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David Cameron's six years as prime minister will be solely remembered for this referendum defeat

David Cameron’s stint as prime minister has come to an unedifying end, dogged by the Europe question, writes Neale Richmond.

Neale Richmond

AS THE RESULTS became clear early on Friday morning, several things happened: the markets reacted furiously; my Twitter feed lit up; Nigel Farage cackled; and somewhere in Downing Street, David Cameron, just 13 months on from leading the Conservative Party to their first overall majority since 1992, began writing his resignation speech.

Cameron has been a solid if unspectacular prime minister who has guided the UK out of the financial crisis that met him when he first took office to a position of low unemployment and strong economic growth. But ultimately his downfall was the Europe question: the UK’s position within Europe has divided the Conservative Party since Margaret Thatcher battled European Commission President Jacques Delors in the 1980s over the increasing influence of Brussels, and every leader since Thatcher has struggled as a result.

How the Tories got here

Thatcher was succeeded as prime minister by John Major, a committed pro-European, who fought fierce battles with his backbenchers over the Exchange Rate Mechanism and the Maastricht Treaty which would see a rump of Tory activists set up the UK Independence Party.

Major/Thatcher Teeside John Major and Margaret Thatcher in 1997 Source: PA Archive

Tony Blair’s New Labour swept Major and the Tories from power in 1997 to the soundtrack of D:Ream’s Things Can Only Get Better. Major was replaced as leader by the new young superstar, William Hague who saw off the prominent pro-European Minister, Ken Clarke. Early on Hague came out strongly against the UK joining the euro. In 1999 he led the Tories to a strong result in a European Parliament election that saw UKIP elect three MEPs for the first time.

However in the 2001 general election, Hague was defeated easily by the popular Blair whose premiership had yet to be tarnished by the decision to invade Iraq. A rare plus for the Tories though in 2001 was the election of a number of new MPs such as Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson. Hague was replaced by the softly spoken Iain Duncan Smith, a committed Eurosceptic but a weak leader who was ousted within two years as he failed to get close to Blair despite the difficult times.

Duncan Smith was replaced by the old war horse Michael Howard, a favourite of the Eurosceptic backbenchers, who railed against immigration and asylum seekers in a bruising but unsuccessful general election campaign in 2005 that would be Blair’s last.

Britain Election William Hague, Dominic Grieve, Kenneth Clarke and Iain Duncan Smith in 2010. Source: Associated Press

The battle to succeed Howard was fierce with Ken Clarke once more contesting against Eurosceptics Liam Fox and David Davis as well as the shiny new Cameron. Cameron finished ahead of Clarke in the first round of voting, but with Clarke’s withdrawal and tacit endorsement, Cameron held on to take  the leadership.

An appeaser from the outset, Cameron appointed his three leadership rivals to his shadow cabinet alongside former leaders like Hague and Duncan Smith.

Cameron’s battle with the Eurosceptic wing

In order to nullify the very vocal Eurosceptic wing, Cameron pledged as part of his leadership campaign to remove the Tory MEPs from the European People’s Party – European Democrats (EPP-ED Group) in the European Parliament. The centre right EPP-ED Group was the largest Group in the European Parliament, with MEPs from my own party Fine Gael, the German Christian Democrats, Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP as well from governing parties in Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Austria amongst others.

General Election 2015 campaign - April 24th David Cameron and William Hague Source: Chris Radburn/PA

At the time I was working in the Parliament in Brussels for Gay Mitchell, the Tory offices were in the same tower as ours, occupying the entire 14th floor at the very top. A large group, the Tory MEPs were bitterly divided with a strong Eurosceptic wing led by columnist Dan Hannan, new MEPs like Syed Kamall, and old stagers like Roger Helmer who would ultimately defect to UKIP. On the other hand were a pro-European majority made up of many MEPs who had lost their seats in 1997 having been ministers under John Major,  as well as some traditional pro-European Tories who had been in the parliament since the 80′s.

