The night that David Cameron sealed Britain’s Brexit fate

29 June 2022

5:05 PM

29 June 2022

5:05 PM

Friday 29 June 2012 isn’t a famous date in British history, but it deserves at least a footnote. Because I reckon it’s the day the Brexit referendum became inevitable – largely thanks to David Cameron’s inability to stop talking.

What follows is my argument, based on personal involvement, that Cameron set the referendum process in motion at least partly by accident. It’s a bit long and possibly even self-indulgent, but I hope it might also be useful to people writing the second draft of history.

A decade ago today, Cameron was prime minister and attending an EU summit in Brussels. Unlike some summits of the period, this one had ended in reasonable time, allowing leaders to do their post-match press-conferences and fly home late on Friday night.

Also unlike other summits of the period, this one had gone pretty well for Cameron. The summit had made some progress towards action on the Eurozone crisis by moving towards a banking union without undermining the single market or imposing new requirements on the UK or the City.

So Cameron was feeling pretty chipper and – I know this will shock some readers – quite pleased with himself. I make that observation as someone who was in the room. As a political correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, I followed Cameron to that EU summit, one of probably dozens of reporting trips I did to observe him during his premiership.

I learned a fair bit about Cameron on those trips. He was generally pretty good at press conferences, handling questions calmly and smoothly. But when he was tired, he lost a bit of self-control, which meant he would sometimes talk a bit too much, and say things that were smug, glib or otherwise misjudged.

Anyway, I got to ask Cameron a question in Brussels that night.

Unlike other journalists, I asked him about the EU. Most of the other hacks had wanted to talk about British banks, which were then the biggest story in town: Barclays’ then-CEO Bob Diamond had just been accused of something dreadful, and that would inevitably lead the bulletins that night. So that’s naturally where Cameron’s focus was during that press conference, ensuring he provided some polished outrage for those bulletins.

I asked about the EU mainly because the subject was exciting a lot of Tory MPs. Just a couple of days before the summit, more than 100 of them had signed a letter to Cameron asking him to commit to some sort of EU referendum.

That was the latest flare-up in the Tories’ eternal squabble over Europe. In October 2011, there’d been another backbench push for a referendum pledge from the PM. Around 60 MPs signed a Commons motion demanding a vote, something Cameron rejected in the Commons, saying: ‘This was not our policy at the election and it is not our policy now.’

Against that background, it made sense for the Telegraph to ask again about a referendum. So I did. Here, the transcripts Downing Street makes of all prime ministerial press conferences prove invaluable again. My question and Cameron’s words that night in Brussels ten years ago are preserved here forever.

My question:

‘Can I just ask about Britain’s relationship with the European Union? Self-evidently, Europe is changing; that is concerning a lot of people in your party who are talking about a referendum. We know that you have legislated for your referendum lock; we know what you think the significance of that is.

‘But there are people in your party who are now calling on you to go beyond that, to start looking at a vote on the wider relationship. You said last October, I think, that you were opposed to an in/out referendum and you thought that Britain should always remain a member of the European Union. Is that still your position?’

Yes, I know it’s a long, rambling question. Never mind. It worked, as Cameron’s longer, more rambling answer shows. Here it is in full, with some bits in bold by me:

‘The point I would make is I completely understand people’s concerns. I think part of addressing the concerns – and I share a lot of the concerns people have – part of addressing the concerns is this safety lock that we have: that however unsatisfied with Britain’s relationship with Europe, you know that any government cannot pass powers without there being a referendum. I think that is vitally important.

‘But I would make two points to you. One is, yes, you are absolutely right: Europe is changing. There’s a change taking place as the countries of the eurozone follow the remorseless logic of having a single currency, having 17 finance ministries and all the rest of it. They need to change; they recognise that. Now, that change has consequences for Britain. My job is to make sure that we secure all the safeguards that we need so that our role in the European Union, our access to the single market, our say in the single market is properly safeguarded.

‘This is going to be something that is going to evolve over a whole series of years as these countries realise what needs to be done, and as we fight for the safeguards and the position that we need. So I think that is the first point. Europe is changing; Britain is not going to cede more powers to Brussels.

‘As I have often argued, I think there are powers that should be going in the other direction. This is going to be an unfolding story, but one where I think Britain has every chance of securing the sort of relationship that we want in Europe. That is the first point that I would make.

