Dear Prime Minister
I've sympathised with you during this past week. You've been through the kind of ordeal familiar to most leaders where a cloud no more than the size of a man's hand suddenly becomes a mighty storm. You were right to strike a contrite note in your speech. Yes, it would have been so much better if you had been frank with us from the outset. I believe your instincts are for honesty, and it's such a pity that you seem to have been advised otherwise to begin with. Evasiveness is never a good tactic. But it's never too late to say sorry and you did. Thank you.
However, my overriding concern today is not your own political fortunes but the coming EU Referendum. I'm very much afraid that you may have handed the Leave campaign a gift they could never have expected. "This walks straight into every Eurosceptic’s dream. It may be unfair on David Cameron. But it is very, very dangerous” Matthew Parris has written. Because if the public's view of you has changed (and it's only an if - the coming days will tell) and it's not so inclined to trust you about your personal finances, why should they trust you when it comes to the European Union?
I write as a convinced European who believes like you that this country will be far better off within the EU than outside it. And I don't just mean economically or in terms of defence, security and geopolitics. I mean what the UK has to bring to the EU as one of its leading nations committed to the common good as well as our own. It would be nightmare for me, and many like me, to wake up on 24 June to find that we had walked away from the family of peoples to whom we naturally belong.
Here's where I'm afraid you have unwittingly been the goose that has laid Brexit a golden egg. As today's Observer says, "voters may decide to forget the case for the European Union and engage in the altogether more satisfying activity of kicking out David Cameron." I hope that comment proves wrong. This is absolutely not a vote of confidence in you. But electorates have minds of their own. So now of all times, we need you to be a credible leader who can change hearts and minds not only by the persuasiveness of good argument but by your personal qualities of integrity and trustworthiness. It's not that the case for remaining in the EU has changed in any way. But public perception may have shifted in the past week: perception of your leadership, perception of your political judgment.
In a few days, the official EU Referendum campaign will be launched. How will you play this moment of opportunity?
If I may say this, I think your best bet is to go on presenting yourself to the public as the leader who is humble enough to recognise his mistakes. It was genuinely moving to hear you say to your audience that you could have handled things better and that you would learn for the future. That was courageous. It's a cliché to quote "a sadder and a wiser man" but perhaps it applies. And I believe this may help you win your case (sorry - I mean our case!). You can show that EU membership is not a matter of your own political survival or historic legacy but comes out of a real personal conviction, a deeply rooted human wisdom, a patriotism that is proud of and desires the very best for our country, and a Christian conscience that seeks the common good of all our partner nations.
One final note. I think that the more you can show that you are really listening to our Brexit friends and taking their concerns seriously, the better it will be. I think that like me, you deplore the bad tempered, sometimes abusive, register some parties in this debate have fallen into. I'm sure you value courtesy, intelligence and good faith in the way political choices are presented and discussed. Good listening isn't just for crises. It's an attribute of every wise leader. You will help set the tone.
Maybe recent events have done you a favour though it may be hard to see it that way just yet. They may have forced you to show a side of yourself to the public that we had not seen before - listening, honest, penitent, wanting to learn and do things differently. And maybe all with a bit more feeling, humaneness if you like. Many of us have warmed to that and - whatever our personal political convictions - genuinely wanted to wish you well. These qualities can help you sound an even more convincing note in the coming weeks before the Referendum. I very much hope so for the sake of the nation and for Europe as a whole.
I hope you won't mind my writing in this personal way. This comes with my prayers.
With best wishes
- Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.