‘We will introduce a United Kingdom Sovereignty Bill to make it clear that ultimate authority stays in this country, in our Parliament,’ the Conservative Party’s 2010 manifesto said. It was a promise they never kept. Six years later it’s a promise that’s completely obsolete, thanks to the EU referendum, although just now even that ‘ultimate authority’ is in some doubt, as the Supreme Court deliberates on Miller v. The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. ‘Our approach to foreign affairs is based on a belief in freedom, human rights and democracy,’ the 2010 manifesto also said. ‘We are sceptical about grand utopian schemes to remake the world. We will work patiently with the grain of other societies, but we will always support liberal values.’
How different everything was in the summer of 2010. A month after he became prime minister, David Cameron hosted the celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of Charles de Gaulle’s radio appeal to Occupied France on 18 June 1940. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, had travelled to London; wreaths were laid at the statue of the general on Carlton House Terrace, next to the headquarters of the Free French during the Second World War. Sarkozy and Cameron gave speeches at the Royal Chelsea Hospital, a 17th-century retirement home for old soldiers from Britain’s wars (many of them fought against France). The building was inspired by Louis XIV’s Invalides in Paris. A contingent of French cavalry trotted around a parade ground at the hospital before the two leaders arrived.
What better way for Cameron and Sarkozy to launch an Anglo-French military alliance than by invoking de Gaulle, the right side of history and all its spangles: ‘Seventy years ago, when darkness was creeping across our continent,’ the prime minister began, before telling everyone about his great-uncle, the diplomat Duff Cooper. A few months later, Cameron and Sarkozy signed the Lancaster House treaties, one of whose provisions was for a Combined Joint Expeditionary Force. Despite Brexit, the terms of the treaties ensure that the Anglo-French military alliance will continue until at least 2020.
In no time at all, the new alliance was forming its response to the uprisings on the eastern and southern coasts of the Mediterranean. In September 2011, Cameron and Sarkozy went to Benghazi and Tripoli and wanted everyone to believe it was their victory. It was if they’d taken the 18 June show on the road. ‘Impunity is over,’ Sarkozy declared, though it was the US, not Britain or France, that had destroyed most of Gaddafi’s capability to fight back. Barack Obama said earlier this year that the worst mistake of his presidency was failing to prepare the aftermath of Gaddafi’s fall; one element of that mistake was placing too much faith in Cameron and Sarkozy – ‘the Europeans’, as he called them. Obama told the Atlantic that Cameron had been ‘distracted by a range other things’ (Malcolm Rifkind called Obama’s criticism ‘a bit rich’).
In 2012, Cameron was awarded the Order of Abdulaziz al Saud (an honour he shares with Obama, George W. Bush and Silvio Berlusconi). In 2013 he lost a vote in the Commons to join military action against Bashar Assad; two years later he won a vote for airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria. Shortly before that, he welcomed Egypt’s President Sisi to Downing Street. So much for the commitment to ‘liberal values’.
‘History teaches us that no government can predict the future,’ Cameron wrote in his introduction to the 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review. ‘We have no way of knowing precisely what course events will take over the next five years: we must expect the unexpected.’ Cameron, trying to save himself, gave in to his political opponents and agreed to a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. He did so because he thought he would win, and he lost. One explanation for that loss was fears about immigration, but weren’t those fears stoked by what he did and didn’t do in Libya and Syria?
What a career. Cameron was elected to Parliament in 2001, became leader of the opposition in 2005, prime minister in 2010, won re-election in 2015, and then after 23 June gave up to go back to pheasant shooting in Gloucestershire – no post at Harvard’s Kennedy School for him. The rise to the top was swift, but what other British political leader has so swiftly vanished?