His Fucking Referendum

David Runciman

  • For the Record by David Cameron
    William Collins, 732 pp, £25.00, September, ISBN 978 0 00 823928 2

Are you a team player or are you a wanker? In a world that divides between the people who divide it in two and those who don’t, Cameron is squarely in the former camp. During the summer of 2014 he was putting the finishing touches to a government reshuffle that would see him shunt his old friend Michael Gove from the Department of Education to a new role as chief whip. In effect he was clearing the decks for the following year’s election and he needed one of his most contentious and least popular ministers to be less visible. Still, he discussed it with Gove beforehand – selling it as an opportunity to put ‘all that passion and antagonism’ to better use – and he thought he had his friend’s agreement. Then, out of the blue, ‘Michael emailed to say he had changed his mind.’ Cameron responded with raw fury. ‘I smelt Dominic Cummings,’ he says, ‘and totally flipped.’ He called Gove to say that he refused to accept his email and was holding him to his previous agreement to take the job. He followed this up with a text: ‘You must realise I divide the world into team players and wankers. You’ve always been a team player. Please don’t become a wanker.’ Cameron doesn’t tell us how Gove responded, but he was in post as chief whip the following day. However, Cameron wasn’t enough of a team player himself to appreciate that along with a £36,000 pay cut Gove was also being asked to accept a reduction in status, since the chief whip isn’t a full member of cabinet, though he attends meetings. Gove was deeply resentful. His wife, the Daily Mail journalist Sarah Vine, was livid. ‘I had created a strong team,’ Cameron writes, ‘but tensions and unhappiness were on the rise and the long-term consequences would be very serious indeed.’

The bubbling resentments in Cameron’s relationship with Gove, whom he liked but never quite trusted, are a recurrent theme in this book. Gove, Cameron can’t resist pointing out, was the only one of his close allies who strongly advised him against running for the Tory leadership in 2005. He also recounts a testy cabinet meeting at which Gove and William Hague clashed about the government’s response to the Arab Spring – Gove wanting to take the side of freedom, Hague preferring caution. What struck Cameron wasn’t the argument but the fact that it made it into the next day’s papers, ‘something that often seemed to happen when Michael was involved’. Cameron complains repeatedly about Gove’s tendency to go off-piste and off-message, whether by sermonising in cabinet or by writing tendentious newspaper articles that went well beyond his brief. He offended Cameron in March 2014 when in an interview with the Financial Times he called the number of Old Etonians at Number 10 ‘preposterous’, following Jo Johnson’s promotion to head of the Policy Unit. Always in the background lurked Gove’s friend and adviser Cummings, whom Cameron suspected of whispering poison into his master’s ear. Things finally came to a head in 2016, when Gove went to see Cameron and George Osborne in Cameron’s Downing Street flat and told them that he was considering siding with the Brexiteers in the forthcoming referendum. He had yet to make up his mind finally but, as he explained, ‘If I do decide to opt for Brexit, I’ll make one speech. That will be it. I’ll play no further part in the campaign.’ Cameron

found it hard to believe what was happening. Michael was a close confidant. Part of my inner team. Someone I often turned to for advice. Why hadn’t he told me before that this might happen? Of course I understood his strong Euroscepticism, but if he was undecided – and it sounded like a 50-50 call for him – wouldn’t his loyalty be the thing that brought him down on one side or the other? Not personal loyalty to me, but loyalty to the team, to the project and to the future of our party and our country. But if he was really going to do this, back Brexit, then I believed him – really believed him – when he said he’d take a back seat.

This, of course, is the ultimate betrayal. Gove did not take a back seat. He made many speeches, not just one. Where he led, Boris Johnson followed. The rest is history. So much for being part of the team.

