“I’ve never tried to pretend to be anything I’m not.”
David Cameron talking to ITV about his relationship to the Panama revelations
David Cameron hangs over the referendum like one of Don DeLillo's airborne toxic events. It is his idea. It was his decision in 2013 to put the country’s future in play with an EU referendum should he win the next election. He decreed that the EU’s status quo was not acceptable for the UK to Remain. He set out how the EU would have to change for Britain to stay in (or at least he seemed to). He also set a deadline for a referendum on any renegotiation as the end of 2017. He said that if he failed to get the changes he set out, he’d call on voters to Leave. He made the referendum a priority after he won the May 2015 general election. He led the renegotiation. He made the call that he had achieved a deal he wanted. He fixed the actual date of the referendum, June 23, an awkward one just a month after national elections in Wales and Scotland and local elections across the UK.
After all this, as the referendum campaign begins, the deal negotiated with so much effort and fanfare appears to have disappeared. Cameron decided against a full debate on its terms in parliament. He may well decide not to debate it himself, face-to-face, with the other side. His own arguments for Remain no longer mention the success of his renegotiation. The Remain campaign itself hardly mentions it.
But it is a mistake to think it is therefore unimportant. On the contrary it seems to be a terrible agreement for the UK. By keeping the UK out of the common currency and in the single market, Cameron claims he has achieved “the best of both worlds". To which Margaret Thatcher’s biographer Charles Moore writing in the Sunday Telegraph responded,
As for “the best of both worlds”, the phrase comes from a proverb, which needs remembering in full: “You can’t have the best of both worlds.”
There is no phrase in popular wisdom suggesting it is impossible to have the worst of both worlds. This is what the deal seems to offer.
In this chapter I’m going to look at why Cameron felt obliged to take the risk of calling a referendum, what he said he wanted to achieve by it and what he came back with. It is essential to take seriously both the process and the result, as together they are splitting the country, even if few talk about the deal itself. But this poses a problem. Has Cameron been acting in good faith? I set about assessing his integrity as a politician. It is not hard to uncover a pattern of systematic dissimulation and I drafted my account of this before the leak of the Panama Papers confirmed the way Cameron operates in a smokescreen of spin. This will affect the outcome whatever happens: most important it may loose him the referendum, but if he wins the country will be right if it feels that the whole Remain saga was brought to us by a sad entertainer past his sell by date.
Before all this: a preliminary flare to signal the disaster that may be in making. In a fascinating account Jeremy Fox sets out the difference between England’s common law and Europe’s civil law traditions. The contrast helps explain “the weirdness of the British attitude to EU regulation”. One aspect of this is that while Brit commentators go on and on about the daftness of EU regulation, there is hardly any popular account of what membership means in constitutional terms. This is not because Britain has an uncodified constitution, it is because its once formidable constitutional culture has withered into ignorance and philistinism equally convenient for Labour and Conservative traditions. I’m going to confront this mind-numbing legacy that enslaves the politics of the English left to the British regime later. But I want to start here by reading the actual deal, if briefly, focusing on the paradox that it binds the UK into a subordinate but supporting role in the political unification of the EU – as the price of self-exclusion from it.
The point being that Cameron’s deal is a constitutional document for Europe. Because we Brits have been misled into believing that we ‘do not have’ a constitution we have lost the art of understanding constitutional language. If, after the fiasco of the Brexit referendum, democrats are to mount any sort of recovery this will have to be done by addressing the rules of the game. Without this any policies to redress egregious inequalities of wealth, capacity and opportunity will prove worthless. I understand that saying this goes against earnest Marxist hopes, shared in many socialist and Labourist variations, that treaties and legal codes are mere embellishments of economic fundamentals and as such are unworthy of the proletarian intelligence. But after a hundred years of failure, it is time for the left – certainly for the British left – to think about the rules themselves and how they should be understood on their own terms. Starting now.
What a deal
When he presented his deal making EU membership suitable for Britain, the prime minister made much of his removing the UK from the ukase of “ever closer union’ written into the founding treaty of the EU. This achievement is spelt out in the Sovereignty section of The Brussels Treaty of 19 February reached with the unanimous agreement the heads of government of all the 28 members of the EU.
SECTION C SOVEREIGNTY
It is recognised that the United Kingdom, in the light of the specific situation it has under the Treaties, is not committed to further political integration into the European Union. The substance of this will be incorporated into the Treaties at the time of their next revision in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Treaties and the respective constitutional requirements of the Member States, so as to make it clear that the references to ever closer union do not apply to the United Kingdom.
But this is not the only section of the treaty that relates to the UK’s relationship with the deepening of ever closer union. In SECTION A ECONOMIC GOVERNANCE the treaty sets out agreements also pertinent to sovereignty:
In order to fulfil the Treaties' objective to establish an economic and monetary union whose currency is the euro, further deepening is needed.
By signing up to this the British solemnly agree to the need for the further deepening of economic and monetary union for those who share the euro. Such measures,
the purpose of which is to further deepen economic and monetary union, will be voluntary for Member States whose currency is not the euro and will be open to their participation wherever feasible.
