Brian Wilson: David Cameron gave Leave to malcontents

Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, seen at a press conference yesterday, 'have assassinated a decent man'. Picture: Getty
Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, seen at a press conference yesterday, 'have assassinated a decent man'. Picture: Getty
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THE outgoing Prime Minister could have avoided crisis and resignation with just a bit more backbone, writes Brian Wilson

Never was the maxim more apposite – in politics your opponents are in front of you and enemies behind. The perfidious Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have assassinated a decent man, without a care for the consequences.

At root, of course, it is largely David Cameron’s own fault. This was the referendum which should never have happened. He could have faced down the euro malcontents within his own ranks, even if it meant living with a permanent nuisance. Johnson and Gove would not have stirred.

Equally, Cameron should have allowed Ukip to run its polluted course to the margins – which it reached by the General Election, returning one MP. Instead, he created a mechanism with the unique capacity to convert nuisance into deadly threat while breathing life into the Farage corpse.

Cameron’s weakness was to be accommodating. Just as he needn’t have allowed the Scottish referendum to run for two weary years, so he should never have yielded at all to the demand for an EU plebiscite. Put it down to decency, naivete or bad advice. The outcome is the same and the price to be paid is extraordinary.

Even then, it was the disloyalty of those who emerged late from the shadows that did for him – the Brutus factor. Iain Duncan Smith and his longstanding associates would have been easy meat. It was Johnson and Gove, both firm believers in ends justifying cynical means, who changed the balance.

It may have been their victory, but it was Farage’s agenda they won with. I noted in these columns at the start that Gove headed straight for the gutter with emotive language about Serbs and Turks arriving in droves. At that point, I was genuinely surprised. I had thought more of him. This week, Gove professed to have “shuddered” at the sight of Farage’s wicked poster. By then, it was too late for shuddering or distancing. The cause of prejudice had been as well served by Gove’s willingness to play the immigration card at every opportunity as by the crude imagery favoured by Ukip.

Clement Attlee described referendums as “alien” to British politics because they were “only too often the instrument of fascism”. Referendums are not necessarily decided on the question asked and Cameron’s misfortune was to walk into two huge factors which were not really about EU membership at all.

The first was the prominence of immigration and the fact that every night brought new images of refugees desperate to reach European shores. Translating these images into Leave votes might have been deeply flawed logic.

Given time and leadership, it may be possible to win that argument with a rational audience.

But the hazard of running a referendum which could be diverted into a poll on immigration was obvious. In a contest which pitted images and prejudices against rationality and liberal goodwill, there was a high risk that the dark side would prevail.

All of that was apparent long before the date was set for the referendum yet no account seems to have been taken of it. For many voters, this was not a referendum on the EU or even EU migration, but about immigration, full stop. Attlee was right.

The second big factor for Remain was the enfeeblement of Labour and its current inability to provide credible leadership. Looking back to 1975, it was the magisterial role of towering Labour and trade union 
figures which turned the tide decisively in favour of membership. It was they who ensured it was a referendum on jobs and the country’s economic future.

By contrast, Corbyn and his acolytes were marginal. Many to whom they should have offered clear and persuasive arguments do not currently take Labour seriously, as representative of their interests or a potential party of government. They feel liberated to look elsewhere.

What has happened to Labour in Scotland has now been transmitted to much of England and Wales. Ukip may still be beyond the pale but a Leave vote certainly was not. Labour has to face up to its failure in this referendum campaign every bit as much as Cameron or anyone else.

Yesterday brought us talk of a second Scottish referendum. It was an inevitable piece of th atre in the circumstances but there is a long way to go, and many factors to take account of, before it comes close to reality. Some of these will be pondered over by the Nationalists themselves in the cooler light of day.

Would Scotland be grateful for yet another referendum campaign? Have any other fundamentals changed, apart from the fantasy price of oil? Is it possible Scotland will grow used to whatever halfway house emerges as an alternative to full-blown EU membership? And, by the way, what currency would we use?

My sadness about the referendum outcome is based less on the difference between Scotland and England than on the gulf between the young, who sought to defend all that is good and aspirational about Europe, and most of my own generation, who chose to abandon it. That really is a dangerous tragedy.

And let’s not forget that while a million Scots voted to leave, 13 million in England voted to remain. There are still a lot of battles to be fought before either brand of Nationalism should be allowed to