May's election and Cameron's referendum: which was the bigger mistake?

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks at an event

History will remember David Cameron and Theresa May for their political miscalculations, but whose was worse?

Before the EU referendum, David Cameron denied that he would step down if Remain lost, according to the Independent. But as we now know, on the 24th June 2016, when Leave emerged victorious, the prime minister put in motion the process for his resignation. That morning – and the decision to hold a referendum - will always be associated with his name.

Next came May, who inherited David Cameron’s majority last July. After months of ruling out a snap general election, she called one this April. Subsequently, the Conservatives lost their majority, losing ground to the once unpopular Jeremy Corbyn.

Both of the century’s only Conservative prime ministers so far will forever be tarnished by these results, but who fared worse?

David Cameron’s referendum failure was a big mistake because the country voted against what he supported, but unlike Theresa May’s election, Cameron’s referendum was arguably necessary. Without promising the referendum in the 2015 election, the Conservatives could have lost considerably more ground to UKIP who were snapping fiercely at their heels. He arguably did the inevitable and let the EU debate play out in the open. It led to his end, but it likely helped him achieve a majority in 2015, something which no other Conservative leader had achieved since John Major back in 1992.

On the other hand, Theresa May’s election was unnecessary. She came to power with a majority and four years of guaranteed stability, except for possible back-bench rebellions. Yes, the Conservatives received their highest vote-share in years this June, but the fact they lost their majority has weakened Theresa May, almost certainly sealing her fate as the century’s shortest-serving prime minister.

David Cameron may have lost a referendum, a decision which will shape Britain and Europe for decades to come, but the referendum was likely always to take place at some stage or another, whereas Theresa May’s unneeded election backfired in the worst possible way.

Add to that the fact that David Cameron will be remembered for winning a majority, I know who I would rather be.

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