Inside David Cameron's doomed bunker where the war for Remain was lost
Inside David Cameron’s doomed bunker where the war for Remain was lost as former aide reveals the plots, betrayals and broken friendships that came with the vote to leave the EU
June 23, 2016. Referendum day. After a late dinner at No 10, we have gathered round the television in the Thatcher study, the sword of Damocles hanging.
On the ten o’clock news, pollsters are predicting defeat for Leave by 48 to 52. By 11pm, Nigel Farage seems to have conceded. The relief in the room is palpable. The pound rallies.
But we are wary. The results are not due in for another few hours. I can’t take another one of these results nights, Samantha says to me. I agree. ‘This will be our last one. David isn’t going to stand again, remember.’
David and Samantha’s 12-year-old daughter Nancy, who has insisted on staying up, is perched between David and me at the table. George [Osborne] is on the other side. We have set up the computer on the table, which breaks down the results we need to get, area by area.
Newcastle upon Tyne declares first — a win for us, but not a big one, making us slightly nervous. This is followed by a decisive victory for Leave in Sunderland (61 per cent to 39 per cent).
Allies: Kate Fall, David Cameron’s Deputy Chief of Staff, with the former Prime Minister and George Osborne
More results start trickling through. Most just miss the mark for a Remain win. It is beginning to look like a trend.
Nancy is marking them off. ‘Another bad result, Dad,’ she says. And another.
‘Dad, we’re losing,’ says Nancy.
How did it come to this? This was not the way we — or indeed most people — thought the referendum would go.
Just a year earlier we had won an unexpected outright victory in the General Election with a Conservative majority.
After five years of Coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, this is a welcome and radical change. We feel in step with the country.
Political liberty is ours and the issue of Europe is set to be resolved once and for all. David hopes to have his closest and most talented allies with him — until February 2016, when Michael Gove announced — despite previous indications to the contrary — that he had decided to back leaving Europe.
Ms Fall and Mr Cameron working together after the general election result in 2010
Michael’s decision has come as a massive blow to the Prime Minister — both personally and professionally. But the Leave campaign still lacks a leader with wider popular appeal.
That’s why they’re so keen to land Boris Johnson.
Fortunately, he’s more in our camp than theirs. He’s been a critic of the EU, but also a strong European. The grit in the oyster — but very much at home in the oyster.
His family, to whom he’s very close, are passionately pro-European. His father, Stanley, was an MEP; his sister and brothers are mostly pro-Europe and pro-immigration.
Above all, his regular text exchanges with David Cameron are reassuring . . . until suddenly they are less so.
Coming into decision time, Boris seems to be revolving like a hotel-lobby door.
We’re aware that he’s been talking to Michael — and then a picture comes out of the Goves and the Johnsons having dinner together.
Above all, his regular text exchanges with David Cameron are reassuring . . . until suddenly they are less so
The truth is that Boris is weighing up his beliefs on Europe and his desire to lead the party, trying to calculate how they come together to best promote his interests.
Of one thing I’m certain: he’s convinced that, had he been PM, he’d have delivered a better European deal for Britain than David has. And, at heart, I believe Boris is more for staying and pushing for reform in Europe than for leaving.
It’s the leadership issue that complicates matters for him. Less than a year ago, he was poised to take his chance at the leadership after the 2015 election. So he was sorely disappointed by David’s unexpected victory.
A bruised Boris was subsequently banished into exile, and teased by his adversary, George Osborne, who was being hailed as the coming man.
Yet now, of course, Boris has a unique chance to rebalance the scales in his favour. And it’s just too tempting. Opting for Leave looks like a win–win for him. If Leave win, and David resigns, Boris is the hero of the day. And if they lose then he’s still the hero of the day to the party whose membership is 80 per cent for Leave.
This will give him the advantage over George. And he won’t have the added problem of needing to sort out Brexit.
In fact, we often wonder if this wasn’t Boris’s preferred outcome — for us to win the referendum and him to win the leadership.
And there’s another factor. Soon after winning the 2015 election, David revealed that he wouldn’t be standing again. Had he never said that, Boris might have had more incentive to row in behind him. The thought of five more years and possibly a third election under David — with Boris exiled to the wilderness — might just have swung the balance.
