Tears inside Number Ten after the door closed
Published by The Mail on Sunday (26th June, 2016)
David Cameron held back tears as he stood in front of the cameras on Friday outside Downing Street and, voice cracking with emotion, announced he would be stepping down after six years as Prime Minister.
But they started flowing when that famous black door closed behind him and he spoke to his tight-knit circle of close aides and loyal civil servants.
‘It was very emotional,’ said one of those there. ‘Everyone was crying – men and women, even the civil servants. And then David started crying.’
It was the culmination of an astonishing few hours. The previous night, he had gathered some of his oldest friends to watch the results of his great European gamble.
Cameron was nervous but hopeful of success, texting friends that he should be locked up if he ever suggested another such referendum. Internal polling predicted a 55 per cent vote to stay in the European Union.
Then came dawning realisation Britain had voted to break with Brussels – and his time in No 10 had ended in devastating failure.
A third Conservative Prime Minister in succession has seen their time in office torn apart by bickering over Brussels. But for Cameron, the hurt is all the more intense since his life’s work and legacy has been ruined by treacherous friends in hock with self-serving colleagues and stop-the-clock dreamers.
He has been beaten by his fellow Old Etonian Boris Johnson, posing as leader of an anti-establishment insurgency against ‘elites’ to fulfil his personal ambitions.
Johnson was never trusted. But for a man so rooted in family and friends, the betrayal in recent weeks of Michael Gove and Steve Hilton – godfather to Cameron’s late son Ivan and once his closest adviser – has been especially hurtful.
The anger was palpable in Downing Street. ’I wouldn’t piss on Hilton in a fire,’ said one long-term Cameron ally. ‘His disgusting behaviour is driven by jealousy.’
The Prime Minister cannot evade responsibility for losing a divisive and disastrous referendum that he should never have called. It will forever stain his reputation.
It was the final big roll of the dice in a series of giant gambles: forming Britain’s first coalition since the Second World War, winning a Scottish referendum, drastically shrinking the State and then triumphing in a General Election against the odds.
Cameron, say friends, is shattered by a shock result that comes barely a year after his finest triumph in last year’s General Election, when he confounded critics and pollsters alike.
‘I’m very sad for him – this was a horrible process for him,’ said one close friend. ‘I told him to delay the referendum and go in December 2017, since it was a lose-lose battle. If Remain won, the party would hate him; if they lost, he was out.’
He had hoped to win a better deal to stem migration from within the EU during his pre-referendum negotiations with fellow leaders on the Continent, who failed to offer him sufficient concessions.
Instead, after six years in No 10, he is on the way out, another victim of globalisation just like all those English voters so angered by their changing country and flat-lining wages that they turned against experts and ‘the Establishment’.
Allies admitted yesterday that their polling was flawed, that they had misjudged the national mood and had failed to understand how to fight against the older voters who took them into Downing Street, yet backed Brexit in such large numbers against the young.
Cameron was calm and dignified in defeat. But then he has endured darker days with the diagnosis, then sudden death, of his severely disabled eldest child Ivan in 2009 – a painful tragedy that puts even his current political traumas in perspective.
Victory would have guaranteed him the chance to redefine the political landscape, but losers do not write the history books. And like so many of his predecessors as Prime Minister, his stellar political career has ended in abrupt failure.
A disgruntled electorate in a divided country has ensured Britain faces years of devastating economic uncertainty. And the future of both the United Kingdom and the European Union are imperilled by shock waves from this self-lacerating vote.
Cameron was guilty too often of letting short-term tactical feints over-ride long-term strategy. Sometimes this worked spectacularly. But it also caused setbacks with budget blunders, a corrosive aid target and cutting the top rate of tax amid austerity.
Above all, this led to failure to stand up to his party’s reactionaries, show leadership against Ukip or stop migrants being blamed for long-term political failure on public services despite their contribution to economic success.
Pragmatic reluctance to tackle their prejudices was evident even during his election for Tory leader, when he pledged to pull out of the Brussels centre-Right grouping.
But those bold early months, with a 38-year-old Tory leader taunting Tony Blair that ‘he was the future once’ and talking with glorious optimism about a new kind of compassionate conservatism, saw his popularity soar.
His easy charm and down-to-earth normality – despite that infamous Eton education and over-reliance on old chums – seemed such a contrast in a Tory leader after his mentor Michael Howard and the lamentable Iain Duncan Smith.
I remember meeting Cameron for the first time over lunch and being struck by how he seemed to live in the modern world, with none of the hang-ups on race, gender and sexuality that tormented so many Tories at the time.
We talked deeply about our disabled children. I liked him and his wife immensely. And I started advising him on how to modernise the Tory Party, later joining his team formally as speechwriter.
Cameron deserves big credit for refusing to buckle to fierce opposition on gay marriage, led by some of those social conservatives and embittered ex-Ministers who figured so prominently in the Brexit campaign.
He has also reshaped the party more than is commonly recognised – as shown by the strong latest Tory intake at Westminster, with more women and ethnic minority MPs.
Cameron would have been a better Prime Minister in boom times, since he is by nature such a positive and ebullient character. Instead, he had to clear up the mess of global financial crisis and domestic political scandal over MPs’ expenses.
These twin cataclysms changed the terms of politics and fanned flames of mistrust against ‘elites’. This was the complicated backdrop to Cameron’s time in office, with electoral anger burning across the West and inflamed by populists.
He leaves behind him a country and a Conservative Party more divided than at any time since the early years of Thatcher – and with our traditional two-party system on brink of collapse.
The Tory winners of the great European schism have won alongside millions of decent voters, but also the crudest of nationalists, reviving the Conservatives’ ‘Nasty Party’ image and setting themselves against the next generation of voters.
Cameron can claim success for salvaging the British economy after the mess he inherited, for furthering some Blairite public sector reforms, for managing coalition government with immense skill and for driving rival Parties into disarray.
There is cruel irony that he has been ejected by a vote that leaves Britain facing such deep and intensely divisive questions over its future. One that sets old against young, rich against poor, cities against provinces, big business against small firms.
For the most pragmatic and successful politician of his generation, the one person in Westminster who might have been able to paper over the cracks for a while at least, will now depart the scene under the darkest of clouds.
Perhaps the looming economic, political and social problems that are the inevitable consequence of last week’s vote will temper the judgment of historians – especially when compared with the hypocrisy of some leading opponents.
But deep in his heart, David Cameron knows he must share blame for events that now threaten the poorest in society, the future of his party and the very existence of the United Kingdom. This is a savage epitaph for a decent man.