Commentary / World

Call Cameron's 'gaffe' anything but guileless

by Marc Champion


The United Kingdom has been abuzz with the shock announcement by Prime Minister David Cameron that he won’t run for election a third time (assuming he wins re-election for a second term in May). He dropped this political bombshell just weeks before the vote on a soft-feature TV show, and was cutting carrots as he said it.

So there’s been much debate over whether this was just an unguarded slip, as he tried to look like a normal family man rather than a power-crazed politician. There are two reasons to believe this wasn’t a mere gaffe.

The first is that Cameron is at least competent: His background is in public relations. He may have been cutting carrots in his kitchen, but it was a detailed response. (He named three credible potential successors.)

The more compelling argument, though, is that Cameron has a record of making shortsighted tactical decisions to solve problems he faces in his fractious party, with a poor understanding of the wider effects this may have.

Take his approach to last year’s Scottish referendum. Cameron had no choice but to agree to hold one and it was the right thing to do (ask Spain how refusing Catalonia a vote is working out). But the date, phrasing and scope of electorate were all his to negotiate in 2012.

Cameron agreed to hold the vote in 2014, the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, a proud Scottish victory over the English in their battle for independence. He agreed to a ballot on independence, rather than on staying in the U.K. And he agreed, uniquely and inexplicably, to allow 16-year-olds to have the vote.

The only thing of significance that Alex Salmond, then leader of the Scottish National Party, asked for and didn’t get was a second question on the ballot. This would have allowed Scots to vote against independence, but for a greater devolution of powers to Scotland — and would have put Salmon and his party in a win-win situation.

Having set the date for a Scottish referendum, Cameron then turned his attention to the unrest inside his own party, where a substantial group was pushing for a decision to leave the European Union.

With the UK Independence Party also rising in opinion polls (from 3 percent in the 2010 election to about 7 percent in late 2012) on their anti-immigrant, anti-EU message, Cameron came up with a clever plan. He promised the country a referendum on whether to leave the EU by 2017, in the hope this would neutralize the issue in this year’s election, calm his back benches and end the flow of voters to UKIP.

Neither political gambit has turned out well. Cameron’s promise of an EU referendum three years after a Scottish one undermined a strong argument for Scotland to stay in the U.K. Scots tend to be more pro-European than the English, so they may have been inclined to heed warnings that by leaving the U.K. they would leave the EU and might not be able to re-enter (because the U.K. would have a veto). That argument lost its potency with the U.K. potentially leaving the EU anyhow.

Cameron did just win the Scottish referendum, but only after — in a panic — he offered the devolution he had refused to put on the ballot. So Salmond got his win-win.

And Scots felt manipulated by the last minute devolution offer, which was accompanied by warnings from big London-based businesses that they might have to shift jobs south if Scotland broke away. As a result, the Scottish Nationalist Party may sweep 40 or more of Scotland’s 59 seats in the U.K. elections on May 7, up from six in 2010.

This has the potential to create a constitutional mess for the U.K., where the next government may be decided by a SNP dedicated to secession.

Meanwhile, Cameron’s EU referendum promise didn’t quiet his backbenchers. Predictably the scent of victory spurred them on. And UKIP’s popularity didn’t stagnate, it blossomed and is now polling as high as17 percent.

Even if Cameron wins next month, it could get worse. He promised to campaign to stay in the EU in the 2017 referendum, so long as the EU first enacts unspecified, but far-reaching reforms. Since it requires agreement from 27 other countries to alter the EU, he is very likely to fail in securing more than token changes.

Cameron’s bout of apparent frankness about his own political future was probably designed to defuse any mutiny against his leadership after May 7, if he should win by a small margin — the only likely scenario for him to return to power.

Everyone inside the Westminster bubble (the British equivalent of the Washington beltway) already knew Cameron would have to step aside after an EU referendum campaign: No matter what the result, he will be politically damaged. Now voters know, too.

The “lame duck” jokes were flying at Prime Minister’s Question Time on March 25, the last of these weekly pieces of political theater before the election.

Voters are now left to wonder what Cameron’s decision to stand down means. They’re thinking about Tory leadership squabbles when they should be focused on issues such as the economy, where the Conservatives are strong.

This storm in a Downing Street kitchen may not affect the election result. But Cameron is, as the British say, being too clever by half. Again.

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times and the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times.