The truth is that Boris is weighing up his beliefs on Europe and his desire to lead the party, trying to calculate how they come together to best promote his interests
In the end, Boris tells us he plans to make his decision in time for the publication of his regular Monday column in the Telegraph. He starts writing one version for Remain, another for Leave. He and David are in touch throughout. And then — bleep — Sunday afternoon, the news hits our phones. Boris is gone.
Boris’s decision is a huge professional blow for David. But it’s not the personal one that Michael’s was. Because while Boris was always a friend, Michael was a very close one.
We try to persuade the Prime Minister that Michael has to be left to follow his beliefs, but David can’t damp down a very deep sense of personal betrayal.
Over the decade that he’s led the party, he’s been supported by — and supportive to — a few close friends he trusts and respects. And they’ve risen with him.
Yes, they may have done well enough with someone else, but they happen to have done well with him. No one else — other than George Osborne — could have landed David such a blow.
Perhaps it’s naive of him to think that Michael, who’s always been anti-EU, would be prepared to sacrifice his political beliefs for personal loyalty. But then David believed Michael had committed, in private, to just that.
The sense of betrayal intensifies over the weeks that follow.
Mutual friends whisper in David’s ear that this is a well thought-through act of revenge. That the Goves have never forgiven him for what happened in 2014, when he moved Michael from Education to become Chief Whip — even though Michael had at first very much wanted the job.
That the Goves have never forgiven him for what happened in 2014, when he moved Michael from Education to become Chief Whip — even though Michael had at first very much wanted the job
That all the dinners, weekends, and shared school runs since then have meant nothing. That they’ve been like a brood of cuckoos in the Cameron family nest.
This is very unhelpful for everyone. I try as much as possible to shut the chatter down.
But Michael’s departure is also a big professional headache for us. He gives the Leave campaign huge intellectual credibility and a vocal leadership; he’s a powerful persuader. Michael Gove tells George that he’s supporting Leave because he can’t go against his own beliefs, but plans to be as passive as possible during the campaign. This way, he’ll protect his integrity and his personal loyalties.
But this is not actually what happens. In fact, Michael is put in charge of the Leave campaign.
At a drinks party a few weeks later, out of the corner of my eye I see his wife [Daily Mail columnist] Sarah Vine making her way towards me. She suggests we go outside to have a chat. I brace myself. Sarah is always so compelling.
Even if you profoundly disagree with her, she has a way of wrapping her narrative round you, until the way of least resistance (her way) seems the only sensible option.
She says that David and Samantha are not acting like grown-ups. This is not personal; it’s politics. Let’s put all the hurt to one side, she says, and have a huge argument and make up over dinner.
She wants me to broker this rapprochement, of course. I promise that I’ll talk to the Camerons.
Which I do. Only my efforts are made futile by the Sunday papers, which carry an open letter from Michael to David, saying he’s undermining public trust in politicians.
It’s a deeply personal attack — the sort we would have thought twice about before deploying it against even an opposition party leader. David is furious and still more hurt.
Where does Theresa May stand in all this?
David asks her, politely, as they eye each other up from opposite sides of the No 10 den. She sits very still and straight, allowing the question mark to hang awkwardly in the air, with no apparent embarrassment.
Where does Theresa May stand in all this? David asks her, politely, as they eye each other up from opposite sides of the No 10 den
It seems she hasn’t made up her mind yet. This goes on for weeks. When finally she opts for Remain, it’s because she believes it’s marginally the better option.
However, we can’t get her to engage with the campaign, save making one speech in which she takes great care to spell out that she thinks both sides have a point. Interesting that on the most pressing issue of our time, Theresa seems to have no particularly strong view, either way.
She chooses instead to sit out the campaign on the fence —which turns out to be a brilliant strategic move — while George, the so-called ruthless strategist, commits political hara-kiri for his beliefs.
The referendum looms over us. Less than a year after the General Election, we find ourselves preparing for yet another seminal poll.
There’s a sense of fatigue. A sense that, less than a year ago, we all put our lives on hold to go out and convince the British people that our vision for the country was the right one, and that we haven’t had the time to recover or rebuild.
Storm clouds over PM’s Mr Blue Sky
Steve Hilton and David Cameron
In opposition years, Steve would often visit David at home, where they’d talk informally over the issues we were grappling with, and discuss an overall strategy. Then, Monday morning, back at the office, the rest of the team would arrive to find the entire strategy had changed.