Which means the UK need not participate in such deepening measures unless it wishes to. However,
It is acknowledged that Member States not participating in the further deepening of the economic and monetary union will not create obstacles to but facilitate such further deepening
“Further deepening” means at the very least political-economic sharing and therefore regulation of financial burdens, mutualisation of risk, banking union, all of which involve the political regulation of economic measures. To ensure this can happen, the UK agrees that,
Member States whose currency is not the euro shall not impede the implementation of legal acts directly linked to the functioning of the euro area and shall refrain from measures which could jeopardise the attainment of the objectives of economic and monetary union.
It follows that if the country votes Remain the UK is bound by treaty to “facilitate” the “further deepening” of the economic and monetary union, is obliged not to “impede” it and must “refrain from measures which could jeopardise” any deepening of the union. It has thereby abandoned its right to veto measures the rest of the EU may propose to secure the trans-national realisation of the further deepening of their unity that assists economic and monetary union.
Assisted by Angela Merkel, David Cameron has signed Britain up to a new sexual posture, a form of disarticulated interruptus not even dreamt of in the Karma Sutra: the facilitation of the attainment of deepening without participation.
Or perhaps it is only new for those of us unfamiliar with the cloisters of Eton:
“Cameron, boy, what are you lot doing to Johnson?”
“Dash it, master, we're further deepening his union!’
“But the rules state you, Cameron, cannot participate in such activities. Any more of this disgusting behaviour and you will be expelled!”
“But sir, I am not participating in the deepening of his union! The rules state I must refrain from measures that jeopardise its attainment, and must facilitate it. Feel that, Johnson!”
Consider what this posture might mean if British voters endorse it. There are rumours that the core members of the EU are considering the creation of a directly elected presidency of the European Council to create legitimacy for the heavy costs of the austerity associated with the euro. The UK’s political leaders, certainly if they are Conservative, will be horrified to have such a directly elected European president ‘over’ British heads. Previously they’d have vetoed the idea. Now they will not be able stand in its way, instead they are legally bound to facilitate it.
“So what”, you might say, “if the EU wants to have an elected president, let them have one!” But consider the role of three groups of EU citizens in such circumstances.
The nearly 3 million EU nationals from other countries living in Britain. They can't be deprived of their vote for a continental presidency and many may not have homes in their country of origin. If the EU wanted to create its own register of its non-UK citizens living in Britain to enable them to vote, the British government could not stand in its way.
There are at least 2 million Brits living in the rest of Europe. The EU may want them to have a vote as they are also EU citizens. The British government cannot prevent this.
We Britons living in Britain are also EU citizens. The UK as a state can refuse to participate in this act of deepening the union by the election of an EU president. But Cameron’s sleepy negotiators did not ensure that whatever the UK state decides applies to its citizens.
Let’s say the election of an EU president came down to a choice between Viktor Orban from Hungary, a right-wing religious conservative, and Ada Colau, the movement-based Mayor of Barcelona. Well, I for one would certainly want to demand the right to vote. The British state is entitled to refuse to participate. It can refuse to make its electoral rolls available for an EU presidential election. But it is legally bound to facilitate such deepening and not to place an obstacle in its way, it could not prevent Brits from voting in EU polling stations across the UK. A humiliating state of affairs for Westminster would ensue – especially if Scottish and Welsh parliaments embrace and encourage an EU presidential exercise, if, that is, they have not already broken away. The English public would be visibly divided, the government would look ridiculous. It will be farcical.
What Cameron said he wanted and what he got
What led the Prime Minister of Britain to agree to anything that might result in such a ridiculous outcome? In last week’s chapter I looked at how Margaret Thatcher inherited a conflict over Europe personified by two exceptionally able, determined and ambitious Tory politicians: Edward Heath who as prime minister took the UK into what is now the EU in 1972, and Enoch Powell, who sought to prevent this and then dedicated his political life to its reversal. The current division over Brexit has its roots in their division. Initially Thatcher used it to her advantage in a form of internal divide and rule over a party whose loyalty to herself she distrusted. With the fall of Communism in 1989 she had an opportunity to overcome it. German unification was a moment of redefinition for the European Union as a whole and potentially Britain’s place in it, ending its marginalisation. Alas, Thatcher’s regressive mind-set made her fear a unified Germany would mean fighting the Hun all over again. She excluded herself and British influence from resolving how to bind a Deutschland, now rightly about to become the largest EU state, irrevocably into Europe. At the moment that the ‘peace project’ of the European process achieved its major goal, and a creative re-set was possible, Britain removed itself. Left to each other the Franco-German answer was the Euro. As the capital of Germany moved eastwards from Bonn to Berlin it agreed to lock itself into an irrevocable monetary union with Paris. The two determined to take the rest of the EU with them to drink the hemlock of a single currency unsupported by a single government.
British practical wisdom led it to decline the offer under the premiership of John Major who replaced her in 1990, when he secured an opt-out from it at the Maastricht Treaty. If monetary union was all that the EU had committed itself to, Major would have taken the UK out. But Europe was on a roll. The EU was expanding eastwards to incorporate former Soviet satellites while growing economically with early globalisation. Thus, in a way that paralleled the original creation of the Common Market as it was known in the 1950s, the UK excluded itself from the core political process of the continent but tethered itself to its financial growth. The consequence of this ambiguous, unresolved external relationship to the EU was the renewal in an even more toxic form of the historic internal division over membership within Conservative ranks. Determined Tories embracing the tradition of Enoch Powell set themselves the task of saving their country from the hegemony of a Eurozone that is proof incarnate of a desire to conquer the UK and subordinate it to a federal super-state.
