David Herdson: Cameron is finally looking like the heir to Blair
No matter the outcome on Thursday, the EU referendum will prove to be Cameron’s Iraq War
David Cameron probably doesn’t have much time for reflection at the moment, though he may soon have ample opportunity.
Were he to find a few spare moments, he might ponder on the coincidence of the Chilcot Inquiry reporting within a fortnight of the EU referendum: the two issues that destroyed the careers of the two most successful British politicians of the last quarter-century.
And the coincidences run much further than timing.
Both men launched their policies when they had unprecedented authority within their parties, after their second election win.
Both took on sizable parts of their own party in doing so, within parliament and in the country at large.
Both had support for their policy from a weak opposition leader and most opposition MPs, where that opposition was struggling to find its place in the firmament of the day.
Both believed that they were acting in the national interest and that the question was of such paramount importance that the cost of splitting their party was worth the prize (though both probably underestimated the scope and depth of the splits that occurred).
Both could have taken the other option and had they done so, they’d now be lauded to high heaven.
Blair, had he turned down Bush, would have been proven right by history and wouldn’t now be tainted both by the decision itself – the defining event of his premiership – and the means by which it was sold. Unless he’d subsequently squandered his political capital on something else, he’d now be ranked alongside Attlee in Labour’s pantheon.
As for Cameron, he could have led Leave. Had he walked away from the table against an inadequate deal on offer, he’d have a close-to-united party behind him and would be looking at a comfortable referendum win. Labour would be both split and demoralised and UKIP neutered. He would have a clear road ahead and might even be revisiting his pre-announced resignation and thinking of a third term. What would be preventing him?
Yet both men staked all on red against the instinct of their parties and it’s come up black. Why?
Before going there, we should tidy up a loose end on the EU referendum. It hasn’t yet been lost for Cameron but that’s almost beside the point now. Blair survived another four years after Iraq, even winning an election during that time, but was never the same again.
The same applies with Cameron. If the Conservative MPs let him survive – and Conservatives are much more ruthless in that respect than their Labour counterparts – it will be at a brutally heavy price.
Leave MPs have already given notice that Osborne cannot now remain at the Treasury and with the Conservative majority in the teens, government could easily become unmanageable. He might or he might not stay in office but either way he’ll have lost the power.
If there’s one reason above all others that accounts for both men inadvertently destroying their own careers (and doing a great deal of collateral damage besides), it comes back to circumstances. True, Cameron opted to go down his referendum path while events put the decision on the Iraq War before Blair, but it’s surely not coincidence that both took on so much of their own parties when they were at their strongest, their self-confidence at its highest and, consequently, those who might otherwise have restrained them couldn’t.
Hubris? Not necessarily. Leaders have to lead and ultimately, that’s a lonely job. They can have all the advice they want but the buck stops at No 10, as does the accountability, as do the plaudits and the brickbats. After delivering unprecedented or unexpected success, it’s hardly surprising that they should have backed their own judgement and ability to deliver. That’s what put them in a position to make those decisions.
But what marks both the EU Referendum and the Iraq War was that they were very much the personal priorities – missions, even – of the two men. Rather than being a collective government or party initiative, they volunteered to do the hard legwork themselves. Perhaps they simply invested too much in the process to let it fail. Combined with the inability of others to apply the brake given the respective PM’s unusually strong authority, that proved fatal to good judgement.
While Cameron doesn’t share Blair’s crusading language or zeal, proof is in actions rather than words – and in the actions that have led to his diminution and quite possibly downfall, he’s again proven himself to be the heir to Blair.
David Herdson is a political writer and regular contributor to the Political Betting website. He tweets at @davidherdson.
(Picture by: Stefan Rousseau / PA Archive/Press Association Images)