Dr Anthony Ridge-Newman teaches politics at Glasgow University.
David Cameron’s resignation announcement rendered Britain leaderless during the weekend that followed the EU referendum – and has also done so since. Many Conservative Party members will have deemed this to be Cameron’s final test, and one that he has failed.
It was a key moment to display strength: to demonstrate himself to be a selfless leader and proud Briton. Instead, many feel that the manner of his intended departure has shown him to be a weak Prime Minister, who is now avoiding the most important challenge of a generation. When put to his final test, Cameron displayed little resemblance of the gritty and substantive qualities shown by such great historic British leaders as Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher.
Without question, Cameron is right to resign. But in those all too crucial first days after the referendum, he and his top team should have offered leadership in order to help oil the period of transition. After all, this is a time of national and international crisis, with unprecedented social and economic events ensuing. To domestic observers, it appears like an attempt to avoid the awkwardness of transitional leadership.
Over the weekend and during the days since, Britain has been yearning for stronger messages of hope. Instead of that prime ministerial radio silence, we could have seen a brave, but necessary, appearance on, say, the Andrew Marr Show in order to reassure the country. Instead, Cameron resigned – and vanished at the time Britain most needed him. The Cameron Conservatives’ slogan of ‘we’re all in this together’ now seems hollower than ever.
What is done is done. Britain has voted – and gave a clear and decisive referendum outcome. The weeks since have offered an opportunity for the Government, whatever its stance, to help frame Brexit as a new opportunity for Britain in order to improve the confidence of global markets and, most importantly, the British people.
Instead, the days following the referendum became a political vacuum, exploited by opportunism north of the border, largely due to the UK having no voice and a distinct lack of leadership. This Cameron-led shambles could have far reaching impacts for British unity.
While Cameron’s medium-term position as Prime Minister is rightly untenable, it is his constitutional duty to his Queen and country to provide stable and positive leadership in this time of crisis and transition. It seems unlikely that, say, Barak Obama would desert the American people at a time of national and international crisis. However, over that weekend and since, Cameron left Britain in suspended animation while uncertainty crept in to attack British identity and its interests.
The likes of the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon should not have been given free-reign to capitalise on Brexit. Instead of contributing to a stabilisation of the British state, Sturgeon has been filling the void with anti-British propaganda. Britain’s need for a strong voice and leadership is more important now than at any other point in recent history.
Over the last decade as Conservative leader, Cameron led Britain to believe that he would do everything in his power to lead Britain through times of crisis. In the course of his resignation announcement, Cameron claimed to be passionately British, and a man who loves his country. But these words appear not to be demonstrated by his actions.
As the author of Cameron’s Children and the Internet, I have been observing Cameron and the Conservative Party for a decade. One thing that repeatedly struck me is how Cameron, as a natural heir-to-Blair, spent significant time crafting a stage-managed persona. At times, he appeared so stilted and rehearsed that I questioned whether he was a plastic Prime Minister – one that was largely focused on style and low on substance.
Since his ascent to the leadership, Cameron has seemed acutely aware of the role of strategic communications, and how he wanted himself to be presented and perceived. However, it seems that at the time he most needed to display some serious substance, for the sake of his country, he chose to protect himself and avoid facing the British people. This was a surrender to the pressures of high office.
Over the last decade, Cameron and his team have worked hard to centralise the culture and operations of the Conservative Party so that it would act in Cameron’s own best interests. With his trusted chums, such as Andrew Feldman, the Party Chairman, he has presided over a party that offered has what some might say is a mere veneer of change. However, beneath the glossy surface of Team Cameron there remained solid and observable remnants of an inherent ‘nasty party’ approach.
Since its conception, the Cameron-project was largely about Cam-the-man, through branded initiatives like WebCameron. Subsequently, to some extent, Cameron became the embodiment of the Conservative Party itself. It seems process this was largely driven by the goal of securing Cameron’s legacy. But Cameron’s resignation has resulted in an initial legacy of national crisis; and a Conservative Party organisation crawling out of a colossal crater left behind by the impact of Cameron’s lack of leadership.
By his own hand, Cameron became crushed by his own legacy in one night. And for many, Cameron demonstrated arrogance when he set out to negotiate a better deal for Britain in the EU, and came back with ‘nul points’ for the UK. It could be argued that Cameron’s leadership has been weak because of his inability to inspire his own party, and the country he leads, to share his view on remaining in the EU. His wing-man, George Osborne, also elusive over that weekend, has demonstrated a similar lack of leadership qualities.
Team Cameron’s reluctance to face the consequences of their actions post-EUref is likely to go down in history as a shambolic end to his period in office. It comes at a time when Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is in total chaos and meltdown. Therefore, for Britain’s sake, it is incumbent on the Conservative Party to dust itself off, work together in the national interest and act quickly to maintain the union of the Kingdom as it transitions towards its departure from the EU.