Cameron experienced a similar sense of bemusement and betrayal in his dealings with another person who was instrumental in persuading the British electorate to vote for Brexit. Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, ran a ferociously pro-Leave campaign despite his newspaper’s never previously having argued for quitting the EU. Cameron invited him to the Downing Street flat to explain himself. Dacre said that the Mail had always been a pretty Eurosceptic paper, to which Cameron responded that he had always been a pretty Eurosceptic prime minister – but that didn’t mean he had to argue to leave. Anyway, Cameron wanted to know, if Dacre was such a devoted Brexiteer, why had he backed Ken Clarke to be leader of the Conservative Party? But Cameron knew that expecting consistency from the Mail is like expecting loyalty from Boris Johnson. So he turned his attention to Dacre’s boss, the Mail’s owner Lord Rothermere, who also got invited round for a drink. Could he not see that however frustrating it was to be in the EU, it would be worse to be out? Rothermere’s response was: ‘No, my view is much stronger than that.’ But instead of the expected diatribe against Brussels, he told Cameron: ‘I think it will be a disaster if we leave. I may even have to relocate some of my businesses to be inside the EU.’ Cameron has some regrets about what happened next:

It has been reported that I went on to ask him to sack Paul Dacre. Frankly, I wish I had – and I wish it had happened. I suspect he does too: two years after the referendum he replaced Dacre with the pro-Remain Geordie Greig. The closest I got was saying: ‘Well if that’s your view, why on earth have you got someone editing the Daily Mail who is determined to drive us out of the EU?’ There was a lot of harrumphing about not instructing editors, and we left it at that. The Mail had made its choice.

Wankers.

It’s probably true that Cameron had little leverage left over tabloid editors and their proprietors, especially in the aftermath of the Leveson Inquiry, which had poisoned relations between the press and politicians. But Gove is another story. Someone close to that 2016 meeting between Gove, Cameron and Osborne once told me that it was the moment when the Remain campaign was lost – or at least when the chance of an easy victory was squandered. On this account, Gove had gone along in the clear expectation that Cameron would strike a hard bargain: that if Gove insisted on campaigning for Brexit, his boss would insist in return that he resign from the government. The price of being allowed to remain in his job would be to make his one speech and leave it at that. He could vote for Brexit if he wanted but he couldn’t lead the charge for it. If he broke those rules, he would be fired. In other words, Gove was expecting Cameron to be the one who made him take a back seat. What’s more, this was a bargain he was prepared to accept – he would agree to keep quiet if the price of speaking out was to be kicked out of Cameron’s team. Gove also knew that if he didn’t speak out loudly in favour of Brexit then Johnson would be reluctant to put his own head above the parapet. So leadership of the campaign would fall by default to Farage, who had no such scruples, and almost no chance of winning it on his own. All of this is what Gove expected to happen and it is what he had reconciled himself to. Instead, once Cameron discovered that Gove was thinking of abandoning him, he simply showed disdain. In the version I was given, Cameron was portrayed as just too posh to sully himself with threats and blandishments towards a man he considered his social inferior. This is surely a caricature. But another way to put it is that he was trapped by his binary view of political character. Once Gove stopped being a team player, he revealed himself as a wanker. Cameron seemingly had no room for people who might be neither. Or who, perhaps, might find a way to be both.

Cameron could argue – though he doesn’t in this book – that by letting members of his cabinet campaign against the government’s position while keeping their jobs he was following the precedent set by Harold Wilson in the 1975 referendum, when the same thing happened. But precedent doesn’t count for much with referendums, since there are very few fixed requirements. Each one is its own distinctive struggle and the rules often get made up on the way. The other side – including Cummings – understood this. Part of Cameron’s problem is that he was excessively influenced by his experience of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, when he put his premiership on the line for another knife-edge, in/out, winner-take-all vote, and won. But the Brexit referendum was different and in refusing to acknowledge the differences he ended up losing everything. As far as I can see, two things went wrong. In one crucial respect, Cameron failed to follow the formula that served him so well in Scotland. Separately, he failed to appreciate that an in/out vote, which suited his purposes in Scotland, was a big mistake for the question of EU membership. This mistake didn’t just cost Cameron his political career. It cost the country its political sanity.

