WE don’t usually link direct to an article in the mainstream British media but for Robert Colvile’s* article in the Times yesterday, ‘David Cameron stood still as the world changed’ we are making an exception.
Why? Because like the best commentary it provides a thesis – in this case a persuasive explanation as to why so many politicians have misunderstood the Brexit phenomenon and have been so slow to understand ‘what has really driven this transformation’ which is, he writes, the same thing that always does: public opinion.
And what a 95mph bouncer, as a colleague put it, to open the article with: ‘The former PM is not alone in having misread the Brexit mood – politicians always lag behind popular revolutions.’
For those blocked from reading it by the Times’s paywall we do our best to pick some highlights:
First, Colvile’s revelation that in their early days both Philip Hammond and Oliver Letwin considered themselves, as did David Cameron, to be Eurosceptics who only later came to nail their colours so fervently to the EU mast, and now to number – along with the long-term conviction Europhiles such as Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve – amongst the two dozen ex-Tory MPs in Parliament .
It is in this context, he writes, that David Cameron’s memoirs are so fascinating, and that explain ‘the constant sense of hurt and bewilderment – not just at Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, but at all those who decided to campaign for Leave’.
Another intriguing observation is that ‘Cameron and co still consider themselves Eurosceptics’; that what has changed is a profound shift in the definition of what that means or meant – a shift that took place while Cameron was in power and that has continued to shift further since.
He describes this transformation of Euroscepticism to Brexiteering as a dam which started to give way in 2013 with Lord Lawson’s article in the Times in which he argued that Britain ought not be afraid of outright exit. Since then the fast-moving feast of Brexit has moved even further. Consider, he writes, that Nigel Farage used to talk glowingly of Norway and the European Economic Area. Now Farage argues that it would be treachery to leave with any kind of a deal at all.
Later in the piece Colvile offers us another soupçon of insight regarding Cameron’s claim that Johnson ‘did not believe in’ Brexit. It ignores, he writes, ‘the copious, years-long evidence of his fretting over sovereignty, not to mention poring through the relevant literature and summoning the experts to City Hall to argue the toss.’
It is Cameron-Hammond-Letwin who have remained behind the game, misread the revolution that public opinion has driven and overtaken them as they continued to believe they have not changed and ‘have stayed sane’ while ‘the world (and their party) went mad around them’.
He concludes: ‘If these feel like revolutionary times, it is because a revolution has indeed taken place. In fact, it is arguable that it took place years ago, it was just that nobody in Westminster really noticed.’
What he does not give his view on is whether our current Prime Minister, Mr Johnson, has yet caught up with public opinion and how far he is prepared to disrupt the establishment to do so. Will he succeed in adapting to the way that the public mood has shifted; does he have the courage to so? Should he fail, will he too find himself at some point, like David Cameron, ‘marooned amid the floodwaters, wondering what on earth happened to the world they thought they knew’?
*Robert Colvile is director of the ‘Margaret Thatcher think tank’, the Centre for Policy Studies, and previously head of comment at the Daily and Sunday Telegraph.