The acrimony between the MEPs was not hidden and their group meetings were infamous for rows and MEPs often had to be pulled apart. Visiting the 14th floor was never fun even for a supposed neutral outsider. The staffers generally got on, once politics wasn’t discussed, but the atmosphere was icy and trouble could be around any corner.

Cameron’s pledge to leave the EPP-ED was thus a dividing issue. The majority of Tory MEPs reluctantly backed it as a sop to the Eurosceptic wing – all except for Edward MacMillan Scott, a veteran MEP for over 20 years who defected to the Liberals in protest.

Following the 2009 European elections, Cameron sent William Hague, his shadow foreign secretary, to negotiate a withdrawal and to cobble together a new home for the Tories. The European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) Group was the product with support from Eurosceptic and Conservative MEPs from Poland, Denmark and the Czech Republic.

In 2010, Cameron led his Tories to a partial victory in the general election, forming a coalition government with Nick Clegg’s fiercely pro-European Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems proved a key neutralising impact on the Eurosceptic wing of the Tory party who attempted a few revolts but were hampered by numbers. Because of this, support for the European Fiscal Stability Treaty came easily and the UK provided a bilateral loan to Ireland when a bailout was required. Indeed, Cameron was a friend to Ireland and clearly had a good personal as well as professional relationship with Enda Kenny.

Enda Kenny visit to Downing Street Source: Yui Mok/PA

Following the 2014 European Elections, Cameron once again was forced to appease the Eurosceptics in his own party and attempt to neutralise UKIP who won big in the European elections, taking many seats from the Tories. With an eye on the 2015 general election, Cameron pledged to hold a straight in or out referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the EU. A big gamble which meant it was game on for the party. Cameron was now seemingly untouchable from either wing, as they campaigned to fight the opposition rather than each other.

Following a defeat of the Scottish independence referendum and with the Tories in a position to govern on their own after the 2015 general election, a confident Cameron sought a series of reforms and concession from his fellow heads of state in the European Council. Receiving what he thought was a good deal, Cameron declared a referendum would be held by 2017 and that he would campaign for the UK to remain in the EU.

Cameron’s legacy

A fairly bland Prime Minister, not dissimilar to Major, Cameron never excited the people. He was young and fresh but didn’t have the charisma of Blair, the depth of Brown or the polarising nature of Thatcher. An appeasing Prime Minister like Neville Chamberlain, he simply didn’t have the personality to carry a referendum campaign. His one-time friend Boris Johnson did –  but Johnson, with one eye on his own future aspirations following a successful term as Mayor of London, opportunistically threw his weight behind the Leave campaign with dissident Cabinet members like Michael Gove and Theresa Villiers.

EU referendum Cameron announcing his resignation on Friday Source: PA WIRE

The Remain campaign benefitted from vast swathes of mainstream support from business leaders, celebrities, academics and the vast majority of MPs, although the Tories split relatively evenly.

In the end the result is written in black and white. There was never a mass desire for a referendum on the EU. A small chunk of the Tory party and UKIP were the only ones leading the charge. Together, these two groups were a serious minority in the wider political scene but a significant thorn in Cameron’s side, Cameron desperately wanted to be prime minister and while he wasn’t found wanting in terms of the effort he put in to the campaign, ultimately it was his desire to appease that brought about the referendum in the first place.

Referendums are horrible things. They are rarely decided based on the matters directly at hand. General unhappiness, mislaid concerns about immigration, outdated nationalism and one lady’s annoyance with her local Council for not removing a tree saw the Leave side victorious and David Cameron’s stint as prime minister come to an unedifying end.

The great appeaser, Cameron’s six years as prime minister will solely be remembered for this referendum defeat. A defeat that ultimately was wholly of his own making.

Neale Richmond is a Fine Gael Senator

Read: Full coverage of the Brexit fallout 

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