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Cameron strived to avoid EU trap, yet still it would prove his undoing

Perhaps one day, even David Cameron will be able to appreciate the irony of his downfall.

Published: 25th June 2016 11:23 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th June 2016 11:23 AM   |  A+A-

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Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron speaks after Britain voted to leave the European Union, outside Number 10 Downing Street in London. (Reuters)

LONDON: Perhaps one day, even David Cameron will be able to appreciate the irony of his downfall: the man who became Conservative leader promising to end the party's appetite for strife over Europe has been destroyed by his decision to feed that hunger.

For now, though, he could be forgiven for a touch of bitterness about how cruelly political fortunes can turn. The spot in Downing Street where he announced his resignation yesterday (Friday) is also the place where he stood little more than a year ago to celebrate what he called "the sweetest victory of all", the 2015 general election when he secured a Commons majority even he had not believed possible.

Yesterday, his message and tone were as different as they could possibly be from last May's jubilant statement.

"This is not a decision I've taken lightly but I do believe it's in the national interest to have a period of stability and then the new leadership required," Mr Cameron said.

He ended, with some difficulty, on a declaration that even his fiercest critics would not question: "I love this country and I feel honoured to have served it and I will do everything I can in future to help this great country succeed." If Mr Cameron struggled to contain his emotions, he just about managed it.

But standing a few yards to his left, his wife, Samantha, had less success at masking her emotions, her pain and shock plain for all to see.

Shock, because the Camerons had not expected referendum defeat any more than they had anticipated last year's election victory.

Even in the last days of the referendum campaign, Mr Cameron believed he would win, and survive. Earlier this week, Downing Street received private polling that persuaded the Prime Minister's inner circle that the referendum would go his way. As the polls closed on Thursday night, No 10 aides whispered triumphantly about a comfortable Remain victory, with around 56 per cent of the vote - enough for him to see off of his Tory critics and serve most of the full five-year term he had wanted.

Watching Mr Cameron announcing the premature end of his premiership, many people must have been left wondering: Why did he do it? Why did he gamble everything that he won last year? Didn't he know this could happen? He did know. Mr Cameron knew and has always known how dangerous an issue Europe can be to a Conservative Party leader.

The Prime Minister's first experience of professional politics was as an adviser in John Major's administration. He was there for the Maastricht rebellions, and in the Treasury on Black Wednesday in 1992, the economic upheaval that put his party out of power for almost two decades. He has always known the destructive power of the European question. And that experience explains the approach Mr Cameron took to Europe as Conservative leader and Prime Minister, the approach that led Britain to Brexit and him to disaster.

Mr Cameron thought that the Conservatives should not talk so much about Europe, believing that doing so led voters to believe that Tories were not in touch with them and the issues that mattered more to their everyday lives. "While parents worried about childcare, getting the kids to school, balancing work and family life - we were banging on about Europe," he told his party in 2006.

But he never persuaded a significant number of his colleagues to take that view. They believed that distancing Britain from the EU was an urgent priority, and demanded action accordingly. Unwilling or unable to change his colleagues' minds, Mr Cameron tried again and again to placate them, making promises of Eurosceptic action he hoped never to have to deliver on. In fact, his leadership was born of such a promise. Struggling for support from the Right of the party in the autumn of 2005, he promised to withdraw the Tories from the European People's Party, a bloc in the European Parliament formally committed to a federal Europe. Even though Mr Cameron privately had misgivings about the EPP pledge, he did it anyway. It helped him become leader, but it horrified many pro-EU Tories, and Angela Merkel of Germany, whose Christian Democrats sit in the EPP.

That horror led Mr Cameron to delay, several times, the EPP withdrawal, finally honouring his promise to his party in 2009.

He deployed the same tactics - a bold promise followed by delayed action - over the European Constitution, making a "cast-iron" promise of a referendum on the document. This time, deferral paid off: French voters killed the constitution in a referendum, allowing Mr Cameron to make a lawyerly argument that his "cast-iron" promise did not apply when the constitution was reincarnated as the Lisbon Treaty.

That decision sowed the seeds of Mr Cameron's destruction, for it lent new energy to the UK Independence Party: many Ukippers took to calling Mr Cameron "Cast Iron Dave" in angry mockery. Foreshadowing his referendum tactics, he called them "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists".

But other Tories were not so quick to dismiss Ukip. They worried that the smaller party's appeal to voters, based on opposition to the EU and the immigration it brings, would cost the Conservative Party dearly. That fear drove the drumbeat of Eurosceptic demands for Mr Cameron to take a harder line on Europe, the rhythm to which his premiership danced.

The first major Tory rebellion of the Coalition came in November 2011 when 81 Conservatives demanded a referendum on EU membership. Rejecting their demand, Mr Cameron flatly told them: "Legislating now for a referendum, including on whether Britain should leave the EU, could cause great uncertainty and could actually damage our prospects of growth."

By June 2012, the rebellion had grown to almost 100. Again, Mr Cameron tried to swat the rebels away. Speaking after an EU summit in Brussels, he declared that a referendum "is not the right thing to do" and that far from leaving the EU, Britain should stay because "the argument is going our direction".

His pro-European tone provoked such a backlash from Conservative MPs that Mr Cameron had to change his tune, writing in a hastily composed Daily Telegraph column: "For me the two words 'Europe' and 'referendum' can go together." And with those words, he sealed his fate. Six months later, speaking in the City of London, he committed himself to the referendum he had repeatedly rejected.

Privately, he told colleagues at the time that his view had not changed. He still didn't want the referendum but felt he had no choice but to promise it in the hope of "managing" his party. Nor was he certain he would have to honour his promise. To pass the law needed to hold the referendum, he would need a Conservative majority in the Commons, and that would mean victory in a general election he didn't believe he would win. On election night last year, Mr Cameron was holed up in his Oxfordshire cottage, practising his resignation speech.

The "sweetest victory" that followed gave him the chance to promise a One Nation government and a programme of social reforms that are much closer to his heart than the issue of Europe.

But the same victory also gave him no choice but to hold the referendum that left him delivering a different version of that resignation speech, less than 14 months later.

His departure means his One Nation agenda will never be more than fine words, his place in history defined not by radical social reform but by Europe, the issue he wanted so keenly to avoid. It also raises questions that may haunt Mr Cameron in the years ahead. Did he have to promise then deliver the referendum? Were this week's events inevitable? Was there a way to delay and dodge this European drama, as he so often had before?

Mr Cameron's friends insist he had no choice, that if he had not used a promise to buy peace with his party in 2012, internal Tory tensions and an even stronger Ukip would have denied the party last year's majority, and thus cost Mr Cameron his job anyway.

But of course, Mr Cameron's friends have to argue that he had no choice.

Because to admit the alternative - that instead of "managing" his party on Europe, he could have tried to lead it - would mean he was driven from office not by his enemies or even the electorate but by his own misjudgement, victim of the greatest self-inflicted political disaster in modern British history.

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