The sin of omission was his refusal to do with Brexit what he did in the final week of the Scottish referendum, when the real fear he might lose persuaded him to make concessions to the arguments of the other side. Recent publicity around his memoir has focused on his extraordinary request that the queen ‘raise an eyebrow’ to indicate her displeasure at the thought that the Union might dissolve. This plea came immediately after the appearance of the first poll to put the independence campaign in the lead, which Cameron says hit ‘him like a blow to the solar plexus’. If nothing else, getting the monarch involved shows that Cameron was perfectly prepared to make up his own rules when it suited him. We have no way of knowing whether the queen’s intervention – gently asking people, on her way to church, to ‘think very carefully about the future’ – made any difference. What does seem really to have helped was the pledge delivered by the three main Westminster party leaders – Cameron, Miliband and Clegg – to devolve more powers to Holyrood in the event of a ‘No’ vote and to wrap this up in a generous offer of future funding.

Until that point, the focus of the ‘No’ campaign had been on the risks of independence. The message was: don’t chance it! But in the last week of the campaign the emphasis shifted to what might be motivating people’s desire to leave and finding ways to address it. Project Fear became Project We Hear You. That never happened with Brexit. It was discussed. The problem was that it would mean making a last-ditch pledge on immigration and Cameron didn’t want to go down that road. Nor did his chief campaign strategist, Lynton Crosby, who kept coming back to the importance of message discipline on the economy. ‘All Leave has is immigration,’ Crosby told Cameron. ‘We shouldn’t concede that it is the only battle to be fought.’ Crosby wasn’t involved in the Scottish referendum. If he had been, he might have accepted that when the other side are winning with what they have, making concessions may be the only option left.

There was no single shock poll before Brexit that panicked the main party leaders into action. Instead, the late blow to the solar plexus came in the form of an extreme act of political violence: the assassination of the Labour MP Jo Cox, killed a week before polling day by a man who shouted ‘Britain first’ as he carried out the attack. The effect of this terrible event was the opposite of galvanising. It froze the campaign in place, with politicians unable or unwilling to change tack in its aftermath. Those on the Remain side appeared to conclude there was nothing to be gained by pandering to the views of their opponents. Better just to keep insisting they knew better. When the campaign resumed, Cameron writes:

We were still waking up each morning to the views of the latest expert or industry on the merits of Remain. I thought it was one of our great advantages that nearly every voice that mattered backed our case. The voice of major industries: cars, planes, trains, food, pharmaceuticals, farming, fashion, film. The voice of business: the CBI. The voice of many workers: the TUC. Our allies around the world: America, India, Japan, Australia, Canada. The multilateral bodies of the world: the IMF, the WTO, the OECD. Thirteen Nobel Prize winners. The head of the NHS. The former heads of MI5 and MI6. The head of the Church of England. Nine out of ten economists. Stephen Hawking, Tim Berners-Lee and Richard Branson – truly great Britons who so many people admire and respect. ‘Maybe it’s a conspiracy,’ I would say. ‘Or maybe all these people are right.’

This is disingenuous. First, the case being made was rarely about the merits of Remain; it was more often about the folly of Leave. Second, if one Nobel Prize winner won’t swing it, then 12 more won’t make much difference: either people are listening or they are not. Finally, calling this a list of ‘nearly every voice that mattered’ shows what’s wrong with it. It doesn’t read like a litany of diverse perspectives. Rather it’s a set of people united by their sense of what they have to lose. These voices, even if they come from around the globe, still share a worldview, underpinned by higher education, metropolitan values and overlapping connections. (The exception is the TUC, but the union movement was and remains more divided on Brexit than Cameron allows here.) Maybe it’s not a conspiracy. But it still looks like a cosy club; or perhaps, as Cameron would say, a team.

