their pro-EU former bedfellows...
However, he had also presided over growing public cynicism that began on Tony Blair’s watch, continued with the expenses scandal under Gordon Brown and which has culminated with an unforgiving Eurosceptic electorate sticking two fingers up at the political establishment.
Even Steve Hilton, who was the PM’s director of strategy and had the privilege of being godfather to David and Samantha Cameron’s severely disabled son Ivan, started to despair of broken promises on immigration, writing only this week: “When politicians make promises they can’t keep, it undermines not just faith in individual politicians but everybody’s faith in the democratic process itself.” And he was / is a friend.
Leaving aside the fact that such policy gurus have too much power for their own good, and that the United Kingdom has never been more divided, these words could not have been harsher or indicative of the unforgiving public mood.
Damning of the Prime Minister, they’re even more damning of the EU’s entire modus operandi after Mr Hilton concluded: “By dismissing – or worse, demonising – people’s desire for control over the things that matter to them, and their perfectly reasonable expectations that the Government they elect should have the power to deliver its promises, the rules are the ones stoking the anger they decry.”
Perhaps the words of Boris Johnson in Leeds, on the first weekend of campaigning, were the most prophetic of all. The former London mayor, the face of the Brexit campaign and now favourite to succeed Mr Cameron, stressed that his argument was not with Europe – he had the greatest respect and admiration for its people – but an over-bloated EU bureaucracy which was too meddlesome, too powerful and too undemocratic.
Two months later, and after it became clear that the EU was proving to be a hindrance rather than a help to domestic issues like the North’s flood defences and the future UK steel industry, Mr Johnson appears to have been vindicated as he spoke about Britain’s “glorious opportunity” to ”find our voice in the world again”. He is honour-bound to provide far more detail if he is to stand for the Tory leadership with authority.
This is not just a wake-up call for the Government. It is also a disastrous result for a London-centric Labour party which has also been roundly punished for ignoring working class voters and their longstanding concerns on migration, housing and jobs. The vote of no confidence tabled in Jeremy Corbyn was a formality.
It’s a wake-up call for the European Union after Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, posted on Twitter: “On behalf of all 27 leaders: We are determined to keep our unity as 27.” This one tweet summed up the extent to which Europe’s elite have buried their heads in the sand for two decades. It can’t be business as usual, can it?
And it is a wake-up call for the rest of the world. As Donald Trump’s insurgency in the US presidential election demonstrates, electorates can never again be taken for granted. They are prepared to trust their own instincts rather than the economic experts who failed to foresee the 2007-08 global banking collapse.
Yes, this is a short-term crisis which has already claimed Mr Cameron’s career, but the electorate clearly believe Great Britain plc, still the fifth largest economy in the world, is capable of standing on its own two feet. This vote of faith now needs to be rewarded with strong, responsible and trustworthy leadership which attempts to unite a divided country. In this regard, David Cameron has taken the correct course at a turning point in British history and politics.