The fateful Bloomberg speech of 2013 – contextualising *that* speech by David Cameron eight years later

24th January 2021

Eight years ago yesterday the then prime minister David Cameron gave a speech at Bloomberg.

The speech was to have significant consequences.

The speech can be read here and can be watched here:

And, for background, there is also this Wikipedia page.


What should make of Cameron’s Bloomberg speech eight years later?

The speech is undeniably important in the telling of the story of Brexit.

Indeed, when historians come to write of the causes of Brexit, this speech is likely to be be emphasised as a key short-term cause.

It was the first of a sequence of events that led to the Brexit we now have: the Conservative manifesto commitment for a referendum; the 2015 general election; the return of an overall Conservative majority; the referendum bill, the (supposed) ‘re-negotiation’; the calling of the referendum; the (lacklustre) government campaign for remain; the referendum result; and so on.

In terms of a linear sequence of events, the Bloomberg speech would seem to have more reason than many others to be the prime-mover – at least in the short-term.

The first of an apparent chain reaction of political explosions, some with bigger bangs than others, that lead to the biggest bang of all: the rushed departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union.



As Voltaire once said somewhere, history is a box of tricks we play upon our ancestors.

And so what looks neat and linear in hindsight can often be misleading.

This is because although historical narratives are (necessarily) linear if not always neat, past events are complex and invariably messy.

Accordingly, to reckon the significance of a politician’s speech – or of any text or any other speech act – one needs to place that text in contexts.

Otherwise one can fall into the error of thinking, in this particular case, that had Cameron not made that speech in 2013 there would not have been the Brexit we now have, or indeed perhaps no Brexit at all.


One context for the speech is the political situation of the Conservative party in and around 2013.

The party was in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, and the party itself had not had a majority in the house of commons since the early years of the premiership of John Major some twenty years before.

And in 2011 to 2013, the Conservative party looked as if it was being out-flanked by the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip).

So until and unless the Conservative party addressed the reasons for Ukip support – either by facing Ukip down or by engaging with its politics – there was a real prospect that the Conservatives would go yet longer without a parliamentary majority.

The Conservative chose to share the politics of Ukip: to make the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union a real possibility.

(And the general election results of 2015 and indeed 2019 indicate that this Conservative political strategy has worked.)

Of course, had Cameron not made the Bloomberg speech in 2013, the surge in Ukip support and its political threat to the Conservatives would not have gone away.

Even with that speech, and the Conservative manifesto commitment of a referendum, Ukip performed strongly (at least in terms of votes) in the 2013 local elections, the 2014 European Parliament elections and the 2015 general election.

As such the Cameron speech was not a cause but an effect, and had a Conservative leader not done something in response to the rise of Ukip support eight years ago yesterday, there would have been something else before not much longer instead.

Some would say that a Conservative leader could have taken on the Ukip threat – like, say, the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock did with Militant in the 1980s – but that was not realistic.

The Conservative party – like the Labour party – had not made a positive case for the European Union for decades: to the extent the European Union impinged on domestic politics, it was invariably in terms of what the United Kingdom had opposed or had opted out of.

So as long as the Conservatives sought to obtain a parliamentary majority and Ukip would challenge that, then the place and timing of the offer of any referendum was incidental.

And given that the issue of membership of the the European Union would dominate the general election of 2015, it is quite plausible to see a referendum with a Leave victory happening afterwards, even if no speech had been given at all, at Bloomberg in 2013 or elsewhere.


Another context for the 2013 Bloomberg speech and its referendum commitment was the casual approach of Cameron to constitutional matters generally and referendums in particular.

There had already been a United Kingdom-wide referendum on the electoral system in 2011 which Cameron and other opponents of that electoral reform had defeated comfortably.

Cameron and the Conservatives were also bullish about the impending Scottish referendum (that the United Kingdom government had then recently agreed would happen and which took place in 2014).

Referendums must have seemed a doddle.

And, in any case, that there would be a referendum on any future European Union treaty ‘giving powers to Brussels’ was part of the law.