*

Critics of this book have pointed out that Cameron himself has barely a good word to say for the EU throughout, yet at the end he expects people to vote to stay in it. In his own mind, as he explained to Dacre, these positions are compatible: deep Euroscepticism was consistent with acknowledging that life would be worse on the outside. Yet this gets to the heart of what was wrong with Cameron’s approach. He was in the business of trying to get a different deal for Britain in Europe: to stay in, yes, but also to become more detached, able to exercise vetoes and opt-outs as part of a looser, less federalist, more multi-track organisation. He repeats throughout that he was serious about renegotiating a new arrangement before putting the question of continued membership to the people in a referendum. He regrets that he didn’t get a better deal in his battles with Merkel and Juncker but insists it wasn’t for want of trying. But the sequencing here is back to front. Renegotiation then referendum was Cameron’s mantra. That was never going to work. The referendum had to come before the renegotiation if he was going to have a stick to beat the Europeans with. That meant the referendum couldn’t be an in/out one. It had to be on something the EU was demanding of Britain: a new treaty, perhaps, or some wider vision of the future relationship. Then, if the British people said no to what was on offer, which they probably would, Cameron would have been in a position to strike a really hard bargain. In this respect, a vote on the UK’s membership of the EU was nothing like the case of Scottish independence. There, Cameron was all for the status quo. He took a gamble that he could defend the status quo in a straight shoot-out with the radical alternative. It also meant he was willing to concede bits of the status quo in a last-ditch effort to save it. With the EU, Cameron hated the status quo and wanted to change it. In those circumstance, an in/out referendum was the last thing he should have risked.

This becomes clear as Cameron recounts the long history of demands for a referendum on Europe, well before he finally granted one. He is rightly resentful of the claim that he called the Brexit vote simply to resolve an internal Tory Party dispute. As he says, if that were true, then why had all the main political parties – including Labour and the Lib Dems – gone into general elections over the previous decade promising an EU referendum? Plus, he adds, if he were simply pandering to Eurosceptic opinion in his own party, he had no need to call an in/out vote. ‘If it was only about managing the party, I could have come up with a formulation for a different sort of referendum, rather than a full in/out version. A nationwide plebiscite asking for a fundamental change in Britain’s relationship with Europe – a so-called “mandate referendum” – was popular at the time with some of the party’s leading Eurosceptics.’ But that line of defence prompts the obvious question: why then did he plump for the straight in/out choice? Just because he’d rejected devo max in the Scottish case was not a reason to reject it here. After all, in this case it was precisely what he wanted.

Even Bill Cash, the most die-hard Eurosceptic of them all, had in 2011 advocated a three-way choice in any referendum: between stay, leave and ‘renegotiate’. Cameron says of his thinking in 2012, when he first started to contemplate an EU referendum, that ‘when the inevitable new treaty came [it] meant we’d have to hold a referendum – and the pressure for an in/out one would be huge.’ But would it? The three main parties had all gone into the 2005 general election promising not an in/out vote but a referendum on the Constitutional Treaty. The fact that Blair and then Brown never delivered on this promise as the Constitutional Treaty turned into the Lisbon Treaty did not invalidate it. Yes, there was mounting pressure to hold a referendum and yes, previous pledges to hold one had not been honoured. But none of that made it necessary for Cameron go the whole hog with in/out. Clear-sighted Tory Eurosceptics understood this. One said as much in a Sunday Telegraph article in June 2012. ‘The fact is the British people are not happy with what they have, and frankly neither am I. That’s why … the problem with an in/out referendum is that it offers a single choice, whereas what I want – and what I believe the vast majority of the British people want – is to make changes to our relationship.’ The author? David Cameron.

Of course, some people have always vociferously advocated a straight choice between stay or leave. These include Farage and Ukip, but they also included the Lib Dems. Among the many puzzling features of recent politics is that the new Lib Dem leader, Jo Swinson, has been a ferocious critic of Cameron’s decision to call the referendum, even though she, like Clegg and the rest of her party, argued for an in/out vote on Europe in 2009. How to explain it? Well, what’s the one thing Ukippers and Lib Dems have in common? Neither of them is in the business of renegotiating Britain’s relationship with the EU. In the one case that’s because they don’t want a relationship; in the other, it’s because they’re happy with the relationship we have and want to recommit to it. In/out is the preferred option of the non-negotiators. Moreover, they are right to prefer it, since it represents a terrible basis for any negotiation. If we choose to stay we have nothing to negotiate with. And if we choose to leave we have nothing to negotiate with. Cameron’s initial miscalculation may have been to assume, as he did back in 2012, that another new treaty was inevitable and that he could have his referendum on it. But when no new treaty was forthcoming, he compounded his error by insisting on a referendum anyway, though there was nothing left but membership or non-membership to vote on. As a result, he got himself in entirely the wrong camp for his purposes. He ended up siding with the position of the Europhobes in Ukip and the most Europhile of Lib Dems, instead of with the pragmatists, who on this issue included Blair, one of his political heroes.

