In the speech announcing his resignation, David Cameron included a list of the things he was proud to have done as prime minister. I suspect you glazed over at that point. So will future biographers of his premiership. He has just become one of those leaders who will be remembered for a single enormous mistake. Neville Chamberlain had achievements to his name before appeasement. There was more to Anthony Eden than the Suez debacle. Lord North had a career before he lost America. But each of those premiers is defined by their one towering disaster. So it will be with David Cameron, the prime minister who accidentally ruptured more than four decades of his country’s economic, security and foreign policy by losing the referendum on Europe. That will be the inscription etched deep on his tombstone. He staked his reputation and gambled his country’s place in the world on a referendum for which his party ached but the public hardly clamoured. He timed the vote and chose a moment that has proved to be a calamity for the cause to which he became a belated, and thus not very convincing, champion. He destroyed his premiership because he misjudged the politics and mishandled his enemies. The man who arrived as leader of his party pledging to purge its obsession with “banging on about Europe” has blown himself up over Europe. And potentially much else besides. With Nicola Sturgeon seizing on the perfect rationale for another attempt to gain independence for Scotland, he may also be remembered as the man who unravelled the United Kingdom, achieving the double whammy of expelling his country from one union and breaking an even older one.
He had no choice but to quit. The Tory party, now in the process of a takeover by the Brexiters, would never have trusted him with the divorce negotiations. And how could he have looked his European peer group in the eye? Having solemnly assured them that he would keep Britain in, they could not have taken him seriously in the great effort that will be needed to manage the aftermath. Watching him make his near tearful statement in Downing Street, you had to pinch yourself to remember that, just over a year ago, he had stood in the same spot celebrating an unexpected election victory, the best for any Tory leader in more than 20 years. He won last May by pitching himself as the guarantor of stability. Twelve months on, his legacy to his country is grave economic uncertainty and wild political febrility. He aspired to fashion One Nation. He leaves his country vividly split.
This referendum was an x-ray of the body politic of the nation and it revealed multiple fractures in this disunited kingdom. Two of its constituent parts voted one way, two the other. London and the majority of people in the big cities were on one side, rural and provincial England on the other. We are a country starkly divided between doing-well Britain and left-behind Britain, between the Britain that is essentially comfortable with globalisation and diversity and the Britain that feels its anxieties and anger about identity loss have not been listened to.
It was about class, but it was as much about generation. That is perhaps the most intense and alarming divide. Feel the anger of the young, overwhelmingly for In, as they are defeated by Out-voting pensioners. Oldsters who voted Out because they felt politics had let them down now have their mirror in young people who cast for In and feel their future has been stolen from them.