The Eurosceptics wracked the premiership of John Major through to 1997. Thereafter they took over the leadership, only to provide three successive figures, William Hague, Ian Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, all of whom proved unelectable nationally. At last, hunger for power proved greater than principle and the membership selected David Cameron to rebrand the party and make it electable in the era of New Labour. In his warm up address to his first party conference on Sunday 1 October 2006, Cameron told delegates they should and stop “banging on” about Europe and “let sunshine win the day”. Three days later, in his first main conference speech setting out his priorities he did not mention the EU and European policy at all.
Cameron held his anti-Europeans in Blairite contempt. He thought he could reposition the party and they would disappear under the wheels of history. It was a fatal arrogance. That which he despised grew stronger. Today, for many, especially in the wider world, the eruption of the Brexiteers from the stomach of the Tory party seems like a version of the Alien hurtling out of John Hurt, only this time to terrorise spaceship UK. But the Brexiteer demand for ‘self-government’ is not a weird growth from the seeds of a demented foreign planet. It is a persistent, rooted argument in British politics that has been refreshed and rethought, not least thanks to the EU’s creation of the Euro and its failures.
No mere argument, however, can break through to being taken seriously in Britain. It took an irresistible, explosive force, to upturn Team Cameron’s foundational decision to marginalise the European issue: the uncontainable pressure of a winner-takes-all electoral system under conditions of the breakdown of traditional political allegiances.
Cameron did not want a referendum and was warned of the dangers. Experienced Conservatives were “horrified” at the idea when he told them he was considering one. Two months before he committed, in what is known as his Bloomberg speech, he discussed his thinking with Nick Clegg, his Lib Dem coalition partner who told him it was “hugely risky and could easily backfire”. To which Cameron replied (Laws p 237), "what else can I do? My backbenchers are unbelievably Eurosceptic, and UKIP are breathing down my neck".
The electoral challenge of the UK Independence Party has to be understood in this context. Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system is designed to deliver ‘strong government’. The winning party governs outright with much less than 50 per cent of the popular vote, in 2005 a mere 35 per cent gave the Blair government a comfortable majority of MPs. The same blunt edge decapitates minority parties, the outstanding example being when the newly formed pro-European Social Democratic Party in alliance with the Lib Dems won over 25 per cent of the vote in 1983 yet was doomed to insignificance with only 23 MPs out of 650. This outrageously undemocratic system has one signal if negative advantage: it allows voters to decisively "kick the buggers out”. This only works well, however, when there are only two main parties across the kingdom. Under these conditions, the challenge of third parties with their support spread across the country is easily rebuffed.
The system is breaking down territorially and thanks to party fragmentation. In Scotland the force has flipped. In a delicious irony it now operates to wipe out the main Westminster parties themselves. In the 2015 general election the SNP won exactly half the popular vote in Scotland but 53 of Scotland’s 56 seats in Westminster, a staggering disproportion; Labour with a quarter of the votes and the Tories with 15 per cent were both rewarded with just one MP each. It was their turn to be crushed by first-past-the-post. They had lived by its historic system; now, in Scotland, it terminated them.
The Scottish National Party is one of a number of new challengers to the Westminster duumvirate, in its case with the advantage of geographical concentration. But the Greens and above all UKIP are eating into the hold of the old main players. Their rise is part of a international process, which I’ll discuss in a later chapter, of the narrowing of historic parties of left and right under the aegis of market led globalisation, and the emergence of anti-systemic movements. In the UK after the financial crash of 2008 the combination of the parliamentary expenses scandals and austerity lent growing popularity to UKIP’s anti-EU, anti-immigrant, anti ‘liberal elite’ mobilisation. It started to gain over 10 per cent support in opinion polls. Indeed after Cameron’s Bloomberg speech it overtook the Tory party to win the low-turn-out elections to the European parliament in 2014 with more votes (24 per cent) than the Tories themselves. Many Conservative MPs faced the danger of their support splitting in the election scheduled for 2015, with UKIP voters letting the Labour candidate win. It is one thing to do what is necessary to save your political career; it’s another to do your patriotic duty. Often, these loyalties conflict. This time they coincided. By demanding the prime minister throw down a gauntlet to Brussels many Tory MPs felt they could save their seats and their country! The resulting clamour overwhelmed Cameron. To save his electoral skin he had to bang the drum.
Calling for a referendum after the coming 2015 election was a device to take the wind out of UKIP’s sails and win in the polls, a decision taken with all due opinion research. But what would be the content of the referendum? He could not afford a single principled stay or pull-out division, for then what would his own party’s position be? As leader he wanted ‘In’ but if this became the party’s line a good number of his MPs would defect to UKIP on the spot, as they could not have gone to their voters with such a pledge. The option of allowing his MPs a free vote to say whether they were for In or Out would simply divide them before the public eye, and no divided party wins at the polls. Therefore, Cameron had to propose a renegotiation after the election. To be sure of party unity going into it, he needed to claim he would challenge the threat to the UK of the juridical, social, legislative and political encroachment of the EU’s “ever closer union”.
