AFP – David Cameron’s political epitaph was carved in stone when he resigned the morning after Britons voted to quit the European Union.
Cameron had staged the referendum to try to unite his Conservative party, where right-wing eurosceptics were agitating to leave the 28-nation bloc.
His expectation was that he would win the June 23 vote handily and then push ahead with social reforms to crown his second term in office.
But the high-stakes gamble failed catastrophically.
At a stroke, Britain was plunged into political, economic and constitutional crisis.
Just as swiftly, Cameron’s own career was destroyed, fating him to be remembered as the prime minister who recklessly or unwittingly ended Britain’s 43-year membership of the EU.
Cameron is due to step down on Wednesday and new Conservative Party leader Theresa May will take his post.
“A time will come for reflection on the good in Mr Cameron’s leadership… on his fundamentally correct vision for a one-nation Tory party in possession of the centre ground,” The Economist said.
“It will surely be dwarfed by this giant, nation-changing misstep, one guaranteed to scar the country for decades and diminish his place in the history books.”
– Youngest PM in 200 years –
The son of a stockbroker, Cameron was educated at the elite boarding school of Eton and at Oxford University, where he was admitted to the Bullingdon Club, a hard-drinking, socially exclusive student group.
He worked for the Conservatives as an advisor before a stint in public relations, which ended when he was elected to parliament in 2001.
Cameron rose swiftly through the ranks of the party — which was then struggling badly against prime minister Tony Blair’s Labour government — and was elected leader in 2005 at the age of 39.
He tried to “detoxify” the party brand in part by avoiding discussion of the EU, which has split the Conservatives since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership in the 1980s.
At the 2010 general election, Cameron became the youngest premier for 200 years but the centre-right Conservatives did not win enough seats to govern alone and had to form a coalition with the centrist Liberal Democrats.
The coalition was dominated by spending cuts as Britain emerged from recession, while foreign policy debate was largely hijacked by Conservative wrangling over the EU.
Cameron gambled on a referendum when Scotland voted to stay as part of Britain in 2014.
It paid off, but only after a fierce and divisive debate that some critics thought should have served as a warning for the EU referendum which was to follow.
After five years in coalition, the Conservatives won a surprise clear majority in the May 2015 general election, allowing them to rule alone.
The win meant that the EU referendum — first promised by Cameron in 2013 to placate his restive party, but which many in Westminster say he never believed would happen — became a reality.
– Beginning of the end –
Cameron spent much of the rest of 2015 lobbying other European countries for a deal to improve Britain’s relations with the EU.
When this was announced in February, it was derided as “thin gruel” by some Conservative MPs.
The bitterest blows to Cameron came as campaigning got under way.
Some of his most loyal lieutenants including justice minister Michael Gove said they would campaign for Brexit, while the then London mayor, Boris Johnson, also backed “Leave”.
For his part, Cameron’s warnings that the economy would be badly hit by a “Leave” vote failed to cut through.
The anti-EU camp scored heavily with arguments — derided by critics as deceitful or populist — that by leaving, Britain would curb immigration and its present contributions to the EU would be lavished on public health instead.
Although Britain’s political landscape is still shaking after the Brexit quake, Cameron’s allies insist that history will be kind to him.
They endorse his self-image as a “compassionate Conservative” who hoped to remake Britain as a more equal, tolerant society.
They cite his stabilisation of the economy through austerity cuts; the introduction of gay marriage in 2014; and closer trade ties with fast-growing economies like China and India.
But after six years in office, Cameron leaves a country mired in its deepest crisis since World War II — and he bequeaths his successor a “Europe problem” that ironically is far worse than before.