Cameron Says He’s Quitting U.K. Parliament After Brexit Defeat

  • Stepped down as prime minister after losing June referendum
  • Previously said he’d stay on in Parliament past next election

David Cameron, former U.K. prime minister.

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

David Cameron said he’s quitting the U.K. House of Commons, triggering a by-election in his Witney district, less than three months after resigning as prime minister in the wake of his defeat in the Brexit referendum.

“I thought about this long and hard over the summer,” Cameron told ITV News on Monday. “In my view, in modern politics, with the circumstances of my resignation, it isn’t really possible to be a proper backbench MP as a former prime minister. Everything you do will become a big distraction and a big diversion from what the government wants to do for our country.”

Cameron had previously said he’d stay on as a member Parliament, but since Theresa May took his place as Conservative Party leader and prime minister in July, she has set about dismantling his legacy. She fired key Cameron allies including his chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, and last week she reversed one of his principal policies, saying she’d allow more state schools to reject children on the basis of their academic ability. Had he stayed in Parliament, Cameron would have had to choose whether to vote with his successor, or with his own oft-stated views.

“Obviously I have my own views about certain issues,” Cameron said. “People know that. That’s really the point. I want Witney to have an MP that can play a full role in parliamentary and political life in a way I would find very difficult if not impossible.”

May offered praise for her predecessor.

“I was proud to serve in David Cameron’s government and under his leadership we achieved great things,” she said in a statement released by her office. “His commitment to lead a one-nation government is one that I will continue. I thank him for everything he’s done for the Conservative Party and the country and I wish him and his family well for the future.”

In a stark illustration of how quickly politics can shift, the last 81 days have seen Cameron go from being a head of government at the apparent height of his powers to a mere former member of Parliament. He was undone by the Brexit vote, which he expected to result in a clear popular decision to stay in the European Union. Instead, it turned into a narrow rejection of his Remain campaign at the hands of former friends among the Tories.

Policy Failure

Cameron will be remembered, like his Conservative predecessors Neville Chamberlain and Anthony Eden, for one great foreign-policy failure.

“Whatever he does, whatever he says, from now on Brexit will be on his gravestone,” Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said in an interview. “Had he not lost the referendum, had that one huge thing not gone wrong, we’d be seeing him in a completely different light. This was a man who took the party some way into the 21st century, though this now looks like it wasn’t a permanent move.”

Cameron’s resignation means an election will have to be held to find a new representative for his seat, in Oxfordshire. It will be a virtual shoo-in for whichever candidate the Conservative Party decides to field, as one of the safest Tory seats anywhere in Britain: Cameron took 60 percent of the vote in last year’s general election, with Labour trailing in second place on 17 percent.

‘Banging On’

Cameron joined the Conservative Party’s Research Department after leaving Oxford University. That led to jobs advising Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont and Home Secretary Michael Howard. It also gave him a front-row seat as the Tories tore themselves apart over the question of EU membership. After a stint in public relations for Carlton Television, he was elected to Parliament in 2001, one of a small intake of new Tories in an election that the party comprehensively lost -- another was Osborne.

Those formative political experiences led Cameron to conclude that his party needed to stop “banging on about Europe” and start focusing on issues that mattered to voters. After a third election defeat in 2005, the Tories were ready to elect a leader who seemed comfortable with modern Britain, and he had a decisive victory. He set about signaling that he was a new kind of Tory. The leader of a party that had opposed gay rights was careful to be photographed leaving a screening of “Brokeback Mountain.” He famously traveled to the Arctic Circle to talk about the problems of global warming.

Tory Discomfort

While it was electorally successful, much of what he did made his own lawmakers uncomfortable. An early row over his opposition to selective education -- so-called “grammar schools” -- left many deeply upset. By reversing that policy, May was signaling a shift to more traditional party positions.

In the 2010 election, he simultaneously made record gains of seats and failed to win a Parliamentary majority. His internal critics said it was because of a failure to stick to traditional Tory values. But Cameron had the skill to form and successfully lead a coalition government, doing deal with the Liberal Democrats. 

That skill at compromising didn’t serve him well as he tried to manage those within his party who were more determined than ever to get out of the EU. In 2013, he announced he would offer a referendum, confident that he could win it, a confidence that only increased when he saw off the threat of the breakup of the U.K. in Scotland’s 2014 referendum on independence. When he won a majority in the 2015 general election, he became convinced he could see off the threat of Brexit. He decided to move swiftly, with a small renegotiation of the terms of Britain’s EU membership and a referendum in 2016. He was already working on his plans for what he would do after he’d won it.

Cameron’s life was marked by a personal tragedy. In 2009 his eldest son Ivan, who had been born severely disabled, died aged six. He and his wife Samantha had two other children, and another daughter, Florence, was born in 2010, shortly after he became prime minister.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.