It could be argued that the history of countries holding referendums on EU treaties before going back to Brussels to demand significant changes has not been a happy one. Ireland voted to reject the Lisbon Treaty in 2008; a year later, the Irish people were asked to reconsider in another referendum and, even though the changes to the treaty had been no more than cosmetic, did what was asked of them second time around. Here is another example of why it is wise to move from Project Fear to Project We Hear You in order to get the result you want. But there is reason to think any British ‘no’ vote on treaty ratification would have been different: because of British clout, because of British Euroscepticism and because in the British case it would come with the threat that if the EU did not make major concessions the UK might actually leave. At least in that case the threat to leave would come at the end of the process, not somewhere near the beginning. A referendum on a treaty rather than on membership also makes much more sense in constitutional terms, since it would be clear to everyone that after a ‘no’ vote it was up to the government to decide what happens next. There would be no spurious talk about the will of the people because the people would have issued no instructions beyond a demand that the politicians think again. In the end there was no new treaty to vote on. But if Britain were ever to have a chance of leaving the EU in an orderly manner, this is the sequence that would have to be followed: referendum, then attempted renegotiation, then an eventual decision to trigger Article 50 (and perhaps another referendum on the final deal somewhere down the line). The sequence Cameron bequeathed us – attempted renegotiation, then referendum, then a rapid decision to trigger Article 50 – doesn’t cut it. It causes people to believe that the referendum has achieved much more than it has, while at the same time leaving the politicians with too little to work with.

*

One of the few people who tried to warn Cameron off the referendum was his most trusted ally, George Osborne. It is one of the many ironies of this story that Cameron ended up doing something that Clegg had wanted for reasons that went entirely against Cameron’s own interests, while ignoring the advice of his closest confidant, whom Cameron describes as ‘more politically astute than anyone I have ever met’. Osborne told Cameron that the problem with the referendum – or ‘your fucking referendum’, as he by this point describes it – was that the government had no basis on which to secure the necessary concessions beforehand, with the result that the timing was all wrong. Osborne was right about other things too, often enough to bear out something of Cameron’s description of him. He helped save Cameron’s skin in 2007, just after Gordon Brown had taken over as PM and was contemplating a snap general election that might have ended Cameron’s career. The shadow chancellor came to the rescue by devising a series of countermeasures that stopped Brown in his tracks, including an announcement on raising the inheritance tax threshold that brought the aged delegates at the Tory Party Conference to their feet. This had the double advantage of spooking Brown while providing Cameron with a commitment to which he didn’t have to feel fully committed and could readily bargain away in his negotiations with the Lib Dems during the formation of the coalition, which is what he did. Similarly, it was Osborne who calculated that making the Conservatives the party of austerity going into the 2010 election would blunt Brown’s usual line of attack that the Tories had a secret agenda of welfare cuts. If it wasn’t a secret, what was there to attack?

Osborne held his nerve in 2012, when the government’s economic programme looked to be seriously off track and his own political reputation was at a low ebb following the ‘omnishambles’ budget that spring. He gambled that by 2015 job creation and an uptick in economic growth would override memories of the government’s incompetence and compensate for the effects of austerity among those parts of the electorate the Conservatives needed to reach. As a governing strategy it was socially divisive and politically risky; it was also highly effective. Osborne’s strategic nous stands in stark contrast to the almost comical ineptitude shown by Clegg, Cameron’s deputy PM, who emerges from this book as one of the least politically astute people you will ever meet. Osborne frequently ran rings round him. Worse, he occasionally tried to save him from himself, though Clegg was either too puffed up or too preoccupied to take the advice he was given. Osborne knew full well that junior partners in governing coalitions can face electoral ruin unless they tread very carefully. He thought Clegg should know it too, but Clegg seemed to prefer wishful thinking. The perfect vignette of the Dave-George-Nick relationship comes on the day Clegg tells them, to their considerable astonishment, that he is going to support the government on tuition fees, despite having made a personal and manifesto commitment to do no such thing:

George did something surprising. ‘Don’t do it,’ he told Nick. ‘It would be a huge political mistake for you.’

