David Cameron, Britain's former prime minister, is sorry. He is sorry that the Brexit referendum did not turn out the way he wanted. He is sorry that Britain is paralysed by political dysfunction and that no one seems to know what to do next. He is sorry that people (including, it now seems, the queen) are mad at him.
"I feel sorry about lots of things," he said in an interview last week.
It has been three years since Britain shocked itself by voting to leave the European Union in a referendum called by Cameron, three years since his hasty exit from Downing Street and three years since he has spoken publicly about the subject.
And if his detractors in this deeply divided country feel that he has behaved like a character in an action movie who plants a bomb and then walks away from the explosion, his jacket slung jauntily over his shoulder, as fire rages behind him — well, he is sorry about that, too.
Though he does not think that is what happened.
"There was no sense of 'let someone else deal with this' — it was really that I felt I wouldn't be able to do it," he said, answering the charge that he took an "I broke it, you fix it" approach after the referendum.
"I'm a terrible doubter and worrier and niggler, and I think back on the decision over and over," he continued. "I didn't want to resign. I loved being prime minister. But I didn't think there was an alternative."
There is a degree of pent-up anger in the air here at the former prime minister, who has broken his radio silence to promote his new memoir, For the Record. He has been making the rounds all week, interview after interview, finally answering questions about his role in the drama that has consumed the country.
It has not been easy. History's first draft has not been kind to him. Even some other members of the Conservative Party say that he called the referendum in 2016 for political expediency more than anything else, to quell the right-wing unease rumbling in his party.
Sample opinion, from the former Tory Cabinet minister Michael Portillo: calling the referendum "will be remembered as the greatest blunder ever made by a British prime minister."
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Interviewing Cameron on ITV earlier this week, anchor Tom Bradby began by relaying what members of the public had told him to say: "I hope you're going to ask him to apologise for the mess he left."
("I'm deeply sorry for all that's happened," Cameron replied, in a now-familiar refrain.)
Unfortunately for his carefully orchestrated apology tour, even a fairly innocuous royal-related detail — that he had asked Queen Elizabeth II's private secretary for the "raising of an eyebrow, even, you know, a quarter of an inch" to help the government's case in the Scottish independence vote in 2014 — has been causing him trouble this week. According to British news reports, this has resulted in "an amount of displeasure" at Buckingham Palace.
As for Brexit, let us be clear about this: Cameron does not regret holding the referendum. What he regrets is handling the campaign badly. He regrets not making a more persuasive case for the Remain position, not recognising the depth of dissatisfaction with Europe across Britain and not insisting, say, that the matter be decided by more than a simple majority of votes.
"I accept that my approach failed," he writes. "The decisions I took contributed to that failure. I failed."
His book is 703 pages long, a meticulous, exhaustive look at Cameron's upper-middle-class, Eton-and-Oxford background and his mostly smooth rise through politics. It also details the tragic death of his beloved, severely disabled son Ivan, and much more. Cameron hopes that when he is remembered, it will be for more than just Brexit.
"I hope people will say he modernised the Conservative Party," Cameron said, ticking off a checklist. "He helped rescue the British economy and created jobs, while improving education and allowing gay people to get married."
In his sunny office in St. James', a portrait of the queen in the vestibule, memoirs by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in the bookcase behind him, Cameron seemed as cheerful and easy and hail-fellow-well-met-ish as ever. But he was tired. He had been answering the same questions all week.
He said that at times during these three tumultuous years — the failure of his successor, Theresa May, to get her Brexit deal passed by Parliament; the elevation of Boris Johnson, his erstwhile friend, to prime minister — it has been hard to keep quiet.
"You're sort of itching to say something, but when you've left the stage it's better to shut up and let your successor get on with it," he said.
Cameron has hardly been living a secluded life. He is on a number of boards and is president of an Alzheimer's charity, among other things. He plays tennis at a club near his house in West London. And he says that when people come up and talk to him, which they do, for example at the supermarkets in Ladbroke Grove or Chipping Norton, the upscale places where he lives, they are not always angry.
"There are some people who will never forgive me for holding a referendum," he said. "There are also a large number of people who were fed up that we kept getting promised referendums, and they were never consulted, and the EU had changed massively during our time of membership."
Cameron's memoir addresses many of the non-Brexit issues he confronted during his premiership, including his differences with President Barack Obama over how to deal with the horrific violence in Syria.
He and Obama, he said, both erred by failing to agree in advance on a plan to strike Syria militarily as soon as there was proof the Syrian government had used chemical weapons against its own people.
Obama has cited Cameron's failure to win approval from Parliament for a military strike as one of the reasons he shelved his planned strike. But while Obama has never publicly expressed second thoughts about his decision to avoid military intervention, Cameron said it is something he regrets.
"On Syria," Cameron said, "I don't think we did see things in the same way."
Cameron has never met Obama's successor, President Donald Trump, whose rise to the White House was fueled by the same populist fury that propelled the Brexit vote. But he said that the drama of Trump's presidency is hard to ignore.
"You know, I mean, he drives me crazy," Cameron said. "But it is fascinating to watch."
Speaking of Trump's unfettered Twitter habit, Cameron said it was one of the reasons he was relieved to have deleted the Twitter app on his phone.
Cameron said he hoped Britain could negotiate a mutually beneficial trade agreement with the United States after leaving the EU, despite the worry that Britain might have to import what Johnson derisively calls "chlorinated chicken" from America.
"I love eating food when I'm in America," Cameron said, carefully. "I tend to focus on the beef rather than the chicken."
In the book, Cameron discusses his anger and disappointment at the sometime allies who betrayed him by switching to the Leave side during the Brexit referendum. One, of course, is Johnson, who he believes thought of himself more than the country.
"While Boris cared about this issue, it was secondary to another concern: what was the best outcome for him?" he writes.
He said that he occasionally texts Johnson and that he hopes the current prime minister will do the right thing: work out a deal with Europe and allow the return of the 21 Conservative members of Parliament who voted against him recently and were expelled from the party.
Does he regret putting in motion the events that would lead to the elevation of Johnson, who has brought a new sort of chaos to British politics in the last few months?
Whether he is sorry about that, too, he will not say.
"There's enough psychodrama here without making it more psychodramatic," he said.
Written by: Sarah Lyall and Mark Landler
Photographs by: Mary Turner
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