David Cameron assured Donald Tusk that there was “no risk of a referendum” after promising to hold a vote on Britain’s membership of the European Union in his 2015 General Election manifesto.
The former Conservative leader believed he wouldn’t need to hold a vote because he expected to fall short of an overall majority and that the Liberal Democrats would block any such move as part of a coalition.
In an interview as part of a BBC documentary, Tusk said: “I asked David Cameron, ‘Why did you decide on this referendum, this – it’s so dangerous, so even stupid, you know,’ and, he told me – and I was really amazed and even shocked – that the only reason was his own party.
“[He told me] he felt really safe, because he thought at the same time that there’s no risk of a referendum, because his coalition partner, the Liberals, would block this idea of a referendum. But then, surprisingly, he won and there was no coalition partner. So paradoxically David Cameron became the real victim of his own victory.”
Tusk’s remarks confirm longstanding suspicions that Cameron never intended to hold a referendum. The President of the European Council said he warned Cameron that his decision to hold the referendum was “stupid” and that his attempt to secure a deal on free movement of people before the poll was doomed to fail.
The revelations have come to light in a BBC documentary entitled Inside Europe: 10 Years of Turmoil, which will air from Monday 28 January.
In the documentary, which includes interviews with William Hague, George Osborne and Nick Clegg, Tusk said: “I told him bluntly ‘Come on David, get real’. I know that all prime ministers are promising to help you, but believe me the truth is that no one has an appetite for revolution in Europe only because of your stupid referendum.
“If you try to force us, to hurry us, you will lose everything. And for the first time I saw something close to fear in his eyes. He finally realised what a challenge he was facing.”
Tusk also recalls a telephone conversation with Cameron during which he learned he was going to resign.
“David Cameron called me and he informed me that he’s ready to resign,” Tusk said. “I said, ‘Yes David, it would be very difficult even to imagine that a prime minister who was the leader of remain’s campaign would be just two days later a prime minister negotiating Brexit.’ It was like his day of reckoning was coming, reckoning for his biggest mistake in his life.”