The Current

David Cameron regrets losing Brexit vote, but says referendum was always inevitable

David Cameron regrets losing the Brexit referendum, but not calling it. He tells The Current interim host Laura Lynch that the EU was a "running sore" in British politics.

EU was ‘running sore’ in British politics, says former British PM

Former prime minister David Cameron speaks as he leaves Downing Street for the last time on July 13, 2016, in London, England. (Carl Court/Getty Images)
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Former British prime minister David Cameron says losing the Brexit referendum is his "greatest regret," but that the vote was "not just necessary ... it was inevitable."

"There isn't a day that goes by when I don't think: What could we have done differently to secure a different outcome?" said Cameron, who announced he would stand down as prime minister on the morning the Brexit result was announced.

The former Conservative leader has faced criticism that he called the 2016 referendum to heal divisions in his own party, appeasing Euroskeptic Tories on the right who were being wooed by Nigel Farage's U.K. Independence Party.

But he told The Current's interim host Laura Lynch that every political party in Britain had issues with Europe, and have all promised referendums on membership over the years.

"It was an issue running through British politics, a sort of running sore, as it were," he said.

Three years after the EU referendum, Leave and Remain campaigners are still bitterly divided over the result. (Neil Hall/EPA-EFE)

He said there had been "treaty after treaty and change after change in our relationship with the EU, with referendums often being promised but never being delivered."

"When we voted on it in 1975, it was eight countries and called the European Community. Now it's a very different organization."

Cameron has written a book about the vote and his political career, For The Record, released in Canada last week.

While he called it an attempt "to be as frank as I can about mistakes that were made along the way, but also mentioning some of the things that I'm proud we managed to achieve," he acknowledged that "historians get to decide what your legacy is. You don't."

Brexit must be delivered 'with a deal'

Britain voted to leave the EU in June 2016 with 51.9 per cent of the vote. Divorce negotiations with the EU have been fraught, and MPs have yet to agree a departure deal — several times rejecting the one crafted by Cameron's successor, Theresa May.

May's own successor, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is adamant that the country will leave on Oct. 31, even though leaving without a trade deal could mean customs checks, import delays and tariffs imposed. He suspended Parliament only to have the move quashed by the courts, and has threatened to hold a general election. Last week, he rejected calls from MPs to moderate his language and rhetoric.

Boris Johnson dares raucous U.K. Parliament to topple him:

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson dared his foes to try to topple him at a raucous session of Parliament, a day after Britain's highest court ruled he acted illegally in suspending the body ahead of the Brexit deadline. 2:33

Cameron has remained largely silent since he stepped down as an MP in 2016, believing that "prime ministers that resign should let their successors get on with it."

Now he says that while he doesn't "agree with all the decisions" Johnson has made in his two-month term, he thinks "the crucial thing now is to look at the big picture and to support the prime minister as he goes to Brussels."

"The way to deliver the referendum is to do so with a deal," he told Lynch.

"It would be very bad for us to try and leave the EU without a deal, be bad for the economy, be bad for our United Kingdom — it wouldn't be a good idea for the European Union either," he said.

"If we can't then we're going to have to look at a general election, or possibly even a second referendum, as a way of unblocking a situation that has become badly blocked." 

It's a legitimate option for us to be friends and neighbours and partners of the EU — we can make it work- David Cameron

Despite the political deadlock, he is optimistic that the turmoil in Britain can be turned toward prosperity.

"While Brexit is not my choice, Britain is the sixth biggest economy in the world. It's a legitimate option for us to be friends and neighbours and partners of the EU — we can make it work," he said.

"Today we're just dealing in a world where there is great uncertainty in the U.K., and I fear that's going to continue, at least for the coming weeks."

David Cameron announces his resignation the morning after the Brexit vote

Prime Minister David Cameron resigns 0:23

Why Cameron thinks he lost

Looking back on the campaign, Cameron said he believes his Remain side made "brilliant technical arguments about why economically, and for jobs and prosperity, it's best to stay in" the EU. 

"But I think we didn't make enough arguments that connected with people emotionally," he said.

By contrast, said he believes the Leave campaign tapped into public concerns around British sovereignty being under threat, and the idea that EU freedom of movement was leading to uncontrolled immigration.

"Those two issues coming together, I think, was a powerful case that persuaded a lot of people to vote to leave."

A Vote Leave battle bus carrying a false message parked outside U.K. Parliament during the 2016 campaign (Getty Images)

During the referendum, Leave campaigners claimed that Brexit would mean a weekly payment of £350 million ($571 million Cdn) could be spent on Britain's health care system rather than EU membership fees. The claim was made online and printed on the side of a bus that shuttled campaigners around the country. But after the referendum it was acknowledged by prominet Leave campaigners as false.

Cameron said he doesn't think these claims made for an unfair campaign, but says other assertions have not survived being put to the test.

"They said it would be the easiest deal in history. They said that we would hold all the cards, the negotiation was very straightforward," Cameron said.

"A lot of those things have not turned out to be the case, as I argued they wouldn't be."


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.

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