Thus he was driven to take a stand he did not relish. According to the semi-official Cameron at 10, The Inside Story, by Anthony Seldon and Peter Snowden, the decision in principle was taken in May 2012. In June the Prime Minister prevented unified supervision of the EU banking system at an EU summit, annoying the Eurozone countries. At the press conference after he was questioned about those in his party who wanted an in/out referendum and he told them to get lost,
I completely understand why some people want an in/out referendum, why they wanted it yesterday, why they want it today. Some people just want to get out; they literally, you know, ‘Stop the bus, I want to get off.’ I completely understand that, but I do not share that view. I do not think that is the right thing to do.
I think the problem with an in/out referendum is it actually only gives people those two choices: you can either stay in with all the status quo, or you can get out. Most people in Britain, I think, want a government that stands up and fights for them in Europe, and gets the things we want in Europe, that changes some of the relationship we have in Europe.
Asked a follow up about why it was so difficult for him to convince his MPs, he replied,
I am confident that Britain fighting and standing up for itself in Europe can secure good deals in Europe, as I think this European summit has shown. So a practical Eurosceptic, but one who is optimistic that we can get what we want in Europe… But we need to safeguard what we do want in Europe, and I am confident we can do that.
Perhaps Cameron hoped that by exercising his veto powers as he had and defying the other EU governments he would gain support for this position. Instead he fed the sentiment of the anti-Europeans. Back home 100 MPs had signed a letter demanding a commitment to a referendum in the next parliament. Inflamed, hardliners kept up the pressure. The promise of a referendum had to be made.
Ed Llewellyn, Cameron’s chief of staff, was put in charge of the speech. "Speechwriting begins in great secrecy in early November”, according to Seldon and Snowden. The speech itself is postponed until the Bloomberg venue becomes free on 23 January. In an odd passage, we are told that Cameron approached the speech with one thing in mind, "If I am ever to persuade the public of remaining in, how do I convince them?" The authors then continue without a break, in their own voice, “Merkel is the key. Without her support, the announcement could be a fiasco.” Apparently the route to persuading the British lay via Berlin.
Their account of the crucial a private meeting Cameron had with the German Chancellor in number 10 on November 7 is fascinating. She stares at him intently trying to get inside his head to decide whether he is serious and questions him thoroughly. He tells her the single currency "changed everything". That he has a problem with his party. That it goes deeper, “to the very heart of the British understanding of democracy”. She tells him Europe needs Britain, "Without you, I don't know what is going to happen" and asks him not to rush into saying, "I'm leaving the ship". "No," Cameron replies, "this is our EU as much as anyone’s. Therefore I have to be pushy for our interests; but I don't want Britain to leave ". He has told her that he is passionate about single market and foreign policy cooperation. The danger is that, "if I don't listen to British public opinion, Britain will depart from Europe… what I want are changes that will make it possible for Britain to stay in.” She knows he wants to deal, "I do get it” and says she will try to help but there are limits given Germany's obligations to her other European partners.
According to his own official historians at one point in the long conversation, Cameron "using his full emotional force with her", also explains, “I need to make a pitch to the country. If there is no acceptable deal, it's not the end of the world; I'll walk away from the EU".
This seems to me to be an extraordinarily important moment. The prime minister has spent hours persuading the chancellor in private that his mind is made up and he is as determined as her to keep the UK in the EU. She emphasises that she “gets” this. But, then, in addition, he adds that she should understand he will tell his countrymen and women the opposite of what he has convinced her of. In his “pitch” to the British public, he will say that the UK can leave the EU relatively painlessly if he can’t get a deal!
The only interpretation of this that makes sense is that Cameron feels he must make sure the Germans are not alarmed when he tells the British public leaving is a practical option. They should know he does not mean it. He has to pretend that his mind is not made up, so as to present the process as an open one. Under the banner of such falsehood a negotiated outcome that allows the UK to stay can be presented as a joint success.
Does this remind you of anything? For example, when Tony Blair privately told President Bush that the UK would back his invasion of Iraq without question and later went on to explain to the White House that processes had to be gone through to convince Parliament of a direct threat, to make the war appear ‘legal’, but this should not be taken in any way as meaning a weakening of Blair's resolve or reversal of the actual decision. The Labour prime minister's deception of the British public over going to war with Iraq was worse than Cameron's because the decision was completely wrong, murderous and strategically catastrophic. Whereas Cameron's policy of staying in the EU by means of a dodgy referendum is mitigated by the fact that his objective is arguably sane. Yet there is a line of descent from the one to the other: contempt for the public, an entitlement of dishonesty, a narrow casuistry, a leader desiring to be strong on the ‘world stage’ crawling into the pocket of a major power, a Britain that has lost its way.
It’s not what you say it's the way that you say it
In one sense David Cameron is not ‘a liar’. He has always been a Eurosceptic, which is English for someone who does not believe in Europe ‘sharing sovereignty’, and wants instead European collaboration of self-governing nations. He told Merkel this is what he wanted. He seems to have believed that he could get Europe to convert to his vision thanks to her power, as she was clearly sensible, practical and said she understood him. If he deluded himself about her support he was an idiot. But something had shifted in his own view. After he became prime minister, he and George Osborne learnt the importance of being part of the European process, its decision-making and influence. Not wanting to be excluded from this, Cameron came to view that it was essential to remain in the EU. Realising this, Merkel helped him as much as she could but was never going to abandon her Eurozone partners for the British model. The result is that the deal is Merkel’s deal. From Cameron’s point of view, it being better than nothing, he decided to sell it as the best of both worlds.
