A dis-United Kingdom, a divided Britain, a split cabinet. All words used like they’re going out of fashion in the run up to the referendum, and yet we were still seemingly shocked at David Cameron’s announcement this morning that he would step down as Prime Minister before the Tory party conference in October. But was it really so implausible that, a year after leading the Conservative Party to its “sweetest victory” in the general election, David Cameron announced his resignation?
In the hysteria of apprehension last night it seems the electorate decided that yes, it was. This additional shock was fed largely by the letter directed to Cameron on Thursday night urging that he stay on as PM whatever the result. The letter was signed by 84 out of the 135 Tory MPs who supported a Brexit vote, including Leave campaign figureheads Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, and was posted on Twitter by MP Robert Syms. Stephen Metcalfe and Justin Tomlinson added their signatures after the letter’s release.
“We believe whatever the British people decide you have both a mandate and a duty to continue leading the nation implementing our policies
— Robert Syms MP (@robertsymsmp) June 23, 2016
However, this was perhaps not a preemptive bid to shore up Cameron’s future but merely a remarkable PR move from those now surely in the running for party leadership. If Cameron hadn’t resigned on the spot or set a date by which he promised to pack his bags, the Leave faction (now with considerable adrenaline from a win it seems even they were not fully prepared for) would have him ousted as soon as they had decided amongst themselves who was to be his successor. Perhaps Monday at the latest? The Tories aren’t known for being as sentimental with their leaders as Labour. For now, Cameron’s decision to stay on and promise to attempt to garner some stability is giving them a welcome breathing space.
Yet the news still seems hard to swallow. Bruce Anderson, writing for Reaction, even went as far as to say that although Cameron lost, he should dismiss the referendum result and call a general election to decide the real result. He proposes Cameron’s next statement should go as follows:
“My critics in other parties have claimed that I only resorted to the expedient of a referendum in order to appease the Euro-phobes in my own party, and that I was wrong to do so. They were right. We are a Parliamentary democracy, not a plebiscitary one. The way to resolve the European issue ought to be by General Elections and votes in the House of Commons. So I now propose to appeal from the verdict of the sovereign people in a referendum, to a new hearing in a General Election. As there is a substantial pro-EU majority in Parliament, this should not be difficult to organise. I know that a significant number of Tory MPs would find this unacceptable. But I would prefer an honest split to a demeaning fudge. If I have to divide the Tory party in the national interest, so be it. Let the voters decide, in the proper fashion: at the polling-booths in a general election.”
Jacob Ress Mogg, the Euroskeptic Conservative backbencher, hinted at agreement:
“I wouldn’t rule out a new election. There will be a lot of policy areas that need to be discussed if we leave the European Union.”
Whether we see this happen or not, Cameron could not dismiss his public vote of no confidence. Long described as an “essay-crisis Prime Minister” by political pundits, and a “lucky politician” by his closest colleagues, this referendum was the biggest gamble of his career. Unfortunately for him, this was the moment his luck dramatically ran out. Laura Kuenssberg of the BBC dubbed the result: “a snub to him, a snub to the status quo, and a snub to the entire political establishment”.
Thanks to yesterday’s vote, Cameron will always be remembered as the Prime minster that lost Europe. In ducking out now, he can avoid the additional sting of becoming the PM that (potentially) loses Scotland and Northern Ireland too. But aside from his own sense of honour and legacy, on a more practical level, Cameron was entirely correct in saying fresh leadership is needed.
He had no choice. Daniel Finkelstein’s short commentary sums up it up perfectly:
“During the referendum campaign there have been allies and friends of the prime minister who endorsed Leave and said it would not topple the PM. This was always ridiculous. They said that they would not push him out and perhaps they wouldn’t have but this is beside the point.
Britain’s prime minister will have to try and make leaving the EU an economic, diplomatic and political success. How could David Cameron credibly have tried to do this? He argued that it was impossible to make a success of leaving. He has argued for months that Leave means leave and we wouldn’t be offered another deal. How could he then have procured another deal?”
Cameron’s concession speech this morning, whilst sad, was no real surprise. Leadership speculation began instantaneously. Tory MP Sir Bill Cash even suggested that Cameron may not be able to stay on to oversee the Brexit talks as, “whoever is in Number 10 needs to be absolutely committed to Brexit”.
Cameron may have seemed unassailable last year but this is a democracy, and England is quintessentially erratic. Now, he’s out.
More happily, for non-Tories and for a large chunk of the Conservative party too, his number 2, George Osborne, is almost certainly finished as well.
Leadership of the other party, however, is less certain. As Walter Ellis wrote this morning for CapX, “Jeremy Corbyn, as party leader, proved himself an irrelevance during an inconsequential campaign”. Polling showed that 20 percent of Labour supporters didn’t even know the party’s position before the referendum. Tempers are rising against Corbyn now that Labour faces a very real threat of fighting a snap-election with its most left-wing and limp leadership it’s ever had.
If a snap-election is indeed called, expect panic in Westminster that Labour will be wiped out in England like they were in Scotland last year, a result nobody – with the possible exception of Nigel Farage – wants to see.