Most unedifying was his attempt to imbue the referendum result, easily one of the most ill-conceived and profoundly damaging political events of Britain’s post-war history, with some nobility. It had been a great democratic exercise, the prime minister told the crowds. It had been important to answer such a pressing question. The people had spoken.
To put it kindly, this was a fantasy. Mr Cameron took the reckless decision to pledge to hold a vote (against the better wisdom of George Osborne, the chancellor, who is also bound to go) back in 2013. He had not needed to. The public was certainly not clamouring for one. His motive was to placate his cranky backbenchers. His consideration given to the risks and realities of such a promise was lacking. His understanding of the “renegotiation” of Britain’s EU membership, on which he rested his strategy, was cursory at best.
The prime minister’s gamble was underwritten by the assurance that he could handle it, that his powers of persuasion and credibility (which, to be fair, are considerable) would save the day. In the months and years after his 2013 speech, he wasted opportunity after opportunity to roll the pitch for the referendum; to build, over time, a durable case to stay in the EU. Under-advised and overconfident, he turned the renegotiation from an asset to a stick with which Brexiteers could beat him. His referendum campaign, for all its flashes of skill and conviction, was too little, too late. The whole exercise was a spectacularly foolhardy act of overreach. The unanticipated outcome will be a Britain poorer, more isolated, less influential and more divided.
A time will come for reflection on the good in Mr Cameron’s leadership of the Conservative Party and his premiership, on his fundamentally correct vision for a one-nation Tory party in possession of the centre ground. But it will surely be dwarfed by this giant, nation-changing misstep, one guaranteed to scar the country for decades and diminish his place in the history books. He leaves office in ignominy.
My emphasis. A terrible prime minister.