‘The second point is I completely understand why some people want an in/out referendum, why they wanted it yesterday, why they want it today. Some people just want to get out; they literally, you know, ‘Stop the bus, I want to get off.’ I completely understand that, but I do not share that view. I do not think that is the right thing to do.

‘I think the problem with an in/out referendum is it actually only gives people those two choices: you can either stay in with all the status quo, or you can get out. Most people in Britain, I think, want a government that stands up and fights for them in Europe, and gets the things we want in Europe, that changes some of the relationship we have in Europe.

‘I have made some small steps forward on that. We used to be part of these bailout schemes, right? I got us out of those bailout schemes. That has saved us real money. Now, there are other things I would like us to get out of. So, I think that is the trouble with the argument about the in/out; it is only those two options, whereas I think what we want is a government that stands up and fights for Britain in Europe, gets what we want.

‘This is a developing situation, but it is a situation where I think for those of us who are, I would say, sort of practical Eurosceptics, who know it is in Britain’s interests to be in here trading, fighting, cooperating. Today, we secured language on how Europe approaches Iran, how Europe approaches Syria; we lead the debates on some of those subjects.

‘So for those of us who are practical Eurosceptics, who know there is a real benefit from being engaged but are frustrated by some of the ways the relationship works, I see lots of reasons to say the argument’s going in our direction. So I am not only a practical Eurosceptic; I am an optimist about getting this relationship right.

‘We can also, by the way, secure things for Britain while having some of these debates and discussions. Just recently we got the president of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development; that required agreement by countries all over the world. As I have just argued, we got a third of the patent court, including the most important bits for Britain coming to Britain, with all the changes to the patent that we asked for, so that it should be welcomed by business.’

Those bits in bold, where Cameron was clearly opposing an ‘in/out’ referendum, were surely newsworthy, given that recent history with Tory MPs. And Cameron’s warmth about EU membership (‘there is a real benefit from being engaged’) were absolutely not what many Tory MPs wanted to hear from their leader.

In other words, Cameron’s words were blood in the water, the sort that attracts predators. And there are few more dangerous creatures in the Westminster ecosystem than Sam Coates, now of Sky News and then of the Times. Sam was also at that press conference, and saw his target clearly.

His (shorter, smarter) question to Cameron:

‘Just to follow up on the question on the referendum; why is it proving so difficult to convince your own MPs that this referendum lock is going to work, and that we do not need a little bit more?’

And part of Cameron’s again over-long answer:

‘I think that Conservative MPs – and I would argue people across this country – are pleased that we have this lock. The question for the future is how is Europe going to change? How is Britain’s relationship with Europe going to change, as Europe changes?

‘The answer I tried to give is that I am confident that Britain fighting and standing up for itself in Europe can secure good deals in Europe, as I think this European summit has shown. So a practical Eurosceptic, but one who is optimistic that we can get what we want in Europe.

‘The changes that are taking place, in terms of the deepening of the eurozone – which we are not involved in, and we are not going to join; we will not be part of the fiscal union, the banking union or the political union that comes about as part of the eurozone: we are not going to be in that.

‘But we need to safeguard what we do want in Europe, and I am confident we can do that. I think we should go into this argument confident that we can shape a relationship with Europe that benefits the United Kingdom, because that is the kind of country we are: we are a massive trading nation.

‘Sitting round that table, with 27 others, we are one of the most international economies; we have a financial centre that not only serves Britain but the whole of Europe. We should be standing proud and tall about that in Europe and that is the way I go about I things. I think we can achieve in that way.’

In short, that night in Brussels, David Cameron was full of enthusiasm about Britain’s EU membership. He was also full of confidence in his own ability to make that membership work for Britain and in a way that would persuade his own MPs of the need to remain in the union. As such, he was dismissive of their calls for a referendum on membership.

Late on a Friday night, there isn’t much time for a newspaper reporter to agree a story and file that story to a newsdesk in time to get it into tomorrow’s paper. But neither Sam nor I were in any doubt about the story from Cameron’s press conference: ‘PM rejects EU referendum’.

So that was what we both filed. My copy made the front page; Sam’s was on page five. (He was and is a much better reporter than me, so I have to savour small victories like this.) I don’t think either of us thought it was the biggest story in the world. We knew it would cause some trouble in the Conservative party, but at the end of day, all we’d done was quote the PM speaking on the record in a televised press conference. How much trouble could those words cause?