This general lack of constitutional seriousness can be evidenced in other examples from around the same period: in 2014, the Conservatives put forward an especially flimsy proposal for repeal of the human rights act and in 2015, Cameron sought fundamental reform of the house of lords just because of a defeat on a tax credits proposal.

The historical caution of the Conservative party in respect of constitutional matters was non-existent by the time of the leadership of Cameron.

And so eight years ago yesterday for Cameron to make a commitment to a referendum of such potential constitutional import was not a big thing for him or most of his party.

He probably put no more serious thought into the actual implications of a referendum defeat than he would have put into an essay on the topic of referendums on a PPE degree course.

In hindsight one can now see the serious consequences of such a referendum – not least how it can create a ‘mandate’ that undermines not only effective parliamentary scrutiny but the very doctrine of parliamentary supremacy.

But in 2013 this was not given a second thought, nor indeed much of a first thought.


A third context for the speech eight years ago yesterday is not provided by a thing, but an absence of a thing.

In the late 1980s, the 1990s and the early 2000s there was such a thing as ‘Euro-scepticism’.

(I know this because I happen to have been a Maastricht-era Euro-sceptic.)

This approach had two broad features.

First, it insisted that it was primarily about being wary of the direction of the European Economic Community (and then European Union).

In this, the guiding text was another speech by a Conservative leader, at Bruges in 1988, where Margaret Thatcher said:

“We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”

(Euro-sceptics, however, tended to ignore a later part of the same speech where Thatcher also said “Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community.”)

The second feature of Euro-scepticism was that it was often a reaction to some new treaty advancement: Maastricht, Amsterdam, the (proposed) constitutional treaty, Lisbon.

But when this juggernaut of new treaties came to a halt with the treaty of Lisbon of 2007-9 – there have not been any such significant treaties since – Euro-scepticism lost the yin to its yan.

The development of the European Union entered into a settled stage.

And Euro-scepticism, as it had existed, served no purpose – the question became not about how the latest (supposed) treaty push towards integration should be countered but about membership itself.

There was now just a binary choice.

Any referendum would not be (and could not be) about any new treaty – as envisaged by the 2011 referendum legislation – because there were no new treaties.

The only thing left for a referendum to attach itself to was the question of membership itself.

And so a further context for the 2013 speech and the 2016 referendum is that – paradoxically – the end of substantial formal moves towards European Union integration at Lisbon meant that there was more risk that membership of the European Union was in question.

Those opposed to the European Union had now the cake of no further integration, and the supper of potential withdrawal.


There are many other contexts – geopolitics, migration, the credit crunch and austerity, and so on.

This post is not and does not pretend to be exhaustive.

But as with another post at this blog, on counterfactuals, this post avers that Brexit was not about just one bad decision.

There are many ways things could have happened differently and the United Kingdom could still today be in a post-Brexit predicament.

(And alternatively, there are no doubt certain decisions which could have led to substantially different outcomes – such as the decision by former prime minister Theresa May to rule out membership of the single market and the decisions by opposition leaders in late-2019 to nod-along with a general election.)

But the way Brexit did happen, at least in the short-term, followed a fateful speech eight years ago yesterday – when Cameron opened a box of tricks to play upon his contemporaries.


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20 thoughts on “The fateful Bloomberg speech of 2013 – contextualising *that* speech by David Cameron eight years later”

  1. I hadn’t previously considered whether the ack of new treaties deprived the anti-Europe wing of the Tory party of a safety-valve. It’s an interesting point and I can see the logic.

    I think Cameron’s casual approach to the referendum goes further than your second context – his refusal to spend time before the referendum allowing pro-Leave voices to decide among themselves what Leave should mean denied them the opportunity to do something which surely should have been basic in a democracy – the right for those asking for something to define what it is they want. Plus, with hindsight, the lack of clarity made the referendum much easier to win for them, and led to long periods of argument afterwards which could have been settled better and more calmly before. But it doesn’t need hindsight to see that it would simply have been the right thing to do. And from that refusal to put in a bit of effort sprang all sorts of disasters, not least what looks more than likely to be the eventual end of the UK as an entity.

