Tim Shipman’s book about the EU referendum campaign, All Out War, is serialised today in the Sunday Times. The newspaper today leads on the remarkable disclosure that David Cameron blames Theresa May for the paucity of the deal he negotiated in those 30 sleepless hours with Brussels. Here’s the extract:-
Before the speech, conscious that immigration was likely to be an explosive issue in the referendum campaign, Cameron had floated with Merkel the idea of an annual cap on the number of national insurance numbers handed to EU migrants or an emergency brake on numbers. But the German leader said she would not agree to changes to free movement for EU citizens.
However, with one day to go before the speech, Cameron vowed to demand concrete controls on EU migrant numbers anyway, in the hope fellow EU leaders would give way rather than let Britain leave.
He invited May and Hammond to No 10 and asked for their views. One of Cameron’s aides said: “Hammond spoke first and argued we just couldn’t announce something that would receive an immediate raspberry in Europe. Theresa said very, very little, and simply said that we just couldn’t go against Merkel.”
A witness said: “The PM was visibly deflated as they left.” Cameron turned to one of his officials and said: “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 . . .”
Cameron did not think it was tenable to promote an idea on immigration without the support of his home secretary. One of Cameron’s closest aides said: “Who were the two people who told him not to do that because it’s undeliverable? Your new prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer.”
Another member of Cameron’s team said: “Who knows: if we’d gone with our gut, the boss could still be in No 10 today.”
Those of us regard David Cameron as a good Prime Minister with an impressive legacy have to learn to airbrush the Brexit campaign out of our memories. He handled it very badly, fatefully asked his bungling friend Andrew Cooper to re-run the Project Fear campaign that almost lost Scotland, built up expectations about a renegotiation that were spectacularly unfulfilled. And decided to campaign on the economy when even George Osborne was admitting a few months earlier that there was no economic case to be made.
But it was his campaign, and his decisions. What was to stop him going with his gut? Theresa May has just pushed through grammar schools against the wishes of her Education Secretary, never mind the rest of her Cabinet. Is Cameron seriously saying that Philip Hammond and Theresa May stopped him securing the emergency break that Merkel had anyway said she'd veto? As PM, he could ask for whatever he wanted - he had to get this past 27 other veto-wielding EU nation states. A sceptical Home Secretary was the least of his worries.
And anyway, from Tim Shipman’s account, it seems that they were not really being lily-livered. Just pointing out that if Cameron had said “We want a cap on immigrants” and Merkel vetoed it, then he’d look like a fool. He'd end up strengthening the case for Brexit.
No10 has issued a non-denial denial today. Shipman’s source has responded to that denial.
The aide who witnessed the exchanges said last night: “It’s true she obviously wanted as good an immigration deal as she could get. It’s true that she wrote a letter. But when the crunch moment came — do we take a risk, do we go for something that is going to be tougher and that Merkel is not going to back and that will be tougher to negotiate post the election? — her instinct was that if the Germans don’t support it, we can’t do it. That was her view and she said it in the meeting.”
There is a consensus that, had Cameron walked out of the EU talks with a cap on immigration, he’d have a deal worth the name and might have won the referendum. You can argue that Merkel is most to blame: if she hadn’t vetod the emergency break, then Cameron’s deal might have amounted to a row of beans. But fundamentally, Cameron was at fault with the expectations he raised. As Shipman reminds us:-
At the Conservative Party conference in October 2014 Cameron vowed to get to grips with immigration. Looking directly into the television camera, he pledged: “Britain, I know you want this sorted, so I will go to Brussels, I will not take no for an answer and — when it comes to free movement — I will get what Britain needs.”
Except he did take no for an answer, then pretended that he hadn't. As Matthew Parris recently pointed in The Spectator, Cameron’s cardinal error was to hold a referendum without being willing to be guided by the result. He repeatedly said that if it was a “no” then he’d discharge his duty as Prime Minister and lead Britain out - although his behaviour in the campaign made this impractical. He also said that he would not sign a deal with Brussels if it was awful. Had he kept his word on either of these points, then he would not unemployed now. And that’s on him - not Theresa May.