The soul of a prime minister
He will now fight to win the referendum at all costs. In 2005, David Davis was Cameron’s opponent for the leadership of his party and then became a critic on issues of security and surveillance as well as Europe. I heard him on the radio being interviewed about an aspect of government policy. He was being as diplomatic as possible. Suddenly the interviewer asked him whether he thought Cameron was a good prime minister. Caught off guard, David paused, then said, “he is very good at being prime minister”. This form of words was not disloyal. But the slight emphasis made the point brilliantly. He is outstanding at appearing to be prime minister.
To play the role as well as Cameron does you need the coldness that comes from a heart-extraction operation. Eton can do this to you. It need not, I know Etonians with wonderful sensitivity. But it generates a ruling class mentality that regards humans in the same way as horses. Even one’s wife and children are estimated in terms of their staying power and form. Working closely for seven years as the head of PR and corporate relations can do this too, especially if it was for the “vile” self-made billionaire head of Carlton TV, Michael Green; where Cameron gained his training in how to be “misleading… dissembling and [in] doling out disinformation”. Also how to ‘hold his nature in a vice’. In his account of how to be prime minister, which Cameron and Osborne regard as masterly, Tony Blair spelt what it means to play the role like him,
"In public, you are always on show, so always be under control. The trick, actually, is to appear to be natural, while gripping your nature in a vice of care and caution. Don’t let the mask slip… don’t betray excesses of emotion of any kind; do it all with the ease and character of someone talking to old friends while knowing they are, in fact, new acquaintances."
Cameron’s capacity is being put the test with the Panama revelations. “I’ve never tried to pretend to be anything I’m not” he told Robert Peston of ITV, claiming he had never hidden the fact that he is very lucky to have wealthy parents. Really? Before he was Tory leader he holidayed in Cape Town in South Africa; after, it was the pretence of preferring inexpensive vacations in Spain.
Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh uncovered a very revealing moment in their study of the 2015 election. The prime minister got a memo on voter reactions to him. Only one in three thought he was in touch with ordinary people. Only 40 percent thought he was trying to do anything about it. He needs “language that met less resistance and had more resonance”. Women believed spending cuts were particularly unfair to them and his ratings for “being in touch and listening are awful and getting worse”. Cameron’s response was to write at the top of the memo,
“Well, let’s do something about it!! Please, operational grid, give me the right language and speaking and physically attack me with the right words before an interview. I will do whatever I am told ”
The Mail from which I’m quoting, reproduced it. You can see it for yourself.
It’s not a request for the right thing to say, nor a better way of expressing policies that meet people’s concerns about the future of the NHS. It’s a demand for language only. He must be fed, even attacked with, the “right words” for any interview. He will do as he told and say them. He does not regard this as in any way shameful, he regards it as professional. This is his normal.
We have just witnessed the result in action: last week he spoke to his party’s spring conference about the attempt to cover up his relationship to the tax avoiding off-shore fund his father ran, Cameron generously admitted that it was his fault because “I could have handled this better.” In other words the wrong-doing is caused by poor representation, not what has been revealed. “I love my dad. I miss him every day,” he added. “He was a wonderful father and I’m very proud of everything he did.” Blair could not have done it better.
Cameron’s politics of dissimulation may be connected to the fact that he is a very rich man who has been told to appear a normal guy. He was born as he himself put it, with two silver spoons in his mouth, given the wealth of both his parents. His wife too. Cameron once told The Times when asked about their wealth, “Samantha owns a field in Scunthorpe”. It is 3,000 acres of arable land worth millions.
Being economical with the truth is one thing, ignoring what you have said altogether is another. In October 2009, in the run up to the general election, Cameron said “the third runway at Heathrow is not going ahead; no ifs, no buts”. In 2012 he set up a commission to look again at the question. Now you might say, anyone is entitled to change their mind. But this unequivocal statement was said in an election to win support. London voters were swayed by what was a pledge, not just an opinion; a pledge that carries a democratic force if you believe at all in democracy.
The same cardinal principle was breached in another of Cameron’s pledges made to win the 2010 election, one that might even have clinched it for him as it laid to rest suspicions on a matter with the highest salience for voters, the NHS. “There will be no more of those pointless re-organisations that aim for change but instead bring chaos”, Cameron promised in 2009. I asked a member of the subsequent coalition government, an expert in health policy, if Cameron was aware of the Lansley reforms, a massive top-down reorganization, when he said this. He assured me he definitely was.
Seldon and Snowden are fascinating on the episode, while skirting the cardinal issue. They describe Lansley’s NHS reforms as “the biggest cock-up” of the prime minister’s first five years. In 2006, his first major speech as leader, he said, “the NHS needs no more pointless organisational upheaval”. Note the giveaway word “pointless” also used in the 2009 speech cited above. But later that year he told the Royal College of Pathologists, "There will be no more of the tiresome, meddlesome, top-down restructures that have dominated the last decade of the NHS”. The same definitive commitment was made in the coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats, that supposedly defined the government's agenda: “We will stop the top-down reorganisations of the NHS that have got in the way of patient care.”