  2. David

    I have read your series of blogs on this subject with interest, and as usual have found your comments thought-provoking. However, I disagree with the following statement, “Some would say that a Conservative leader could have taken on the Ukip threat – like, say, the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock did with Militant in the 1980s – but that was not realistic”. Why was it not realistic ? In my view this didn’t happen, not because it wasn’t possible, but because Cameron was a weak and incompetent leader. A more astute or deeper thinking leader could have trodden a different path. Other Conservative leaders did. Brexit wasn’t inevitable, and the resulting hard Brexit took many failures by many people to achieve, including the similarly weak and incompetent J Corbyn, another wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is in the nature of counterfactuals that we cannot know whether you or I are correct, the events did happen. But there were viable choices not taken.

    1. Spot on, in my view. One of the definitions of good political leadership is to put the needs of the country ahead of party interests.

  3. Didn’t Cameron make a Brexit referendum promise during his candidacy for the Conservative leadership some years before his Bloomberg speech?

    The whole referendum saga can be looked at rather differently. Cameron recognised the existential threat to the Tory party from UKIP. His method to neutralise UKIP was to offer a Brexit referendum, which when convincingly won by him and Remain would have silenced Farage for a long time.

    That is, he was prepared to gamble with the UK’s presence in the EU to keep the Tory party — the “natural party of government” — intact. He lost the referendum, but did keep the Tory party intact, and pretty much eliminated UKIP.

    But, having fatefully turned the Conservatives into a (largely) Leave party, they now have to live up to this. Much of this was rhetoric around the idea of “sovereignty”, the “evil empire”, and the “EU superstate”.

    Now, the EU’s representative in London can’t be an ambassador because the EU isn’t a “sovereign institution” but merely an “international organisation”. Simply put, the UK did not and could not have lost any sovereignty to the EU. This principal “argument” for Leaving was a barefaced lie.

  4. Great analysis, very thought provoking.

    If Cameron were smart, he would have drowned the Eorophobic tendency in detail. These guys were always light on detail (as we have learned to our cost).

    Insisting on a pre referendum public inquiry, chaired by a retired Supreme Court judge, would have at least thrashed out some of the issues in way they were not even discussed pre referendum.

    Would such a report have convinced 52% of Britain’s to vote to remain? No. But could it have sown enough doubt in the minds of 2,3,4% as to whether it was a good idea, thereby swinging the result? Very possibly.

    And crucially, even if it didn’t change anyone’s mind, the referendum result would have had more legitimacy by virtue of the issues having been analysed objectively and in detail. Nobody – and I mean nobody – in the referendum campaign was discussing whether we should remain in the Customs Union if we left. And amongst the many mixed messages of the Leave campaign, the mood music was that we should remain in the Single Market.

    But the referendum result has been taken as a mandate to leave both of these, with enormous consequences, many of them not supported by those who voted Leave. The lack of pre vote detail has allowed consequences to be imposed on the country that it’s hard to believe would have commanded majority support had they been explained in advance.

    Anyway, this response started with the words “if Cameron were smart” so I suppose we will never know.

    The guys who were missing in action in all this were the Liberal Democrats. Bear in mind they were part of the coalition government when the Referendum legislation was adopted. They could have insisted on this kind of process and detail being baked into the law. But no. They never miss an opportunity to disappoint.

    1. In point of fact, the European Union Referendum Act 2015 was introduced (by Phil Hammond, of all people, as Foreign Secretary after) in May 2015, three weeks after the Conservatives won a majority at the 2015 general election, when the Lib Dems had been reduced to 8 seats. Unlike the splits down the middle of the other main parties, the Lib Dems (like the SNP) have been consistently against Brexit throughout, so it seems a bit of a stretch to blame them for Brexit. (You can blame them for being outmaneuvered and so failing to secure PR if you like.)

