Isabel Oakeshott: History Will Judge David Cameron Harshly For Brexit Campaign

David Cameron resignation speech
British Prime Minister David Cameron resigns on the steps of 10 Downing Street, London, June 24. Cameron made the decision following the U.K.'s vote to leave the EU. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Isabel Oakeshott is the the co-author of a biography of the British prime minister David Cameron, Call Me Dave and the Daily Mail’s Political Editor at large. She recently wrote a cover story for Newsweek Europe exploring the relationship between Cameron and his old friend and enemy Boris Johnson. Newsweek spoke to her in the aftermath of Britain’s shock vote to leave the European Union on Thursday to get her thoughts on who might replace Cameron as the leader of the Conservative Party after his resignation on Friday morning, how his six-year tenure as prime minister will be remembered and if Johnson is now certain to succeed him.

Newsweek: Was David Cameron’s decision to call the referendum on the U.K.’s membership of the EU one of the biggest miscalculations in British political history?

Isabel Oakeshott: In a word, yes. Cameron colossally miscalculated this—it’s a desperate moment for him. Twice before he has come right to the brink of screwing up a referendum. First there was the 2011 referendum on whether or not to replace the U.K.’s “first past the post” system with the “alternate voting” method early in his premiership which he almost lost. Then, there was the 2014 Scottish independence referendum where he went right to the brink and nearly presided over the break up of the U.K. The third time he wasn't so lucky, in fairness to Cameron he probably had no choice but to call this referendum. There are a few political commentators who will probably argue that he could have got away with not calling it, but I strongly disagree with that.

I think Cameron was in an impossible position—cornered on one side by his own right wing Euroskeptic backbenchers who would not have stopped needling him on this issue until they got what they wanted. There was also the looming threat of UKIP and the very real prospect that they could have stolen a huge number of Conservative votes not only in 2014 European Elections but also in the General Election. Cameron took a pragmatic decision and decided if he was going to have to call a referendum he would rather do it on own terms, rather than being forced into. Let us not forget that nobody in the political establishment thought there was a genuine prospect of a Leave vote.

Nobody thought this would happen, perhaps not even Nigel Farage. I was standing right next to Farage on the night of the vote, and I know he did not believe he had won. So you can forgive Cameron perhaps for delivering a referendum because he had no choice. But what is unforgivable in the eyes of many in the party—although most are pretty pleased with the result—is how he handled the referendum campaign and I think history will judge him harshly for that.

I’ve heard one theory that Cameron made the promise to hold a referendum, as you said to woo back UKIP voters, not thinking he would actually win a majority at the U.K. General Election and have to go through with it. Is that true?

I’ve asked that question of sources very close to Cameron. They say at the time he offered the referendum in January 2013 in his now famous Bloomberg speech, he and his advisors were hopeful [of winning the General Election]. This was the time of the financial crisis, things were not easy but a majority Conservative government in 2015 did not seem impossible. It was mid term and there was all to play for. While it's tempting to think this is a referendum Cameron never thought he would have to deliver, and it is true that he almost certainly didn't think he would have to deliver it going into the General Election in 2015 [the majority of U.K. polls predicted a hung parliament], but when he first pledged it in 2013 there was every reasonable chance that he was going to have to go through with it.

You said history will judge Cameron harshly for how he conducted the campaign, what specifically did he get wrong?

I think the big mistake was to make the Remain case so aggressively, especially when he made no particular secret that he is no great lover of Europe. So, you have this spectacle of a prime minister throwing everything he has at this campaign, perhaps a product of his bitter experience of the previous two referendums when he was widely criticised for being hopelessly complacent. In 2014 he nearly presided over the break up of the U.K. because he couldn't be bothered to get his act together until the last minute, and this time he went over the top in the other direction, exploiting the government machine which was seen as fighting dirty—think of the £9m of taxpayer’s money that was spent producing a pro-EU leaflet that was the source of immense bitterness within the parliamentary party and was widely criticised by the press. The Remain camp also went ludicrously over the top with their claims of armageddon which backfired—never before has there been an example of voters defying so many co-ordinated prophesies of doom from ranked masses of experts who were all co-ordinated by Downing Street. People in this country aren't stupid—they will listen to experts but when go that over the top you make a nonsense of the experts.

Is it worse being the prime minister who has led Britain out of Europe rather than the leader who broke up the United Kingdom?

I think David Cameron can live with leading Britain out of Europe. It is a total humiliation for him and his leadership and has brought about end of his premiership, but psychologically I think he can live with what happened because he is fundamentally Euroskeptic—although he did become radicalised by his own campaign and genuinely believed it would be much better for Britain to remain inside the EU. The great irony and terrifying prospect for Cameron is that one thing leads to the other and that he ends up not only having brought the U.K. out of the EU, but that the knock on consequence is that there is another referendum in Scotland and the break-up of the union occurs. Then he will have presided over both which is a terrible legacy.

What have been the defining characteristics of David Cameron’s premiership?

What is remarkable about Cameron is that he has not been a divisive figure. I talk to people every day about the prime minister and he has never been a hated figure in the way his chancellor George Osborne has been in the public’s mind. Nor is Cameron particularly loved but he has kept the show on the road until now, when it has in the most spectacular style veered off the road. For a prime minister who made everything in his premiership about stability, who almost fetished stability at the expense of making great achievements, there is an ultimate irony that he has helped create the greatest instability in the U.K since maybe Black Wednesday in 1992 [when the U.K. was forced to withdraw the pound sterling from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM)].

Is this the ultimate victory for Boris Johnson over his old friend and rival David Cameron?

I think a lot of people have combined to do Cameron in—it would be facile to give all the credit to Boris. There is no doubt that Boris joining the Leave campaign gave it the box office it needed. It gave them an immensely popular and charismatic figure who people switch on the TV to see or crowd round wanting selfies with. Before that the Leave campaign was stuck with people like [the cabinet minister] Chris Grayling—dreary middle aged men nobody was very excited by. But you can't possibly say this is Boris’s finest achievement. Look at the role of the press—I was playing that down going into this campaign but the Leave camp had the combined might of The Sun, the Daily Mail, the Sunday Times, the Daily Express and The Telegraph. The only Remain-backing newspapers were The Mirror which is a failing newspaper, The Guardian which sells very few copies these days, The Times that is doing well and the FT that has an influential but limited market. Newspapers might not sell anything like what they used to but they create mood music and an environment in which it seems acceptable for the people to revolt.

Is Boris Johnson now a shoo-in for Prime Minister?

I think so...Cameron has set a tight timetable. I think he said he wanted a new leader in place by the Conservative Party Conference but I wonder if they might do a special conference in mid or late October… A tight timetable really favours Boris Johnson who has had a nascent campaign up and running for long time and has widespread, but not wholesale, support in the parliamentary party and certainly among the party members.

Is there a leadership candidate others in the Conservative Parliamentary Party might prefer?

There is a desire for an “Anyone But Boris” candidate at Westminster but those people will have to quickly coalesce around one person if that person is to have much chance of getting the momentum and machinery needed to see off Boris.

How do you think Cameron will personally take this defeat?

I think he will feel wretched. Nobody wants go out on these terms, this is unprecedented—this is a guy who won a majority less than a year ago against all expectations. He has known nothing but success his whole life and this is a spectacular mother of all failures.