As is so often the case, the version of events in the EU referendum that will eventually be recorded by history is being fought over through memoirs and books. Two such books are out today. One, by Craig Oliver, is openly partisan in its view of events. The other, by Tim Shipman of the Sunday Times, is journalistic in nature.
The serialised extract of Shipman’s book includes a rather blunt piece of blame-allocation for the failure of the renegotiation (and by extension, for the eventual Leave victory):
‘…the decisive intervention that killed off an emergency brake on migrant numbers, a policy that many Cameroons believed later might have been enough for them to win the referendum, was made by Theresa May and Philip Hammond.
Both had been invited to see Cameron after the regular 8.30am meeting in Downing Street the day before the JCB speech, along with a small number of officials. Cameron made clear that, despite Merkel’s opposition, he was considering demanding the emergency brake anyway.
“The PM told them what the Germans had said, and asked for their view on whether we should go ahead and announce in any case,” a Downing Street source said. “Hammond spoke first, and argued that we just couldn’t announce something that would receive an immediate raspberry in Europe. It wouldn’t be seen as credible domestically, and it would set us on the path towards Brexit. Theresa simply said that we just couldn’t go against Merkel.”
An eyewitness said: “The PM was visibly deflated as they left.” Cameron turned to one of his officials and said: “Look, we tried, but I can’t do it without their support. We’ll just have to go with the benefits plan. If it wasn’t for my lily-livered cabinet colleagues . . .”’
We don’t know the identity of Shipman’s Downing Street source, but it’s not unreasonable to ask: “Cui bono?”
There are obvious losers from the telling of the story – namely, the new Prime Minister and Chancellor, who are essentially blamed for turning down the idea of an emergency brake. There is also a winner – if you buy the tale, it would make Cameron less personally responsible for the disastrous failure of his renegotiation. The further implication that May and Hammond fatally undermined the Remain campaign itself also serves the same purpose. Poor old David, condemned to failure in Brussels and then in the referendum by his unreasonable colleagues, who are branded “lily-livered” for good measure.
Except such an excuse is baloney.
As Shipman judges elsewhere in the same extract, Merkel was clearly determined that freedom of movement should continue – May and Hammond’s assessment that she would simply reject Cameron’s request for an emergency brake seems obviously correct.
Merkel’s personal principle was not the only reason why she would have stuck to her guns. The German Chancellor was canny enough to realise that Cameron would never use his ultimate sanction of responding to rejection by supporting a Leave vote. He had already meekly accepted numerous waterings down of his original renegotiation demands. If she concluded that she could do what she liked to his renegotiation plan and he would still end up recommending that the British people vote to Remain, she was right to do so – for that is exactly what ended up happening.
Furthermore, even if the emergency brake had been granted it would have been a pointless measure, delivering neither what the Conservative manifesto had promised nor what the British people wanted. As I wrote on this site at the time of the proposal:
‘Not only is the policy fundamentally weakened, but it will not be permanent – only an “emergency brake”, to be applied occasionally and temporarily. Worst of all, the power to apply that brake will not rest with Parliament or the British Government, but will be decided by the EU institutions after an application from Britain. In the Q&A after that 2014 speech Cameron poured scorn on “some arcane mechanism within the EU, which would probably be triggered by the European Commission and not by us” – but now he’s got one.’
The idea that such a lame concession would somehow have carried the day in the referendum is absurd. It would have been picked apart by the press and seen through by voters in an instant. If May and Hammond dismissed it as both doomed and pointless, they were correct.
In short, Cameron and/or his allies appear to be trying to unfairly blame others for the failure of the renegotiation and even for their eventual referendum defeat. That isn’t a great look for a former Prime Minister, particularly when the case for the defence is so weak. To use his successor as the target of such attacks is even less attractive; even during the sometimes acrimonious shift from Thatcher to Major, the former didn’t brief journalists against the latter.
No-one expects Cameron to be happy about what has just happened, but seeking to dodge responsibility for it is unattractive in the extreme. As the Sunday Times itself concludes in its leader column, “He has only himself to blame.”