Whatever David Cameron may have achieved during his six years as Britain’s prime minister, he’ll likely be remembered for only one thing: Brexit.
After all, Cameron was the one who decided to hold the referendum on Britain’s European Union membership—and the one who ultimately lost it. His critics say he shares the blame for the seemingly interminable crisis the country has found itself in for the past three years: divided, deadlocked, and weeks away from potentially crashing out of the EU without a withdrawal agreement.
It was perhaps for this reason that Cameron decided to take back some control of the narrative through his newly released memoir, For the Record, in which the former Conservative Party leader said he hopes to explain his reasons behind holding the 2016 vote, to share his regrets for what has happened since, and to, ultimately, apologize.
Cameron’s journey across the British airwaves this week in promotion of his book points to a leader trying to reshape the narrative of a seismic moment in Britain’s history, and the role he played in it. But in an era when the legacies of former leaders are often written in real time, will expressing regret over some of the decisions he made over the course of his tenure be enough to rehabilitate his?
In his first major interview in the three years since he left Downing Street and British politics, Cameron opened with an apology. “Well, I’m deeply sorry about all that’s happened,” Cameron told the British broadcaster ITV. Sorry, that is, for losing the 2016 referendum; sorry for his years of faulting the EU without highlighting the benefits of its membership; and sorry for political divisions that have plagued the country since. But while some in his cabinet, including his former chancellor and close ally George Osborne, expressed regret over holding the referendum itself, Cameron insisted the vote over Britain’s place in Europe was “inevitable.” (On the other decision he is most known for—imposing what has amounted to a decade of public-spending cuts following the 2008 financial crisis—Cameron didn’t waver. His government “probably didn’t cut enough” when it came to austerity, he said.)
“There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think about all the decisions I made,” Cameron said during the ITV interview, “and all that has followed.”
State apologies for past errors are becoming more common in modern-day politics, yet rarely do leaders express regret for their own actions—especially so soon after they have taken place. Cameron’s expression of regret isn’t necessarily one that many will even appreciate. After all, he isn’t alone in thinking about Brexit every day—for many in Britain, there isn’t an option (a condition that has since been dubbed “Brexit fatigue”). For others, his remarks may not register as a genuine apology at all.
“He doesn’t actually use the word apologize anywhere,” Edwin Battistella, the author of Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology, told me in reference to Cameron’s ITV interview, adding: “I can be sorry it’s raining, or I can be sorry that someone is not in the office if someone calls. But it’s not really an apology. It’s a sort of reflection on how he feels.”
Cameron also deflects blame. Though he accepted that he could have done more to promote the benefits of EU membership in the years leading up to the referendum, he told The Times of London that he “wasn’t making up stuff about Europe” when he criticized the bloc. He took responsibility for what was ultimately “my referendum, my campaign, my decision to try and renegotiate,” but faulted the opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn for not doing more to help. He expressed an affinity for current Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his deputy, Michael Gove, both fellow Conservatives who backed the campaign to leave the EU, but criticized them for acting “appallingly” during the referendum and, when it came to claims about issues such as immigration and EU spending, “left the truth at home.”
The former prime minister also offered rare criticism of his successor, Theresa May, who, like Cameron, has found the legacy of her premiership dominated by Brexit (though, unlike Cameron, she decided to stay on as a member of Parliament following her resignation from Downing Street). He suggested that May didn’t appreciate how her lack of a parliamentary majority would inhibit her ability to get a Brexit deal through the House of Commons, adding that “a closer partnership ... would have been a better way to proceed.”
It’s unlikely that Cameron’s book will change the perception that he ranks among the country’s worst prime ministers, and perhaps that isn’t even the point. For much of the past three years, Cameron has been regarded not just as the prime minister who brought on this tumultuous moment in Britain’s history, but as the leader who, having lost, simply walked away. “Where is he?” the British actor Danny Dyer asked in a viral polemic in 2018. “He’s in Europe, he’s in Nice … I think he should be held accountable for it.” In writing this book, Cameron is effectively replying, I’m right here.
“He went on the record as saying his efforts were part of a larger failure, and he’s open to taking some responsibility, even if he doesn’t directly apologize,” Battistella said. “He’s treating this like someone who pretty much sees his political career as over and as just a little bit of legacy setting.”