David Cameron saved the Conservative Party. His hug-a-husky brand of modern conservatism dragging the Tories from the mid-2000s doldrums to an unlikely election win in 2015. But his political obituary will gloss over most of that thanks to one word: Brexit.
Many think the current chaotic situation in Westminster can be traced back to the decision made by the 52-year-old. After all, it was his plan to unify the Conservative Party, which ended up so sharply dividing a country.
The UK’s relationship with Europe has split the Conservative Party for decades. Just ask another former Prime Minister, Sir John Major, who famously branded so-called eurosceptics in his own cabinet as “bastards” in 1993. Twenty years later, Cameron, by then leading a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, believed he could lance the boil.
At what has been dubbed the “Bloomberg speech”, he promised an in-out referendum on the UK’s relationship with the EU if the party was re-elected in 2015. As well as tending to the party’s internal wounds, the position had the advantage of neutralising the threat of Nigel Farage and his UK Independence Party, which was eating into the Tory vote.
It was a risk. While polling historically favoured remain, it was not emphatic. But this was was privately-educated, privileged David Cameron. A man confident enough to adopt the “full bladder” approach to speech-making, thinking that refraining from using the bathroom helped him focus. This is a man not known to be burdened by self-doubt. In 2014, a similar gambit, offering a vote on Scotland’s independence, paid off. What could go wrong?
Fast-forward to June 23, 2016 and the UK voted by 51.9% to 48.1% to leave the 28-nation bloc. Despite promising to stay on as PM even in defeat, Cameron swiftly resigned as an MP – a move that would later be described as “scuttling off”, as his status as something of national joke was cemented. On the day of his departure, Cameron was even heard singing to himself as he re-entered Number 10 after addressing the nation. At the time, Britain faced huge uncertainty – and the pound falling off a cliff.
Cameron has remained virtually absent from the debate over Brexit that has occurred in his wake, making rare public appearances to campaign for “fragile states” and dashing off the occasional tweet. And yet, his presence has loomed large, and is seldom flattering.
His first post-Brexit brush with the headlines came when it was revealed he had bought a £25,000 garden shed to write his memoirs in. The shed has taken on a greater significance beyond being a “man cave”, speaking to both Cameron’s apparent desire to stay out of the public eye and acting as a short-hand for where his critics think he should stay.
In December, Cameron tweeted his support for May as she faced a vote of no confidence triggered by her own Members of Parliament and their unhappiness with her Brexit negotiations. “I hope Conservative MPs will back the PM in the vote today,” he wrote, inadvertently giving a free hit to British Twitter. “Back in the shed, Dave,” wrote Owen Smith, an MP from the opposition Labour Party. It was one of more than 2,500 replies in less than an hour. Even May, who is not known for her comic chops, joined in. She joked that Cameron could not attend a gala dinner with Westminster journalists because he was “snowed into his wheely shed”.
But that’s tame material by comparison. The most infamous moment of the wilderness years came when a star of the UK’s most popular soap opera took him down. Appearing on a late-night chat show, soap star Danny Dyer tore into Cameron over his part in Brexit, while the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and ex-Baywatch star Pamela Anderson watched on.
Describing a Brexit as a “mad riddle”, Dyer singled out Cameron “who brought it on”, adding: “Let’s be fair. How come he can scuttle off? He called all this on.
“Where is he? He’s in Europe, in Nice with his trotters up. Where is the geezer? I think he should be held accountable for it.”
For those struggling to follow, British people are just as unsure what “trotters up” means.
An old Cameron tweet also still resonates today, and not in a way that someone who pioneered the use of the internet in British politics (see ‘WebCameron’) would have hoped. In recent weeks, giant posters featuring quotes from prominent pro-Brexit politicians have been pasted onto billboards around the port town of Dover, that serves as the UK’s most important crossing to Europe.
A pro-EU group calling itself Led By Donkeys has claimed responsibility for the posters, and identified Cameron’s tweet before the 2015 election as its inspiration. The message asks voters to choose between “stability and strong Government with me or chaos with (Labour Party leader) Ed Miliband”.
A Led By Donkeys spokesperson said: “The idea – like most half-decent ideas – came in a chat down the pub. We were talking about whether Cameron would one day delete his ‘chaos with Ed Miliband’ tweet, and someone said: ‘Let’s turn it into a Tweet You Can’t Delete.’ It went from there.”
In November, Cameron was rumoured to be eyeing a return to frontline British politics. Westminster didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “God. No,” was Labour frontbencher Andrew Gwynne’s response. “Didn’t he do enough damage first time round?? Please spare us all.” His Labour colleague, Emily Thornberry, simply posted a facepalm emoji.
So what does the man himself now think of his seismic decision to call a referendum all those years ago? Formal media interviews have elicited little. Journalists have been more successful when chasing the former premier down the street or shoving a microphone through a car window.
Filmed in his running gear the morning after MPs monumentally rejected May’s Brexit deal, Cameron said he did not regret calling the referendum – though he is uneasy about the outcome.
“I do not regret calling the referendum,” he told the BBC. “It was a promise I made two years before the 2015 general election, it was included in a manifesto, it was legislated for in parliament.
“I was leading the campaign to stay in the European Union and obviously I regret the difficulties and problems we have been having in trying to implement the result of that referendum.”
There was no confirmation on whether he returned to the shed.