George’s concern for Nick was genuine. And he worried about the health of the coalition if one partner damaged itself like this.

I saw it differently. ‘George makes a good point, but I want us to do things together,’ I said. ‘And this is the right thing to do.’

Nick was adamant: ‘Our old policy was wrong; this is a good policy.’

It was one of the bravest steps I have ever seen a politician take.

There you have it: Nick was brave but wrong; George was calculating but correct; Dave could see that George was probably right; but more important for Dave, Nick was being a good team player, even if that meant he was destroying himself and ultimately the team.

Once it became clear in the run-up to the 2015 election that the Lib Dems were in deep trouble, Cameron was as content as Osborne to try to put them out of business. He could comfort himself with the thought that it was Clegg’s wider miscalculations that had left him staring at the abyss. Those had started with the referendum on the Alternative Vote, which Clegg had negotiated as a halfway-house option during the formation of the coalition government. His first mistake was to have totally misjudged the extent of cross-party support for the change. Clegg thought something short of full-blown PR would be easier for the others to get behind. It turned out simply to be easier for them to ignore. When the vote came in 2011 cross-party support was non-existent: the Tories didn’t want it, and were willing to use Clegg’s agonies over tuition fees to discredit it, and Labour saw no reason to help. Clegg’s halfway house proved to be a ruin. Then, increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress on constitutional reform, he decided to block the Tory plan to redraw constituency boundaries, which had been intended to correct what was seen as an anti-Tory bias. This act of sabotage should have made it more difficult for the Tories to win a majority at the next election. But instead it persuaded the Tories that they had nothing to lose by targeting every Lib Dem seat they could. Finally, with his options running out, Clegg chose to pin his hopes on helping his MPs defend their seats using the advantage of incumbency. He believed that even if his party’s national vote share fell dramatically, he could hold onto enough locally popular sitting MPs to form another coalition. He went into the 2015 election with 57 MPs. He came out with eight. To general astonishment – perhaps even Osborne’s – the Tories had their overall majority, thanks to the work of their hapless coalition partners.

Even if much of this was ultimately Osborne’s strategy, it needed Cameron to sell it. Both men understood he was by far the better frontman. He seems genuinely to have believed in the coalition for as long as it lasted: he liked the idea of holding together a disparate team. It is telling that he begins his memoir with the story of how the coalition was formed over five days in May 2010 and still takes pride in it as his greatest achievement. He was also better than Osborne would have been at concealing the political calculation that ultimately led to its demise. Cameron was able both to cherish and to put the boot into the coalition at the same time. He was a many-faced politician, leading a many-faced party at the head of a many-faced government, which meant he was particularly well suited to keeping the show on the road. He knows this about himself. He says he was never the stand-out among his Conservative contemporaries at any particular aspect of the political arts: not as astute as Osborne; not as far-sighted about the need for change as Michael Portillo; not as oratorically gifted as Hague. But he was enough of all these things to be the one true leader among them. It is also striking that for someone who is so keen to divide the world in two, he recognised that his style of political leadership was anything but binary. He calls himself, with only a hint of vanity, a ‘political decathlete, switching from one discipline to the next and trying to give every single one of them [my] best’.

Much of what he relished about being prime minister – and he clearly did relish it – was the range of tasks it demanded, from mundane party management to high political gossip, from the grandest foreign trips to the most routine constituency visits, from interpreting economic forecasts to summarising legal briefs, from dealing with terrorists to dealing with his colleagues. The reason this book is so long, and ultimately so wearying to read, is that he is determined to recount it all and to remind us of everything that made up his premiership: the Leveson Inquiry, the Savile Inquiry, Syria, Libya, riots, ‘plebgate’, the Olympics, China, Russia, Afghanistan (on which, he somewhat surprisingly says, ‘I spent more time – visiting, reading, discussing, deliberating and, yes, worrying – than on any other issue’), aircraft carriers, university funding, ‘free’ schools, corporation tax, the ‘bedroom’ tax, the Bank of England, the ‘special relationship’, Stormont, Holyrood, Balmoral, and on and on. We get it: it wasn’t all Brexit. The political decathlete wants us to know it’s not just about what happens in the last race.

