25 September 2019

David Cameron has shown voters were right about Brexit


Critics of David Cameron will no doubt be disappointed that his autobiography, For The Record, is set to sell a significant number of copies. That’s what prime ministerial memoirs do. Get over it.

Given that the vast, overwhelming majority of his critics also voted Remain in the EU referendum in 2016, their disappointment will be further deepened by his first person account of what it’s actually like to negotiate within the Union’s structures. As Fraser Nelson rightly points out elsewhere, For The Record serves as a reminder to leave voters why they were right.

My own conversion from unenthusiastic Remain supporter to full-time paid official of the Vote Leave campaign, in the first few weeks of 2016, owes a great deal to Cameron’s negotiations and their outcome. I vividly recall listening to his statement to the Commons and his optimistic claim that he had achieved something of substance from his efforts in Brussels.

A quick recap of those “achievements” might prove useful. First, we had an assurance from the then prime minister that Britain would be able to opt out of any dastardly aspiration in future for “ever closer union” in the EU. There are two problems with this. The first is that “ever closer union” has never actually meant what eurosceptics always claim it to mean.

The Lisbon Treaty, for example, refers to “the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizen.” Still, as straw men go, this was one that served Cameron’s aims in appealing to a largely Eurosceptic audience.

The second problem is that what he claimed to achieve had already been achieved and wasn’t even an achievement of Cameron’s 2016 negotiation. The European Council, in June 2014, had stated: “the concept of ever closer union allows for different paths of integration for different countries, allowing those that want to deepen integration to move ahead, while respecting the wish of those who do not want to deepen any further.”

What else did the prime minister announce? Well, he returned with nothing on his demand that Child Benefit should not be paid to children living in other EU countries, other than agreement that levels of payment can be changed by the country paying the cash in order to reflect the economic context of the countries where the children are actually living. Not exactly something that would fit easily into a Remain leaflet.

Britain would henceforth be able to limit in-work benefits of EU citizens living in the UK. But there was some relevant small print attached to that: that could only happen only with the approval of both the European Parliament and a majority of other EU governments.

And the so-called Red Card, which would have allowed any EU member to return any recommendation to the European Parliament for further changes, could only be enacted with the support of 15 other countries. And even then, the parliament could decide to go ahead as originally planned if it wanted.

It’s worth recalling all of this because the attitude of the EU at the time is the same attitude it has today. Cameron, the leader of the EU’s second largest financial contributer and one of the largest EU members by population, sought support from his fellow leaders. “Look, there’s this referendum coming down the track…” (And at this point, when asked who had initiated said referendum, would have affected a convenient coughing fit) “… and I need something to take back home that will convince Brits that the EU is actually capable of reform, is capable of being flexible, pragmatic. What do you say, Angela? Help a pal out?”

The answer was nein.

Think about that. The EU thought Cameron was bluffing. Presumably they assumed that a Remain vote was in the bag. How else to explain such an inflexible, self-harming strategy?

And listening to Cameron at the despatch box that day, I became more certain than ever that switching to Leave had been the right choice. Why would I want my country to continue to be part of an organisation that set its rule book in stone and then threw its members under a bus rather than consider reforms that most of their own citizens, if not civil servants, would surely approve?

It was David Cameron, through his sincere and well-meant efforts to achieve change, illustrated to me – and no doubt to millions of others – that the EU cannot reform, that the Remain camp’s chant of “Remain and reform” is, at best, meaningless and, at worst, a cynical attempt to hide the EU’s true nature.

We have David Cameron to thank for pulling back the blinds.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and the author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'