At 3.30am on June 24, sitting at a desk in Margaret Thatcher’s study in Number 10, David Cameron knew that the referendum was lost. He never doubted that his decision to call a vote on Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU) would be the defining move of his premiership. He knew that if it went against him, especially as he had chosen to fight from the front, he would have to stand down. He went slowly downstairs to his own study, where some of his closest colleagues rehearsed the arguments for him staying on in the event of Brexit winning. But he was adamant that he would not remain as head of a government whose cornerstone policy was to take Britain out of the EU.
Writing about him as prime minister over the past six years, I have come to see a very different — and much more interesting — man to the one I first knew only on the television. He lacks the talent of an actor or PR guru to make an audience love him. Uncomfortable with emotion, he would only very reluctantly talk about himself. The inner Cameron was thus only seen in public on rare occasions.
One came when he spoke at the Tory conference in 2013 about how the National Health Service helped his son Ivan, who died in 2009, and another came in his speech the morning after the referendum vote, when he spoke about how much he loved his country. Beneath his surface is an unusually emotional man. He is English to his fingertips and has the natural diffidence of its upper middle class. But he loves the whole of the United Kingdom as well and his worst moment as prime minister came when he thought he might lose the Scottish referendum.
The prospect of being the PM who initiated the breakaway of Scotland from the United Kingdom was abominable to him. He is certainly concerned, if not morbidly so, about what history will say about his leadership. He knows that the referendum loss will predominate, but I suspect that if Britain does achieve a new and more settled relationship with Europe, he will be judged much less harshly for calling the referendum, than if the country goes badly wrong. He is proud of modernising the Conservative Party, leading it back into power in 2010 as the head of a coalition after 13 years in the wilderness and winning an outright victory in the 2015 election that many thought he would lose. He is proud of restoring the country to economic stability after the 2008 crash and fighting for unpopular causes in the party, including gay marriage and international development.
He will have many years ahead of him to reflect about what he might have done had he not been given up. The youngest PM for 198 years, he is leaving Downing Street before he turns 50. He does not know what he will do beyond remaining an MP for a constituency he loves. He plans to spend the summer, the first in 11 years since he became party leader, away from prying cameras and reporters, relaxing with the family he adores, thinking about what to do with the rest of his life. He is determined not to rush into any decision. He yearns for the space and quiet to reflect.
The sadness for him is that he was at last defining a domestic agenda from which, he had been distracted in 2008 by the economic crisis. The “life chances” policies which he was articulating in a series of statements would have been enacted in the three years before he left in 2019. Abroad too, after the departure of United States President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he would have been the most experienced figure on the international stage, and had a series of humanitarian and diplomatic initiatives that he wanted to unleash.
Cameron has been bloodied but unbowed since his decision to go. Last week, he hosted a performance by the Royal Shakespeare Company and a group of school students in the gardens at Number 10. He watched wryly and acutely as excerpts unfolded from Macbeth and Julius Caesar, in scenes that reminded him of the disloyalty and betrayal faced by other leaders who trusted too much. But there was no self-pity. Afterwards, he went round talking to the actors and crew with Florence, his four-year-old daughter, draped over his shoulder — a family man to his fingertips, fascinated by life at No 10 to the end.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2016
Anthony Seldon is a historian who has written biographies of John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.