      The 2015 Conservative manifesto had promised “a straight in-out referendum on our membership of the European Union”. Both Labour and the Lib Dems had proposed a referendum on any further powers being transferred to the EU, but not an “in/out” referendum. And then all three parties voted in favour of the referendum bill, although the Conservative majority would have passed it anyway, and there were only 8 Lib Dems anyway (the only votes against in the Commons were from 53 SNP MPs). There was no way Labour or the Lib Dems could make the Conservatives do anything once they had a parliamentary majority, but opposing a referendum would have led to an accusation that Labour and the Lib Dems were afraid of trusting the public. (Perhaps wisely, as it turned out.)

    2. A key part of the coalition was preventing Cameron calling a referendum. It only happened after the election in which the Tories won a majority, unexpectedly.

      Don’t blame the Lib Dems for this mess.

      1. While the LibDems opposed a referendum while in coalition with the Tories, they fatally undermined their credibility with the electors very early in the coalition. Having promised that there would be no rise in student fees they agreed to triple them. This volte-face deeply upset many voters, so it was unsurprising that they were nearly eliminated in the 2015 election, and thus could not enter a further coalition.

        So, yes, some responsibility for the Brexit shambles can be laid at their door.

        1. Well, if the Conservatives had not won a majority in 2015 on the back of a referendum that promised an “in/out” referendum, then we probably would not have had one.

          The responsibility for the Brexit debacle can be laid squarely at the door a succession of UK governments who failed to explain what benefits we derived from EU membership – otherwise the lies told in the referendum campaign would not have passed – but most particularly David Cameron in trying to outflank the UKIP and his Eurosceptics for a tactical advantage, but then losing the strategic campaign by failing to adequately make the case to remain.

          You can blame the other parties for letting the Tories achieve a majority in 2015 if you like, but that smacks of “why didn’t you stop me” or “look what you made me do”.

  5. The 2015 Referendum Act set out the arrangements for a glorified opinion poll. There was nothing in it about what happened if Leave won, or even about what counted as winning. It was only by default that a vote of 50% + 1 was taken to mean victory.

    What made the referendum result a de facto mandate was the government’s promise, in its information leaflet Why the Government believes that voting to remain in the European Union is the best decision for the UK, that “we will implement what you decide”. Even if you decide to leave by a majority of one vote.

    At the time Cameron had at his back a House of Commons in which both main parties were deeply divided on the EU, and two small parties, the SNP and the Lib Dems, that were vehemently opposed to leaving. Given that leaving would require, to put it mildly, a certain amount of legislation, it is unclear how he imagined he was going to implement a decision to that effect.

    His thoughtlessness about the constitutional implications of the referendum was matched by his insouciance – remarkable for a PM supposedly in favour of remaining – about the political consequences of his airy promise to deliver on a vote to leave.

  6. A serious study of the causes of Brexit will find much in your piece to set it on the right lines. I would just add two comments:
    1): To my mind the most perceptive comment on David Cameron’s attitude to the Referendum came from the BBC radio programme ‘Dead Ringers’ after the 2015 election. Basically, he made the commitment confident that the Conservatives would either lose the election or, if the leading party, would once again go into coalition with the LibDems – whose first condition would be to drop the referendum. In winning, Cameron was in the most direct sense hoist on his own petard.
    2) A few years earlier, as a relatively senior British official in the Commission, I received a circular from the Cabinet Office asking my views on the low rate of British candidacies for EU jobs, and what could be done about it. My answer was simple: the low rate was thanks to Government and politicians overtly, vocally and tacitly presenting the EU as an adversary to be overcome rather than the cooperative partner that at working level it clearly was. As to what could be done, I imagine I was not the only one to suggest the analyses of EU impact on British policy that were commissioned, and subsequently suppressed when they failed to show any adverse effects whatsoever.