In his memoir, David Laws, at that point the Lib Dem Secretary to the Treasury, attacks the Lansley reorganisation as "completely daft… massive changes… designed to radically alter the organisation of the NHS across the whole country…” – ideas floated by Laws himself in the infamous Orange Book, a 2004 manifesto of neoliberalism. He quotes the chief executive of the NHS who admits the reorganisation is “so big you can see it from space”. He blames "a complete failure of oversight from David Cameron and George Osborne in particular” (but not his leader, the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg). A series of full-scale rows took place as Lansley pressed ahead giving Cameron opportunities to abandon a reorganisation which "pointless", “meddlesome”, “top-down” and “getting in the way of patient care” only begin to describe. What is striking in the graphic description of Selden and Snowdon, as well as Laws, is that at no time in the many months of rows and arguments that follow does the prime minister say, “we can't do this, I pledged to the voters that we wouldn't”. His forceful, “passionate”, vivid and repeated promise to the electorate that a vote for him and his party means there will be no such top down reorganisation is disregarded by everyone and is apparently completely irrelevant.
Something beyond lying takes place when there is a serial pattern of misleading statements with no apology or explanation and no clear strategy or purpose behind them. Part of the problem here is the culture of the House of Commons, which is so lauded by tradition. When the wider, informal culture of what it means to keep one’s word has evaporated, all that matters is ‘getting away with it’ in the House of Commons. If the opposition has been shady and misleading when in power, any attempt by them to attack a minister for being misleading will get the embarrassing response, ‘look who is calling the kettle black!’ – in effect, so what if my pants are on fire, your arse is showing through a singed backside. Fearing the charge of hypocrisy they permit the government to get away with it. Blair did it, now it is Cameron’s turn.
In January 2010, Cameron remarked confidently: “We’ve looked at educational maintenance allowances and we haven’t announced any plan to get rid of them. We don’t have any plans to get rid of them” – only for the EMA to be scrapped five months after the election.
In March 2010, Cameron made a promise: “I wouldn’t change child benefit, I wouldn’t means-test it, I don’t think that is a good idea” – reforms that were introduced three years later.
In April 2010, on the eve of the election, Cameron said: “We have absolutely no plans to raise VAT”. Two months later, it was raised from 17.5% to 20%.
The previous year, presenting himself as the campaigning face of 'compassionate conservatism', Cameron had argued that VAT is "very regressive, it hits the poorest hardest". As prime minister, it was no longer his concern.
Sometimes the presumption that he is entitled to mislead is casual, as when in March this year Caroline Lucas asked him in Prime Minister’s Questions how he could support “localism” while making all schools academies, tearing them away from local people. Cameron replied,
I would argue that academy schools represent true devolution, because the parents, the governors and the head teacher end up having full control of the school and are able to make decisions about its future.
At the very same time his government is finalising a White Paper that proposed to abolish parent governors!
Sometimes it is humorous. After the recent floods in Yorkshire, Cameron said he would do “whatever is needed” to help the victims. The Yorkshire Post sent him a letter about what was needed and got no reply. Then his press officer Jonathan Bennett telephoned the paper to offer a “very personal” piece. It began, “I love Yorkshire & the Humber” and said nothing about the floods. Smelling a rat the paper’s editors decided not to run the prime minister’s missive to its readers. Then they discovered that he had written an identical article for the Plymouth Herald which began with the words “I love Cornwall and Isles of Scilly”; and the Newcastle Chronicle starting, “I love Northumberland”; and the Lincolnshire Echo beginning, “I love Lincolnshire”. They concluded Cameron had “duped newspapers across the country” with his love.
For me this is small change compared to two aspects of Cameron’s challenged relationship to truth. He repositioned the Tory party after he became leader in 2006 in part by making it environmentalist and an opponent of climate change, even re-branding the party’s logo to a tree and adopting the election slogan, ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’. In 2013, he reportedly told aides working on energy legislation "get rid of all the green crap". Green levies were duly cut in a subsequent budget. This suggests a carelessness about himself, a dishonesty about the way he presents who he is, which means his entire public persona is an exercise in dissimulation. No wonder Angela Merkel stared long and hard.
In a 2014 conference speech, Cameron described Britain as “a country that is paying down its debts”, prompting a rebuke from UK Statistics Authority. No penalty was paid apart from this. Yet it followed an astonishing attack on exactly this issue. In a party political broadcast in 2013, Cameron claimed, “We’re paying down Britain’s debts.” This prompted a brilliant, focused, display of fury from Andreas Whittam Smith, the founder of The Independent. Everyone knows that while the size of the deficit, meaning the amount the government has to borrow, is coming down, nonetheless it is still borrowing and the total national debt is rising. Indeed, Cameron made Britain’s indebtedness the centre piece of his attack on Labour in government. He must have been aware that at the time of the broadcast, since he became prime minister “public sector net debt has expanded from £811.3bn (55.3 per cent of GDP) to £1,111.4bn at the end of December 2012 (70.7 per cent of GDP)”. Whittam Smith concludes,
a party political broadcast is a deliberate act, not something said on the spur of the moment. Every word and every image is carefully considered. The deceit about paying down the debt will have been in the script for days or even weeks. The Prime Minister, too, is better placed than almost anyone to know what the truth actually is… Has it really come to this? Has the Prime Minister of the day solemnly addressed the British people and deliberately, coldly, with aforethought, told them a downright lie? If so, what scorn for the electorate that implies. What insufferable arrogance. What a debauchery of the poor old country’s political system.
