Book review: All Out War & Unleashing Demons
Tim Shipman has produced the best overall account of the EU referendum battle, while Craig Oliver gets under the skin of the Remain team.
On the 23 June 2016 the voters backed Brexit from the EU by a significant, but not overwhelming majority. But this was a massive shock to the political and media establishment which some people tried to compare to the events of May 1940. It reversed some forty years of UK relations with the EU in terms of business and the free movement of people. The consequences of this vote initiated a series of unintended consequences including the resignation of Cameron and the coronation of May. The complexities go beyond “Brexit means Brexit” and in not a dissimilar way have been replicated in the US Presidential election.
Instant books on great events can be superficial but set the political and historical narrative – think Guilty Men published in 1940 which trashed the reputation of the Chamberlain government. Diaries and accounts of insiders can provide valuable insights.
The best overall account of this historic event is All out War by the Sunday Times political editor Tim Shipman. Researched and written in a style similar to that undertaken by Anthony Seldon in his studies of Blair, Brown and Cameron, 'Shippers' carried out in-depth interviews at the time and immediately after the referendum with nearly all the senior participants as well as bystanders. Sometimes a matter of opinion and occasionally wrong in detail, but a must read for those both inside and outside the so-called Westminster bubble.
Clever old Shippers has listed all those he interviewed and at the same time failed to include an index. So apart from vainly thumbing through the book many of those interviewed will have bought it on the off chance they are mentioned. Can only help sales.
This is a book about leaders and their closest aides, about friendship and betrayal, and how miscalculation and ruthless focus helped turn an advantage remain to a win leave on polling day.
Shipman is objective and fair in assessment of the main characters, but his judgement on Cameron as prime minister and his reason to hold a referendum is devastating. Osborne warned Cameron of the negative consequences, and Shipman reveals that in seeking concessions from EU leaders Cameron failed to play hard ball.
The Brexiteers were divided between the old diehards who had been fighting a lonely battle for forty years – Cash, Jenkin, Redwood – and a young more ruthless crowd outside Parliament – Hannan, Cummings, Elliott and Stephenson. They had a strategic plan and came up with the message of regaining control and exploiting fears of immigration.
Shipman relates how a divided and weakened Labour Party under Corbyn, who was really a Brexiteer, was unable or unwilling to deliver the Labour vote, which felt aggrieved and marginalised. For Cameron and the Remainers it was an unusual experience to have the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and The Sun battering them into submission.
Shipman shows that a turning point in the Brexit campaign was when Gove and Johnson joined the team. Farage was important but the young Brexiteer strategists realised he was a negative asset beyond a certain core vote. All Out War concludes with the resignation of Cameron, the alleged betrayal of Johnson by Gove, the emergence and triumph of Theresa May who ruthlessly sacked Cameron ministers, many of who had patronised her, and who then proceeded to discard their core policies.
One of the Cameroons without a job but with a knighthood was Craig Oliver the director of communications at Number 10. A journalist with considerable experience in TV but not newspapers, he loyally served Cameron from 2011. Unleashing Demons The Inside Story of Brexit, is based on extensive notes that Oliver, took many of them whilst attending meetings.
It is difficult to know how accurate are some of the verbatim discussions recorded, but he gives an intimate account of life inside No 10 and his role as the PM's spinmeister. It would be fair to say that Unleashing Demons has been trashed by some reviewers, on the lines that it reads like Mr Pooter, is full with irrelevant details, is based upon a spin doctor’s priorities and is uncritical. However, any objective reader will conclude that some of the more acerbic reviews are by members of the lobby who did not necessarily have warm memories of their relationship with Oliver.
Until some other member of Cameron’s team writes an account or reveals they kept a diary – oh to hear that this was done by Ed Llewellyn – Unleashing Demons is the best account we have got.
Oliver’s book demonstrates how the Remain team was dysfunctional – a need to be cross-party but this meant immense difficulties in getting consensus – a degree of complacency and an underestimation of the young brexiteers. Understandably a lot of Oliver’s daily business was attempting to dominate the news headlines, with great emphasis on the BBC, and to counter the Brexiteers.
But most readers will be fascinated by his critical and damning comments about the motivation and duplicitous behaviour of senior Conservatives with IDS, Gove and Johnson front and centre. And anyone wishing to understand Mrs May’s withering insult to the author at the Spectator political awards, only has to look back at Oliver’s continuous criticism of her perceived failure to stand up and be counted for the Remain campaign.
Both Shipman and Oliver make the point that even if remain had won the Brexiteers would have refused to have accepted the result and were plotting a vote of no confidence in Cameron. And as Mrs May is learning the curse of Europe is now dominating her premiership.
Keith Simpson is Conservative MP for Broadland