In government, this method doesn’t work. The PM cannot make decisions and then be persuaded out of them in private.
Even if David wanted to change his mind (and occasionally he does), when decisions are made, minutes are taken and hordes of civil servants begin implementing them. Steve can only put the clock back so many times.
And it is this which largely undermines Steve and erodes his spirit in No 10. He despises ‘the System’ — and never finds a way to work successfully inside it.
Early on, he starts to operate a sort of parallel government, taking meetings across Whitehall with those who think of him as David’s representative on Earth.
At first, we don’t really notice, as we’re so busy. But when he appears to go completely freelance, avoiding our meetings in favour of his own, or commissioning random work, we try to draw him back.
This results in a volcanic eruption. So we try to find other ways to bring Steve closer. Come to the meetings, we suggest. Share our office. We set up a hot desk for him in the private office, which he never uses.
As Steve’s disillusionment grows, he haunts the building like an unhappy, shoeless ghost. Underlining this is a growing sense of alienation from the one person he came into politics for: David.
When they became friends in the late Eighties, David was attracted by Steve’s compelling intelligence and radical, reforming zeal. Their friendship gave David the political confidence that he could be more than just a boy with a privileged upbringing.
Now things have changed. David still admires Steve’s blue-sky thinking and creativity — and loves him as a friend — but he wants him to find a way to operate that does not put him at odds with everyone and everything.
Yes, Steve has brilliant ideas, but not all of them are either workable or advisable. Moreover, David no longer has time for the ‘Are you with me or against me?’ game.
The rift grows and saddens me. I wish we could find a way through it, because I value and care about Steve. But we don’t.
And when Steve goes to California in 2012 to join his wife, who’s working for Google, I think we all underestimate his sense of betrayal, which later comes back to haunt us.
The American media strategist Bill Knapp, who helped Obama into office in 2008, flies over to start preparing David for TV interviews. At the end of a long day, Bill takes me aside.
‘I gotta be honest with you,’ he says. ‘You’re never going to win this one unless you have an emotional argument for Remain. And you’ve gotta have a better answer on immigration.’
Of course, Bill has zoomed in straight away on our two core problems — problems we never resolve.
It’s true our message isn’t a very emotive one. No one is pretending the EU is a perfect institution. Quite the opposite. We’ve spent years arguing for reform. Securing our special status.
Essentially, we’re stuck arguing for a marriage we’ve just taken to mediation. Saying: ‘It’s about more than just the relationship; it’s about the kids — and their kids. The house, the car, the holidays, our social life. About our lifestyle.’
But still, at the core, we’re having to mount an argument for what appears to be a soured relationship – and this is hard.
All the emotional energy is with the other side, the side that chants for liberty, freedom, a fresh start.
And everywhere we look, people are staring at their feet. Labour are nowhere to be seen. Business just wants it all to be over.
There are lots of people who want us to win — but few who want to help us.
We watch the huge gathering at Wembley — Ruth Davidson and Amber Rudd on our side against Boris and Labour’s Gisela Stuart on the other. In footage of the ‘spin’ room — where both sides are briefing journalists — we catch the sight of a familiar bald head bobbing up and down.
It’s David’s old friend and adviser Steve Hilton. Doesn’t Steve live in California? What’s he doing there?
The last time we saw him, a few months ago, was when he came to England to launch a book. He’d told us then that he didn’t intend to get drawn into the referendum campaign.
Obviously he’s changed his mind. A few weeks after Wembley, he returns to campaign for Leave, making a number of high-profile interventions.
For David, a picture taken of Steve and Boris in front of the Vote Leave bus symbolises another friendship strained by a sense of betrayal.
In some ways, this seems even more personal: Steve, not being an elected politician, was under no pressure to throw himself into the campaign.
Maybe we simply hadn’t understood that, above all, he wanted some limelight for himself.
There are moments in politics when some grow tired of the backroom and want to be number one. Older, wiser people have warned that political friend- ships don’t last. I thought: you just don’t understand these ones. They’re different. And some were.
But I see now the truth in their words. Perhaps there were just too many conflicting priorities. Of loyalty and belief. Of ambition and friendship.
On polling day, the weather takes a turn for the worse. It feels judgmental in its fury, this rain pouring down.