Whittam Smith is right to emphasise the rigor of the process involved. The prime minister is a professional. In a Media Masters podcast on how people are persuaded by emotions not arguments, Lynton Crosby talks about working with him as the head of his 2005 election campaign and he tells us that Cameron is “calm, hard-working, good at taking decisions”.
Even if you regard it as normal to mislead your own people, who can take the responsibility for re-electing you, it is harder to accept for the head of the executive to play games with the lives of other peoples and countries. When the prime minister justified sending British bombers into Syria, he said they would be supporting the fighting forces of “70,000 moderates.” Senior defence staff described this as “misleading”, as you can see from Roy Greenslade’s round up of the coverage across the media. Even papers that supported military action were having none of Cameron’s creation of “bogus battalions”. They at least had learnt their lesson of the Iraq war “dodgy dossier”. Parliament, it seems, has not. Cameron blatantly misled members of parliament – a fundamental breach of ethics for a prime minister. Nothing happened – no apology, no withdrawal, just a shrug.
Mendacity implies an understood relationship between word and reality turned into one of falsehood. This is not what is happening with Cameron. To accuse him of lying is a category mistake. For him cognitive dissonance is not the contradiction between what he says his government will do and what it then does; it is the idea that what he promises has any intrinsic relationship with how he then must act.
For me the worst example of all concerns Libya. In 2011 Britain joined France in attacking the Libyan dictator Gaddafi after he threatened to wipe out street by street the opposition to him in Benghazi. The UK and French air forces went in and successfully supported the opposition after the US had eliminated Gaddafi’s air defences. Britain spent £320 million on the bombing. It was a significant victory in a country with less than 10 million people, considerable resource and no hostile neighbours (i.e. quite the opposite of Syria). A chance therefore to prove that western military action could lead to constructive outcome for local people. The British prime minister flew into Benghazi for a moment of triumph. He pledged to the crowd in Liberty Square that Britain “will stand with you as you build your country and build your democracy for the future." To hear his words, recently re-broadcast by the BBC is to feel the commitment! Instead, he sent in a mere £25 million in aid. The country fell apart while the UK shamefully did nothing. An enraged president Obama broke all diplomatic rules to publicly rebuke the UK’s criminally lackadaisical premier, telling Jeffrey Goldberg of Atlantic magazine,
When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong,” Obama said, “there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximit… And he said that British Prime Minister David Cameron soon stopped paying attention, becoming “distracted by a range of other things”.
President Obama recognises that something went wrong. He goes back to assess the nature of the mistakes. He takes responsibility for his contribution to them. Whatever you think about his record, there is something exemplary about his manner; it gives him the right to share the blame for the disaster he and his allies visited upon the people of Libya after they liberated it from Gaddafi. He points the presidential finger at Cameron above all, as President Sarkozy of France was voted out of office. With what appeared to be passion and commitment the British prime minister pledged his country’s support to the people of Libya in a time of extreme vulnerability after he had bombed away its dictator. There can be no greater moment of genuine responsibility. Lives would be lost if the UK abandoned them. Having promised to help them rebuild he walked away. It’s pitiless. His words In Benghazi meant as much to him as his promises on VAT, commitment to the environment, lies about the public debt, estimates of Syrian fighters, or “a field in Scunthorpe”. Only this time he helped create a killing field for terrorism.
In 2016, if those of us who wish to vote Remain manage to secure Britain a place within the EU we will give David Cameron a victory in the referendum despite all his dishonesty. If he loses it will be in large part thanks to it.
On 23 January 2013 David Cameron delivered his Bloomberg speech that laid the basis for his re-election two years later. In some ways it reads like a letter to Chancellor Merkel. It certainly is not addressed to the French or the Italians let alone the Spanish. Cameron says he has five principles: competitiveness, a flexible union, a power flow back to member states, democratic accountability and fairness (by which he means the Euro group not blocking the UK’s access to its financial markets). “This vision of flexibility and co-operation”, he states, “is not the same as those who want to build an ever closer political union – but it is just as valid”. He wants the EU to become, “a family of democratic nations, all members of one European Union, whose essential foundation is the single market rather than the single currency”.
His main call is for,
A new settlement subject to the democratic legitimacy and accountability of national parliaments where Member States combine in flexible cooperation, respecting national differences not always trying to eliminate them and in which we have proved that some powers can in fact be returned to Member States.
He sees Britain as playing a leading role shaping the single market and foreign policy of this new settlement. He adds,
I believe the best way to do this will be in a new treaty so I add my voice to those who are already calling for this. My strong preference is to enact these changes for the entire EU, not just for Britain.
But if there is no appetite for a new treaty for us all then of course Britain should be ready to address the changes we need in a negotiation with our European partners.
