David Cameron had undoubtedly become conspicuous by his long political absence, even causing the true sage of modern political thought, Danny Dyer, to ask ‘Where is the geezer?’. Whether he was actually in ‘Nice with his trotters up’ as Dyer proclaimed is neither here nor there. What is true, however, is that Dyer’s comments capture the sentiments of many in this nation who hold David Cameron culpable for the Brexit chaos that now presides and want him to come back. “I think he should be held to account for it.”
This is an attractive rallying cry but a flawed one. We need to see less of David Cameron and he and his trotters should stay firmly in Nice. The current political turbulence allows us to look back at David Cameron with some nostalgia as he led a coalition and then a majority Government which was relatively stable. Collective Cabinet Responsibility existed. A working majority in Parliament existed. A Government that followed the law existed.
Not only was it right for Cameron to disappear and to stop intervening in British politics he had no choice but to resign. He would have been just as ineffective a Prime Minister implementing Brexit as Theresa May. The Leave Campaign had an entire company of high-profile political figures fighting on their side of the argument; Johnson, Gove, and Patel to name a few. Yet, with the Remain side, Cameron was a solitary figure often getting off the Battle Bus alone. Having campaigned so personally for remain, he would have lost any political authority in negotiations with Europe and crucially with the ERG. His problem became May’s problem. If you campaigned for Remain you were not considered pure in implementing Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. Conservative MP Steve Baker, the Chair of the ERG said of Theresa May: ‘I’m afraid now it’s about the policy and the person’.
What is it about the British political system which portrays an ex-Prime Minister as somehow wiser than the currently political class? Why should we welcome and pay special attention to the interventions of ex-Prime Ministers? It is most likely the adage of experience compounded by honours system. Once a holder of high office and then graced with a peerage, Knighthood or Privy Council membership it connotes a sense of worldliness. Gordon Brown (a Privy Council member) was rolled out the day before the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014 and is widely credited as being influential on the result, having a gravitas and respect from Scots to counter the arguments of Alex Salmond.
Yet experience does not necessarily translate into wisdom. David Lloyd George was a Political titan when he was in power - creating the welfare state and using the full weight of Government to help win the First World War against Germany. Yet despite his experience and knowledge the war gave him about Germany, in his later years he made interventions into British politics that have not aged well. He called Adolf Hitler “The Greatest Living German” and supported Germany’s land grabs and annexations throughout the 1930s. This from a man who was charged with combating this same behaviour a few short years earlier. History in this case proves that Britain did not benefit from a championing of appeasement by a former Prime Minister. In more recent times when Tony Blair has re-entered the political arena it has been to the detriment of his own political legacy: telling Fern Britton in an interview that he would have gone to war in Iraq even if he was certain that there were no Weapons of Mass destruction, undermining the argument he made at the time.
The convention that former leaders shouldn’t intervene in contemporary politics is an important one. In developed democracies we have one Government and one President or Prime Minister at a time. Therefore, it is important for a leader to demonstrate that they can let go on the levers of power. Prime Ministers who have struggled with this have been judged negatively. Margaret Thatcher haunted John Major over the Maastricht treaty in the 1990s. Declaring on June 7th 1993 “I could have never have signed this treaty” emboldening individuals on the right wing of the Tory party such as Bill Cash to vote against it in the House of Commons, damaging her successor.
Cameron’s interventions have unsurprisingly had the same effect. At a time when the likelihood of the Government striking an accord with the European Union was already looking slim, Cameron has decided to question Johnson’s belief in the entire Brexit project. He revealed that Johnson sent him a text message saying Brexit will “be crushed like a toad under the harrow” during the campaign and that in his assessment Johnson supported Brexit for his own career interests. This does not make negotiations any easier. Why would your negotiating partner make concessions if he or she believes that you do not believe in what you are negotiating?
Dyer may claim that Cameron’s absence represents a lack of accountability on Brexit, but the reverse is true. His recent interventions in which he said that Britain should have a close relationship with the EU allows him to have the luxury of making hypothetical decisions without ramifications. Whereas his silence is exile demonstrates accountability for the referendum, denying him what politicians crave the most, attention.