  7. Yes Cameron is guilty as hell. A lightweight chancer who gambled on the Scottish Referendum and won and thought he could do the same on Brexit, to shut up I think the phrase used by one of his advisors was ‘swivel eyed loons’ in his party. This after years of his playing to the anti-EU gallery in his party. But let’s not forget the starring role played by that other lightweight, Clegg who arrogantly decided to take on the F-word on television …. and lost.

    The only time Cameron should have ventured near a referendum would have been when he was 100% certain he would win, and after (metaphorically of course) drowning the B-word in Liverpool docks.
    He (the C-word) and his companion (the B-word) and the Tory Party and the Tory press have set our country back years, and even more dangerously than Brexit, put the Union at huge risk. God d–n them all.

    Not at all easy to see where the mirror Thatcherite revolution we so sorely need will come from.

  8. “History is nothing but a pack of tricks we play on the dead.” (French original) “J’ay vu un temps où vous n’aimiez guères l’histoire. Ce n’est après tout qu’un ramas de tracasseries qu’on fait aux morts…”.—1757. Letter to Pierre Robert Le Cornier de Cideville. In Voltaire’s Correspondence vol. xxxi. edited by Theodore Besterman, 1958. Geneva [according to

    1. No wonder the translation is more readily flound. T’es sur qu’il n’écrivait pas au de Cidreville?

    2. “un ramas de tracasseries”? Alors. Voici le texte original:

      That is a letter to Voltaire’s lycée classmate and long-term friend, Pierre-Robert Le Cornier de Cideville.

      [The Medium link above needs the %5D at the end removed to make it work – I think that is a percent-encoded “close-square-backet” unintentionally added to the URL]

  9. This is what the historian Christopher Clark (in his excellent book “The Sleepwalkers – How Europe Went to War in 1914”) has to say about ‘choices’:

    “I have tried to remain alert to the fact that the people, events and forces described in this book carried in them the seeds of other, perhaps less destructive, futures.”

    Brexit was the result of many agencies, but ultimately there were less destructive choices to make. Incidentally, ‘Brexit’, as a short cut, is like Brexit itself, nonsense. Gibraltar is not in the UK and yet voted. It should have been UKexit + Gibraltar, as arguably Britain is so ill defined as to be meaningless in the context in which it was used and abused.

  10. I seem to recall Cameron at the time employed the phrase “a simple in/out referendum” which basically summed up his own simplistic analysis of UK’s membership of the EU after which he did nothing for fear of upsetting the growing eurosceptic callus in his party.

    His attempt at securing greater FoM opt-outs for the UK prior to the referendum itself underlined his & his cabinet’s lack of understanding of the complex make-up of the EU and the interests of other member states at stake and of no less importance; indeed it could be argued the immigration issues for the EU at the time were far greater. The irony of course was that far greater powers were already at his disposal within existing regulations to limit immigration from the EU. This included the ability to return immigrants to their own countries if not in gainful employment or full time education. It could be argued the infrastructure had never been built to accommodate such controls; ironically thanks to brexit we’re now hogtied with immigration red tape.

    It could also be argued that the dim view taken by other member states to his demands at the time fuelled further anti-EU sentiment but the damage had already been done with his ill-conceived 2013 speech.

    Cameron took on the role of PM and Conservative leader with a plummy voice, an air of entitlement and a certain charm all of which he believed would work to the UK’s advantage with the EU and the other 27 member states to secure a raft of selfish, internal Tory party demands he barely understood himself. He deserves every opprobrium for the chaos in which he’s played a major role.