He had other strengths too. He seems to have been good at taking criticism, especially from his wife, Samantha, who emerges as the unsung hero of this tale. It was she who told him he was ‘hopeless’ following the first prime ministerial debate in 2010 and made him watch the whole thing again so he could improve next time – both of which he did. He didn’t always listen to her: in 2003 she told him that he was absolutely wrong to back the Iraq war and that he would regret not sticking to his initial scepticism. She didn’t enjoy her husband being PM nearly as much as he did. He describes a trip to Washington for an official visit with the Obamas: Cameron’s ‘idea of heaven’ was ‘her version of hell’. The only way she could get through it was with the help of vodka and painkillers. But she shared in the pleasure of his victories and fully felt the misery of his defeats. There are two photos here, one taken of the pair of them watching the results as they come in on the night of his greatest triumph, the 2015 election, the other doing the same on the night of his greatest disaster, the Brexit referendum. In the first she looks the more elated; in the second, the more despondent. Still, as Cameron says of their relationship, especially in the moving chapter describing the short life of their son Ivan, politics was not the main thing anyway.

Cameron also has plenty of blind spots. He prides himself on his far greater openness to appointing women to important positions than any of his predecessors, including his ultimate hero, Margaret Thatcher. He boasts that by the time he left office nearly half his special advisers were female. He resents the accusation that he was running a ‘chumocracy’, which is one reason Gove’s jibe about the Old Etonian coterie at Number 10 really stung. Yet in this book it is noticeable that, with the exception of his wife and Angela Merkel, almost all the important conversations he recounts are with men. Women are often present, but usually in the background, and sometimes they aren’t there at all. When he assembles his core team of parliamentary supporters for his 2005 bid to become Conservative leader, he is delighted by the fact that ‘they were just the sort of people I wanted: bright, sane, forward-looking.’ He proudly lists all 14 of them; they are all men. It was only when he met Ruth Davidson, many years later, that he encountered someone who genuinely seemed to broaden his vision of what diversity in Conservative leadership might look like.

But the person who is really missing from this book is his successor. He barely mentions her, even after he appointed her home secretary in 2010. He does spend quite a lot of time describing the changes he decided were needed to make the Tories electable again, after he first arrived in Parliament in 2001, and discovered the unreconstructed state they were in. He concluded that the party needed to soften its image, to have more women MPs, and to be more open to innovation in state education. In 2002 Theresa May, who was elected to Parliament four years before Cameron, had called the Tories ‘the nasty party’ and told them they needed to change. Three years later she co-founded Women2Win, which successfully campaigned to elect more Conservative women. She helped develop the concept of free schools that Cameron and Gove so enthusiastically adopted. But from this book you wouldn’t know she was there at all. No wonder she ended up despising the pair of them.

In many ways the oddity is that Cameron managed to retain his non-binary view of politics when he had such a binary view of other people. And it’s not just his fellow politicians that he sorts into team players and the rest – it’s society as a whole. He talks repeatedly about British society being broken and of the need he felt to fix it. When riots broke out across England in the summer of 2011 he says it confirmed him in his view that this is a ‘broken society’, something he claims his Lib Dem partners in coalition were too ‘squeamish’ to admit. This is absurd: if politics can be multifaceted then so too can everything else. Society does not have to be either broken or fixed: it can be both and it can be neither. At the end of this book, Cameron says of his time in government: ‘We proved in an increasingly polarised age that politics wasn’t either/or – you could be pro-defence and pro-aid; pro-family and pro-equality; pro-public services and pro-fiscal prudence too. We demonstrated that you could take the difficult decisions and win elections – and that a government could achieve a lot in just six years.’ So why on earth did he turn British politics into just another either/or question? It was a crazy thing to do, and it has left politics looking broken.