The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The remarkable failure of David Cameron

British Prime Minister David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street on June 13 for his last Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons in London. (Peter Nicholls/Reuters)
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"I was the future once," remarked British Prime Minister David Cameron in the House of Commons, an almost wistful note, tinged with irony, on his last day as head of his nation's government. He vacated 10 Downing Street on Wednesday after fast-tracking a resignation that, just months ago, would have seemed almost implausible.

Cameron's successor, Theresa May, curtsied before Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace and became Britain's first female prime minister since Margaret Thatcher. As the country prepares for its departure from the European Union, May said her government "will forge a bold, new, positive role for ourselves in the world, and we will make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us."

These are strong words at an uncertain, even frightening moment. May and her Conservative Party must tackle, as my colleague Griff Witte writes, "the serious business of a nation facing the gravest challenge to its identity since it shed its empire."

She has not begun in a particularly auspicious manner: The selection of Boris Johnson, the controversial former mayor of London, as the foreign secretary triggered howls of derision on social media. Foreign affairs pundit Ian Bremmer deadpanned in a tweet that, with Johnson now Britain's top diplomat, the country's alliance with the United States transforms from the "special relationship" to the "special needs relationship."

Johnson, a former journalist with a deliberately provocative manner, recently accused President Obama of harboring an "ancestral dislike" of the British empire because of his Kenyan origins. In a 2007 column, he likened Hillary Clinton, potentially the next American president, to "a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital."

That this is the current state of affairs — and that, beyond political turmoil, Britain may be approaching recession — is largely Cameron's fault. Although he campaigned against Brexit, the referendum itself was his idea. He had secured reelection as prime minister just last year, backed with a robust mandate that would have kept him in power until 2020. But few anticipated the chaos of the past few weeks.

The beginning of the end for the Cameron started, if reports have it right, in the United States. In 2012, while sitting at a pizza restaurant in Chicago's O'Hare airport with two trusted colleagues, Cameron made a fateful decision. He concluded that the only way to consolidate his grip over his Conservative Party ahead of the 2015 general election was to offer the promise of a referendum on Britain's membership in the European Union, a continental institution still reviled by many of his fellow Tories.

At a speech in January 2013, Cameron declared: "I am in favor of a referendum. I believe in confronting this issue — shaping it, leading the debate. Not simply hoping a difficult situation will go away." Not all agreed with him, but Cameron pressed ahead in a bid to stay in power.

This was his gamble, and it proved disastrous.

The "Remain" camp he championed lost the referendum last month by a slender margin. The prospect of a Brexit shocked the world and triggered an astonishing series of events: Markets crashed and the British pound slumped; Cameron announced his intent to quit his now untenable post — and was followed by the retreat of virtually every single major politician who had led the "Leave" camp.

May, a mildly pro-E.U. politician, takes the reins of office having vowed that she will at least commence the process of removing Britain from the European Union. "Brexit means Brexit," she declared.

In his final moments as prime minister, Cameron was good-natured and jocular, even tweeting an image of him with Larry the cat, a creature whose tenure at Downing Street is expected to outlast his own.

But his political obituaries have not been so cuddly. "This week, he said farewell with characteristic good grace: one never doubted his fluency or essential decency," Jason Cowley, editor of the New Statesman, wrote of Cameron. "What you doubted was his conviction, his soul, his spirit."

"Mr. Cameron has never shaken off the suspicion of being a man who wanted to be prime minister for the sake of holding the highest office and never had a vision for the country," wrote James Blitz of the Financial Times. "As time passes, some may reflect on some of the good things that were achieved under his premiership. But those achievements are likely to be dwarfed by the giant miscalculation that he made over Britain’s place in Europe."

It's hard to overstate how seismic Britain's planned rupture with Europe is: It signals the untangling of decades of European integration, the rejection of the principles of the post-Cold War liberal order, and now threatens the integrity of the United Kingdom itself, with Scottish nationalists eager to remain in the E.U. while casting off the yoke of Westminster.

"He'll go down in history as the man who gambled everything on a referendum and lost, effectively blowing half a century of economic and diplomatic effort on the part of his predecessors," Timothy Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, told USA Today.

"His referendum campaign, for all its flashes of skill and conviction, was too little, too late. The whole exercise was a spectacularly foolhardy act of overreach," wrote the Economist. "The unanticipated outcome will be a Britain poorer, more isolated, less influential and more divided."

"Cameron leaves Downing Street with few admirers, a country in crisis, the central aims of his premiership in rubble," concludes Guardian columnist Owen Jones. "It is nearly enough to make you pity him — but, given how grave the situation facing our country is, not quite. His premiership is a tragedy for which we will all pay."

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