What undid Cameron’s premiership wasn’t the Brexit referendum; that was merely a symptom of the approach that he took that killed his political career. Which was that he was always too concerned with the whims of parliamentary party and bent over backwards to try and keep them onside. This was why he promised the In/Out referendum in the first place; he wanted something to stop his backbenchers defecting to UKIP.
I suppose it’s easy for me to say that he should have just let them leave the party, if they dared, or bring down his leadership, if they could. I don’t think either would have happened, but again, easy for me to say as I wasn’t the prime minister. What is intriguing is while Theresa May’s premiership was not destroyed by this impulse but rather an act of personal hubris, nonetheless, her whole strategy towards Brexit has been shaped by pleasing her parliamentary party. A lot of what she has said around Brexit has often seemed nonsensical in light of what she must have always known was coming her way eventually – yet it all makes perfect sense when you consider the audience it was really aimed at.
Jeremy Corbyn’s attitude towards his parliamentary party is the precise opposite of Cameron and May’s – he doesn’t care about what they think nearly enough. Cameron and May have both gone too far in valuing a united party, while Corbyn has never gone far enough. It seems most of the time as if would actively prefer a divided party, as to have them all relatively happy with the direction of travel would probably make him think he was doing something wrong.
After the general election result was so much better for Labour than pretty much anyone had expected, I wondered for a week or so if I had got Corbyn very wrong. Maybe he was actually some sort of political genius. Perhaps he’d devised a strategy that would get him a much better result than anyone thought, something that would buy him both time and proof that a more left-wing agenda could do electorally better than the Labour right claimed, and then use the whole thing to unite the party behind his agenda. Had he stood on a platform that week behind Yvette Cooper and Chuka, both of them now with high ranking shadow cabinet positions, telling us that the Labour Party was once again united only this time with Blairism dead and buried, even by its once adherents, I would have admitted that I had got the guy wrong on several key counts. I still would disagree with him and dread him becoming prime minister, but I would have to admit my slurs on his competence were off target.
Instead, Corbyn went right back to being who he has always been, which is something short of political genius to be sure. He had benefitted from the Tories’ missteps and inherited seats and a huge vote share pretty much by default. For while it can hurt you to care too much about what your MPs think, in a Westminster system you will be hurt if you care too little. It just hasn’t hurt Corbyn quite yet. But it will come, unless he changes.