For Gambler Cameron, Brexit Proves to Be a Bet Too Far

David Cameron: Britain Needs Fresh Leadership
  • Premier believed he would win referendum on EU membership
  • Cameron adds to Tory history of foreign-policy failures

David Cameron’s passion for gambling cost him his leadership of the U.K.  

The prime minister announced on Friday he will step down after voters backed Britain’s exit from the European Union, a politically fatal blow for Cameron who was convinced he had made a safe bet in calling the referendum.

While he listed his achievements in his resignation speech, he will be remembered, like his Conservative predecessors Neville Chamberlain and Anthony Eden, for one great foreign-policy failure.

The son of a stockbroker, Cameron, 49, is regularly asked for his horse-racing tips when he appears on BBC Radio’s flagship “Today” program. And when he announced plans for the vote in January 2013, he had no doubts the outcome would strengthen his power and pledged he would not rest until the vote was won.

“There will be those who say the vision I have outlined will be impossible to achieve,” Cameron said in his speech at Bloomberg’s London headquarters at the time. “But I refuse to take such a defeatist attitude.”

Vitriolic Campaign

More than three years later, all three of his visions -- for the U.K.’s future, the EU’s success and the promise of prosperity for all -- are being pummeled. Cameron is the first casualty of a vote that delivered a slap in the face for Europe’s political establishment, with populist echoes of Donald Trump’s rise across the Atlantic, and sent global markets into a tailspin. After an often-vitriolic campaign with Cameron in a leading role, voters chose to abandon the EU by 52 percent to 48 percent.

Standing outside 10 Downing Street on Friday, his voice almost breaking, Cameron said negotiating so-called Brexit will require “strong, determined and committed leadership,” something he acknowledged he’s in no position to supply given his defeat and the rebellion inside his Conservative Party that the campaign fueled.

With the timing of his resignation yet to be determined, Cameron said his view was that a new premier should be in place by the start of the Conservative annual conference in October. He expressed no regret for calling the referendum, saying he had “always believed that we have to confront big decisions -– not duck them.”

‘Banging on’

In fact, his demise is the result of a decade-long failure to confront those in his own party who were determined to get Britain out of the EU. Although Cameron always argued in public that the party should stop “banging on about Europe,” he continued to give concessions to his Euro-skeptic wing, right up to the referendum.

The result was an ignominious exit for Cameron, who became leader of the Conservatives in 2005 and prime minister five years later at the head of a coalition government. Cameron won a surprise parliamentary majority for the Tories last May and he’d planned to serve out a full second term before stepping down.

Seeking to shape his legacy on Friday, he singled out “restoring Britain’s economic strength,” a reference to the fact he navigated the economy away from recession despite deploying the tightest fiscal squeeze since World War II. 

His government’s “great steps,” he said, also included welfare and education reforms, “a bigger and stronger society,” and a previous referendum -- “fair, legal and decisive” on independence for Scotland.

Scottish Gamble

That 2014 referendum, in which Scotland voted to stay in the U.K., was a gamble won. But when he tried to strengthen his odds with a mission to Brussels in February, the concessions he won from EU leaders -- including tougher restrictions on EU workers claiming welfare benefits and safeguards in financial legislation -- failed to sway enough voters back home.

Having set out to confirm Britain’s place in Europe, the prime minister finds instead that he has confirmed its place out of it. Like Chamberlain, now remembered only for his failed efforts to secure peace with Adolf Hitler, and Eden, forever associated with the ill-fated attempt to reclaim the Suez Canal, Cameron’s career will be defined by his failure.

In his brief speech outside 10 Downing Street, Cameron insisted he had fought the referendum campaign “in the only way I know how -– which is to say directly and passionately what I think and feel -– head, heart and soul.” 

He had “held nothing back” and made clear the referendum was about the U.K. being stronger, safer and better off inside the EU, “and this alone, not the future of any single politician, including myself.”

In the end, the referendum turned out to be about his own future, too.

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