National Security & Defense

Cameron’s Fatal Mistake

Cameron outside 10 Downing Street, June 24, 2016. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)
The British PM not only misjudged the people’s mood, his inept handling of the referendum pushed them toward an exit from the EU.

The 52–48 win for Brexit in yesterday’s referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union was more momentous than any election result in the U.K.’s history. It was swiftly followed this morning by David Cameron’s announcement that he would resign in the autumn, the right decision and the honorable course for the prime minister to take.

More than anyone else, Mr. Cameron was the unwitting author of Britain’s exit. It was more than his simply misjudging the mood of the British people, although that played a part, reflected in the highest national turnout since the 1992 election. His mistake was to misunderstand the provisional nature of the British people’s commitment to the European Union. For them, it should have been an economic arrangement. To settle the European question for a generation, as he had intended, Cameron had to reconcile this with the EU’s federalist mission. Could he square the circle?

He didn’t try. In fact, as Dan Hannan wrote yesterday, he didn’t want to. Early on, when Mr. Hannan had suggested to the prime minister that he seek the associate membership status for the U.K. that had been floated at various times by leading European proponents of federalism, Mr. Cameron replied that it was not the deal he wanted. If Hannan wanted that, he should ensure the election of a Conservative government, get the referendum, and then vote to leave.

When in February 2013, he first announced his decision to hold the referendum, Mr. Cameron declared that making it a vote between the status quo and leaving would create an “entirely false choice.” What was needed was “fundamental, far-reaching change.” The real choice, he argued, should be to decide whether to be part of a new settlement or to leave the European Union altogether. He never gave Britain that choice. They were the words of a PR man, not a statesman. Instead he rushed the negotiations with the EU and boxed himself in with an unnecessary deadline to get the referendum out of the way early in his second term. Neither he nor his fellow European leaders took the risk of Brexit seriously. The negotiation was, as I wrote here in February, a case of Mr. Cameron asking for little and getting less.

RELATED: The Brexit Vote Was Just the Beginning

It was a disastrous misjudgment. In preparing for last year’s successful general election, Cameron’s campaign manager Lynton Crosby spoke of scraping “the barnacles off the boat.” Mr. Cameron’s problem, apart from not having Mr. Crosby run the Remain campaign, wasn’t barnacles. There were gaping holes below the waterline. Immigration was an issue of huge concern to voters. It also symbolized Britain’s loss of sovereignty. Mr. Cameron had to have a credible answer to these concerns and demonstrate that his renegotiation had plugged the holes. He didn’t have one. He hadn’t even closed off the possibility of Turkey’s entry into the EU. The vessel wasn’t seaworthy.

Without a credible answer and with nothing to show for Mr. Cameron’s renegotiation, the Remain camp resorted to Project Fear. The before-and-after contrasts damaged his credibility: Before Project Fear, the British economy would do all right outside the EU; after, it would be putting a bomb under the economy. People have longer memories than he thought.

#share#“Brits don’t quit,” Cameron said in his eve-of-poll appeal from Downing Street. “We get involved. We take a lead.” The last Conservative prime minister, John Major, had wanted to put Britain at the heart of Europe. Major’s attempt, by keeping open the prospect of Britain joining the single currency, divided the Conservative party and contributed to its historic defeat in the 1997 election. But the battle wasn’t definitively lost until Tony Blair realized he couldn’t take Britain into the euro. Events vindicated the economics of that decision. Politically, it meant Britain could never be at the heart of Europe, something that was acknowledged by Britain’s special semi-detached status in David Cameron’s renegotiation, without – fatally — putting in place the architecture to have made it work.

When you try to delegitimize somebody’s vote, you don’t change his mind, only his willingness to talk about it.

Cameron and the Remain campaign made a final mistake. At one point, Cameron’s pollster tweeted that virtually every intelligent person thought leaving the EU a stupid idea. After the horrible murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox, “Stronger In” became “Kinder In.” The implication was that people concerned about immigration or just not happy being governed from Brussels were narrow-minded, xenophobic, or worse. 

When you try to delegitimize somebody’s vote, you don’t change his mind, only his willingness to talk about it. The effect was to understate Leave in the polls. Of the nine final polls, seven showed Remain in the lead, with Remain’s pollster showing a ten-point lead. The same effect was present in exit polls commissioned by hedge funds, which led to Brexit campaigners prematurely conceding the result of the referendum and to markets confidently pricing in a Remain win. There was a spiral of silence at work which deceived the Remain camp about where it stood and the campaign it should have fought.

#related#At a news conference ten days before the Brexit vote, European Council president Donald Tusk spoke of his fear of a Leave vote as “the beginning of the destruction of not only the EU but also of western political civilization in its entirety.” Although mocked, Tusk was on to something. There is a crisis. It is a crisis of Western leadership and a ruling elite that spends too much time talking to each other at Davos and Bilderberg gatherings and not enough to the people they lead. In reclaiming the right to govern themselves, Britons have done something of supreme value for Europe and the West. They have told political leaders to get back to attending to the people’s business. Democracy means government by the people. That is what Britain’s vote for Brexit reaffirms.

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