  11. Towards the end of Cameron’s Bloomberg 2013 speech he states: “We should think very carefully before giving that position up. If we left the European Union, it would be a 1-way ticket, not a return. So we will have time for a proper, reasoned debate. At the end of that debate you, the British people, will decide.” However, this was not the case: “Alastair Campbell, who advised Stronger In, gained a reputation for playing political hardball when he worked as Tony Blair’s spin doctor, but he believes the use of the figure went beyond anything he ever authorised: “The £350 million a week was actually a straightforward lie. I can’t remember campaigns where you mount the campaign based on a lie, and then when it’s exposed, you just keep going, as Johnson and co. did.’” (All Out War by Tim Shipman pages 254-255)
    Previous comments posted on this blog have explained that the Vote Leave campaign slogan that Campbell described as a “straightforward lie”: “We send the EU £350 million a week let’s fund our NHS instead” may have “overawed MPs” causing them to vote to trigger the UK’s article 50 notification. If so, this may constitute a treason felony or “open and advised speaking” a criminal offence introduced in 1848 to oppress the Chartist movement (see comment in response to 14 September 2020 post on this blog that summarises this argument by reference to a series of five articles published in the New Law Journal). According to Dominic Cummings, this false and misleading statement about the positive economic benefits of Brexit, not sovereignty, determined the outcome of the 2016 EU referendum (see comment in response to 26 December 2020 post on this blog).
    In 1848 the Solicitor General explained to the UK Parliament how the proposed criminal offence would operate in a way that resonates with Campbell’s description of how the Vote Leave deployed their campaign slogan in 2016: “I do not consider “open and advised speaking,” language used during the moment of excitement at a public meeting, such, for instance, as if a person should tell an assembly to go down to this House and force it into the adoption of a measure—I do not think any jury would convict a man for such language. But if, on the other hand, the speaker says you will never obtain redress unless you organise and arm yourselves, and force the concession of what you desire-if this was done—if such language was held day after day, notwithstanding repeated warnings—nobody could doubt that such would be open and advised speaking, and, as such would fall within the penalties of the statute.”
    The Vote Leave battle bus, launched on 12 May 2016, had “We send the EU £350 million a week let’s fund our NHS instead” posted prominently on its side, with lettering approximately twice the size of Vote Leave’s other campaign slogan that focused on sovereignty “Let’s take back control” that appeared at the bottom of the side of the bus. However, in 2021 large sections of the media now seems to have accepted that the central justification for Brexit in 2016 was the more illusive quality of sovereignty. For example, Robert Shrimsley has written: “This is not about the policy of Brexit. However mistaken that cause, it was a legitimate belief pursued through democratic means. For all of its distortions the campaign was built on a central truth about the loss of sovereignty” (13 January 2021, Financial Times). Sovereignty was not the primary theme for Vote Leave in the 2016 referendum and something that Cameron’s 2013 speech addresses whilst also making the case for a relationship with the EU that delivered economic prosperity.
    The unofficial Leave EU campaign, led by Farage and Banks, also disapproved of Vote Leave’s £350 million for the NHS slogan. Farage sought to publicly distance himself from the Vote Leave slogan as soon as possible after the result in 2016 during an interview with Susanna Reid. Banks’ book the “The Bad Boys of Brexit” provides further insight on discussions behind the scenes during the referendum campaign. His entry for 12 June 2016 states: “Wollaston’s Damascene conversion seems to have been driven by Vote Leave’s dubious suggestion that leaving the EU could free up £350 million a week for the NHS. She has a point. Elliot knows that figure is dodgy, but he persists in using it. Nigel had dinner with Michael Gove a couple of weeks ago and begged them to drop it. He pointed out that the net figure is quite impressive enough, and has the benefit of being accurate. Gove shrugged and claimed it was too late, as the figure was already ‘out there’.”
    Thus the contemporaneous accounts of the 2016 referendum written by Shipman and Banks suggest that Vote Leave consider they won the referendum in 2016 as a result of their controversial campaign slogan about the positive economic benefits of Brexit (not sovereignty) and that Leave EU considered it to be untrue (but did not seem keen to say so until after the vote). In these unfortunate circumstances the most credible counterfactual question for the UK’s current situation would appear to be: if Vote Leave had not used the campaign slogan in 2016 “We send the EU £350 million a week let’s fund our NHS instead” would the UK still be in the EU?

  12. There is one more area where Cameron was reckless. Putting Leave on the table in a referendum without working through the consequences gave legitimacy to the notion that leaving would, indeed, be without consequences.

    Had the work been done and visible in advance it would have successfully undermined the false assurances by the Leave campaign.

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