Cameron asks the British to support his desire to see this outcome and to stay in Europe, notes emphatically that it will be their decision and adds, “of course Britain could make her own way in the world, outside the EU, if we chose to do so”. There is nothing in his vision about a social Europe or solidarity.
The primary objective of the speech was to rally his party behind his sweeping “new settlement” for the EU. There is no denying Cameron’s professionalism. His task was to bring his party behind him, and therefore a vision of Europe was necessary that would satisfy the Eurosceptics. They might doubt that he could achieve it, but they would have to give him the benefit of the doubt because the prize as he set it out was wholehearted. They did so, with one important exception.
The prime minister knew from all his background papers that the other EU states were not going to relinquish economic and monetary union for his new settlement. From what I can work out the British did very little to try and organise any allies so hopeless was the prospect. The aim was to improve the UK’s position sufficiently to ensure it stayed in – while managing domestic opposition up to the 2015 election.
A year and half later, when he realised this, the Conservative MP Douglas Carswell, author of The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy, was enraged, resigned from the party, joined UKIP and forced a by-election which he won handsomely. He said in his statement,
No one cheered David Cameron more loudly at the time of his Bloomberg speech, when he finally accepted the case for a referendum. He would, he claimed, negotiate a fundamentally new relationship with the EU, and put it to the people in 2017; In or Out. But there's been no detail since. That's because there isn't any.
His advisers have made it clear that they seek a new deal that gives them just enough to persuade enough voters to vote to stay in. It's not about change in our national interest. It's all about not changing things. Once I realised that, my position in the Conservative party became untenable.
Carswell had spoken with three of Cameron’s advisors, one at the Anglo-German Konigswinter conference. In a TV interview he described his revulsion at their cynicism. Cameron’s claim that there would be renegotiation was “smoke and mirrors”.
It worked, the promise of a referendum helped win the 2015 election. Cameron had to enter the hall of smoke and mirrors so as to emerge victorious, combing the soot from his hair. A helpful ‘scorecard’ of the process and results is set out by Politico and a short account of what was negotiated from the EU’s point of view is provided by Charles Grant of the Centre for Economic Reform. Cameron got a small reform to reduce the welfare pull of the UK for immigrants from poorer EU countries but no controls over the freedom of movement. He got a commitment that the City would not be discriminated against by the Eurozone. It had sought more than that and lost, Charles Grant’s description of what happened:
"One part… was bitterly fought over. The British wanted the right to have financial regulations that differed from those of the Eurozone. The French, backed by Germany, many Eurozone governments and the European Central Bank, feared that such differentiation could lead to laxly-regulated UK firms undercutting continental ones, or to financial instability."
An early version of the decision pleased the British by saying that "different sets of Union rules may have to be adopted in secondary law"… The wording of the final compromise maintains the status quo, leaving open for future battles the degree to which UK regulation may diverge from that of the Eurozone.
As we have seen, Cameron also obtained a UK opt out from ever closer union, a decision that recognised the realities of a Europe of variable speeds. But Merkel, who seems to have got a complete measure of the man, retained the UK in the EU, assuming he delivers a vote for Remain as he promises. Germany wants the UK to Remain as it adds to the weight of the EU in global negotiations, secures a huge market for its goods and provides a counter-balance to France. At the same time Merkel has prevented the interfering, negative, vetoing British state from disrupting the negotiations over the future collaboration and deepening of the EU that Germany desires.
Overall, it makes little difference. The UK was not in the Euro or the Schengen agreements. There already was in effect a differentiated Europe. The UK winning recognition of this is no great shakes. The overall argument over staying or going is the same as it was before the deal. David Cameron’s phrase is that Britain is “Stronger, safer, better off” inside the EU. Michael Gove’s riposte for Leave is that Britain is “freer, fairer and better off outside the EU”. Both were as true as arguments before the deal as now. Similarly, when the prime minister emphasises how important the EU is for British trade and business, how difficult it will be to leave, and the costs and uncertainty of doing so, all was just as true before he opened his negotiations.
In an earlier chapter I quoted Cameron’s attempt to justify Remain in gung-ho Thatcherite language, as he sought to protect his patriotic flank from the Brexiteers,
… the world I want my children to grow up in is [one] where there’s a big, bold, brave Britain at the heart of these institutions trying to deliver a world based on the values we care about – democracy, freedom, rights… That’s the kind of country I want my little ones to grow up and inherit.
The “little ones” here are not his children, they are us, the British people. This is how he and his class regard the populace – when they are feeling in a good mood, that is, or as here, are on their best behaviour. Well, my answer is that the battle for democracy, freedom and rights are shared values not just ‘British ones’. That the battle for them has to be fought on a continental scale and the last way of securing them is by the Brits declaring themselves to be “big, bold and brave”. But I have to admit that being treated in this fashion does generate a flash of childish anger. I can quite understand why many of my fellow little ones feel like throwing Cameron out of the nursery and telling both him and Brussels to bugger off. If there is one good reason to vote Leave it is to reject the sordid deal Cameron struck, its hostility to any European project or solidarity, its national egoism, its market fundamentalism, its greedy attempt to grab “the best of both worlds” and its pitiful self-exclusion from the heart of the European process.
Read Anthony Barnett's book as he writes it, along with the rest of openDemocracy's Brexit coverage, on our Brexit2016 page.
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