A lot, as it turned out. For as I learned in 15 or so years as a political reporter, the worst thing you can do to a politician is write down the words they say and put them in a newspaper. So when we quoted David Cameron’s words from that press conference, all hell broke loose.

By the morning of 30 June 2012, a large part of the parliamentary Conservative party was very cross indeed. Having asked their leader for a referendum on the EU, MPs were digesting his words in Brussels, scorning that policy and extolling the virtues of EU membership. Some insider accounts of ‘the mood’ among Tory MPs that morning used words like ‘meltdown’.

That fury took Cameron’s team by surprise. His words on the Friday night hadn’t been scripted or planned; instead of deadbatting questions about the referendum, he’d engaged with it and committed a spontaneous act of news.

That unscripted moment and the anger it sparked came at an awkward time. Cameron and his team were still trying to work out just what their position on the EU and a referendum should be. Some advisers thought it would be a mistake ever to promise a referendum; others thought it might be feasible to renegotiate Britain’s EU membership, possibly by changing EU treaties, then put the changes to the people in a vote, one day many years in the future.

That debate was far from resolved as Cameron set off for that summit in June 2012; it remained just about possible that, as people such as George Osborne hoped, Cameron would stand firm against a referendum, denying the Tory Right total satisfaction over Europe as he had from the start of his leadership in 2005. (Younger readers should look up Cameron’s pledge to leave the European People’s Party, and his cast-iron promise of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.)

But Cameron’s Brussels press conference and the Tory meltdown it caused threw a hefty spanner into No. 10’s works. People familiar with conversations among the Cameron team that Saturday describe near-panic, and an urgent demand to do something to dampen the anger of Tory MPs.

That something emerged around lunchtime on the Saturday, in the form of an oped piece in Cameron’s name that was presented to the Sunday Telegraph for publication the following day. Prime ministerial opeds are generally a big deal and entail a fair bit of planning and thinking. It’s rare, in my experience, for No. 10 to write one in a few hours and present it to a paper with no warning and with only a few hours to go before the paper goes to press.

(You can read Sam Coates’ account of these things here. And perhaps one day he or I will write more about the consequences we both faced for all this. But that’s a story for another day.)

That Cameron oped, started and finished on Saturday 30 June then printed in the Sunday Telegraph of 1 July 2012 was more important than most prime ministerial columns. For it contained this line:

‘For me, the two words ‘Europe’ and ‘referendum’ can go together.’

Those words, combined with Downing Street briefings that the article could be read as saying ‘yes, just not yet’ to a referendum, were enough to achieve No. 10’s immediate goal: manage the anger of Tory MPs.

But their long-term consequence was much, much bigger – and far removed from what Cameron might have hoped to achieve over Europe. Instead of continuing to play for time while he devised and decided on a policy on the EU and the referendum issue, he ended the constructive ambiguity he’d cultivated and closed down his own room for manoeuvre. Tory MPs seeking a referendum now knew that their pressure had worked. Cast-Iron Dave had bent to their will and written a cheque they would one day cash.

Now, I know from many long conversations with members of the Cameron team that the referendum didn’t simply materialise in his plans that weekend. It had been part of an ongoing internal conversation for some time. But even the most favourable accounts of how Cameron ended up holding that referendum suggested that his plan, such as it was, was to renegotiate a genuinely changed UK relationship with the EU first, then hold a popular vote on it.

But 29 June 2012 changed things. It forced Cameron to show his hand to Tory sceptics far sooner than he might have done. By doing so, he set the clock running down to the day when he’d have to hold a referendum – regardless of any change he might win in the UK’s membership.

Of course, the hope of a renegotiated relationship was probably always forlorn; for all Cameron’s belief that he could charm Angela Merkel, Germany was never going to compromise on EU unity to accommodate him. But perhaps, just perhaps, with a bit more time and planning, Cameron might have achieved something substantial enough to swing the public behind Remain in a referendum. Or perhaps he might indeed have decided to stand firm against his colleagues and reject a full-blown membership referendum.

But those possibilities evaporated that warm summer night in Brussels when David Cameron couldn’t quite resist the urge to talk about how well he’d done at that summit and how clever his European plans were. After Friday 29 June 2012, Cameron was always going to give his colleagues the referendum they wanted. Sometimes, words – and the reporting of them – really do have consequences.

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