Many commuters in the South miss their trains home. We are anxious it will keep them from voting.
In the Thatcher study at No 10 where we sit glued to the results, David is tense but maintaining total calm.
Finally, defeated by exhaustion, Nancy slips in to her sleeping bag, which she has positioned under the table. But she can’t sleep without her childhood cuddly toy, which is duly fetched from upstairs.
There is some good news from Wandsworth. But some more very bad. Sheffield has voted to leave by 51 per cent. We sit exhausted and shell-shocked, watching the results like a slow-motion car crash.
Nothing is coming to stem the tide. There is an agonised hush in the room. We all know it is lost, that it has slipped from our hands, but no one wants to say it out loud — at least not just yet.
‘I don’t want to leave here, Daddy’
Florence, daughter of Prime Minister David Cameron
The upstairs flat in Downing Street was my goddaughter Florence Cameron’s first home, where she slept at first in a cardboard box with her name on it.
Her popularity grew with her mobility. Among her first fans were the custodians, policemen, and gardeners, who witnessed her daily excursions to St James’s Park, where she was pushed in her pram by her nanny.
It seemed hardly any time before Florence was propelling herself with speed and dexterity along the carpeted corridors of No 10 on a pink scooter, with matching helmet, and visiting her favourite members of staff (noticeably those who had sweets).
She possibly loved Downing Street more than any of us. When the moment came for the family to leave in 2015, Florence — then aged nearly six — tried to attach herself to the railings.
‘We’re supposed to make a dignified exit,’ Samantha explained to her. ‘But I don’t want to go,’ said Florence.
Around three in the morning David suggests a small council of war. George, Ed [Llewellyn, chief of staff], and I follow him down the stairs, past the pictures of past prime ministers, into his den. ‘It’s over,’ says David. ‘We’ve lost. I’ll stand down first thing.’
It’s like there’s been a political tsunami, changing the landscape overnight. Boris and Michael emerge to launch their campaign for what’s effectively joint leadership of the party. There’s real momentum around the duo.
Sarah Vine writes in her weekly Daily Mail column: ‘Given Michael’s high-profile role in the Leave campaign, that means he — we — are now charged with implementing the instructions of 17 million people. And that is an awesome responsibility.’
She’s certainly right. But it’s the use of the world ‘we’ which attracts most attention — ‘we’ meaning presumably herself and her husband, Michael.
Amid the pain of defeat, the personal disloyalty of a broken friendship weighs heavily in the flat upstairs.
The idea of Michael running No 10 alongside Boris disturbs David. The aforementioned ‘we’ have wielded the knife, leaving blood fresh on the carpet — and now seem to be busy measuring up the curtains.
However, the prospect of a Boris premiership is not straightforward either. We remain suspicious of his motives. To win the crown fighting for a cause he may not have entirely believed in seems the ultimate false victory.
David really wants Theresa May to win. She certainly needs all the help she can get to rally the MPs round her: they haven’t greatly warmed to her over the years.
I’m in a car with George Osborne, the day before the list of candidates for the Tory leadership closes.
George says it’s possible Michael Gove will decide at the last minute to stand on his own. Michael’s allies are egging him on. To be his own man.
The next morning the news breaks: Michael is to stand on his own. Yelps from the Downing Street den
The next morning the news breaks: Michael is to stand on his own. Yelps from the Downing Street den.
Later that morning, Boris announces he’ll pull out of the race. Michael’s support is whittled away and he falls out of the second ballot.
Now the two politicians who won the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union have devoured each other in political acrimony, just at the time when they should have risen to the occasion to do their best for the 17.4 million voters who put their trust in them.
It saddens me that Michael, whose political credibility was built up around intellect, loyalty, and decency, became an arch-assassin. It was a role that never suited him, and still doesn’t.
His head was turned by petty political games. Not just blowing up a few good men, but himself in the process. At least for a while.
Theresa is declared leader of the Conservatives and Prime Minister in waiting. David offers fulsome congratulations.
Only weeks ago, we’d been imagining three more years in Downing Street; now we have three days.
n Adapted from The Gatekeeper by Kate Fall, published by HQ at £16.99 © Kate Fall 2020. To order a copy for £13.60 (20 per cent discount, offer valid to 7/3/2020; P&P free), visit mailshop.co.uk or call 01603 648155.
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