Stephen Collins: Cameron put party before country

European response shows up British politics for the shallow game that it is

David Cameron had a haunted look as he stood before the world media at a crowded and melancholy press conference in Brussels late on Tuesday night to try to explain how he had brought his country to such a sorry pass.

Speaking after the ritual dinner with his 27 EU colleagues it was clear he was stricken by regret for something even more important than the shipwreck of his own political reputation and career.

He had the demeanour of a man who knew in his heart and soul he had made a terrible political blunder that has put the United Kingdom on a course that could undermine its fortunes for generations to come.

As is his wont, Cameron spoke fluently and with dignity but his face could not hide the self-reproach that he, as British prime minister, had failed his people.


Once when asked where his priorities as a politician lay, Winston Churchill is reputed to have said: "Country first, constituents second and party third."

Cameron put party before country with his decision to hold the referendum on leaving the European Union. It was designed primarily to prevent a damaging split in the Conservative Party but the UK will now pay an enormous price for the privilege of allowing the Tories to try to paper over their differences.

The treacherous behaviour of the leading anti-EU campaigners in the party over the past couple of days, following hard on the heels of their brazen lies during the referendum campaign, further tarnished the reputation of the UK.

No moral scruples

The antics of

Boris Johnson


Michael Gove

confirmed the caricature of cynical, frivolous public-school educated toffs who have no moral scruples about playing games with the fortunes of millions of their fellow citizens.

By contrast the striking feature of the EU summit in Brussels was the seriousness with which politicians from other countries took the whole situation and the potential damage it can do to the people of the continent.

Some of them like commission president Jean Claude Juncker couldn't help getting in a little retaliation at the British for the insults and lies told by their appalling press over the years but the general tone from Europe's leading democratically elected politicians showed up much of British politics for the shallow game that it is.

EU council president Donald Tusk was as constructive as possible in a difficult situation while German chancellor Angela Merkel, as ever, adopted a restrained and nuanced approach in a determined attempt to do her best for Europe's future rather than scoring political points for herself.

Speaking after the leaders’ dinner she said the discussions had reflected the fact that everyone felt this was a sea change, a watershed moment but she added. “We have to make clear we respect the outcome . . . We will continue to negotiate this relationship on a basis of friendship.”

Another lingering image is of the man holding his head in his hands behind the boorish Nigel Farage who had just accused European politicians of never having had a real job in their lives. The man in question was Lithuanian EU commissioner Vytenis Andriukatis.

His life history personifies the overriding importance of the European project and the puerile arguments of the Brexit campaigners. Born in a Soviet gulag in Siberia, where his family had been exiled by Stalin, Andriukatis returned home aged 10, studied to be a doctor and ultimately a heart surgeon before going on to take a leading role in freeing his country from Soviet oppression.

His response to Farage's insult was simple: "I was and still am fully with all the British people," he said going on to ask people to avoid the "cacophony and constant bashing of Brussels" .That is a message that needs to be listened to in Ireland as well.

Nonetheless, all the restraint and understanding in the world will not be enough to prevent a damaging parting of the ways between the UK and the EU unless the British can come up with some formula to move back from the precipice.

At this stage it is hard to see how that can happen. The most likely new prime minister, Theresa May, has insisted there is no going back from the decision to leave the EU. As a supporter of the Remain campaign she would find it very difficult to reverse the decision. Paradoxically, Boris Johnson might have been in a better position to find a way back precisely because he was the main face of the Leave campaign. He might have been able to stand on his head and get away with as Alexis Tsipras did in Greece.

That is precisely the reason Michael Gove moved to stab his friend and ally in the back so ruthlessly on Thursday. Big and all a bounder as Boris is, Gove’s treachery was breathtaking and will hopefully wreck his prospects of ever becoming prime minister.

Triggering article 50

No matter who gets the job it is impossible to know for sure what will happen next. The process of leaving won’t begin until the triggering of article 50 of the


Treaty and some people in Brussels are convinced it will never be triggered.

It is hard to see how it can be averted. One possibility that a general election in the UK would alter the dynamic, particularly if Labour gets a proper leader in the meantime and campaigns hard to remain in the EU. The chances of an election and a new Labour leader look remote but given the events of the past week anything is possible.

As for Ireland, Enda Kenny has played an intelligent game so far, taking as positive a line as possible towards the UK, in an effort to protect our special relationship, while not compromising on the core principles of the EU.