Of late, I’ve largely been trying to avoid in-depth political reading, as politics feels mostly depressing but also inward-looking, divisive and energy-absorbing. But then this book by Sunday Times political correspondent Tim Shipman popped up in my eyeline, and I was suddenly diving headlong into the referendum of last year. The subtitle of the book, by the way, is “The Full Story of how Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class“.
First things first, it’s an amazingly gripping read, Shipman has done a tremendous job at writing everything up so fully, generally so even-handedly, and with few mistakes and typos (with the exception of a comical ‘Whitney’ for David Cameron’s constituency early on…). Despite much of it being concerned with the very in-depth detail and information about the various referendum campaigns (Vote Leave, Stronger In and surrounding ones), it is page-turningly good: a surprise given that the denouement is well, not a surprise.
Secondly, if you are at all interested in politics and how it is fought (and I do mean fought) then this is utterly fascinating: from the alpha male-ness of reading Sun Tzu to the effective use of the media grid, from the behind the scenes signing off of press releases to the targeted use of social media channels….you will go away knowing a lot more, and being possibly slightly terrified by it all: particularly the ever-increasing and sophisticated use of data to target voters in particular ways. And the relentless and constant use of focus groups – one can rest assured that ‘Strong and Stable’ and ‘Bloody Difficult Woman’ and ‘For the Many, not the Few’ have been tested out countless times already.
The next thing that strikes me is the odd mix of ideologies, principles, loyalty and competitiveness that is written through the referendum like a stick of rock. It is in the way that these principles cut across each other that the heart of the story can be found: loyalty to a cause, loyalty to the party, loyalty to a position, loyalty to friends and colleagues…and then, the next day, any one of these being dropped like a stone. So there is much about how Cameron’s loyalty to the Conservative party plays a large part: in calling the referendum in the first place, but also in refusing to engage in so-called ‘blue on blue’ attacks (eg on Gove & Johnson) because the party would have to come together after the referendum. He similarly misjudged the likelihood of Gove and Johnson (and several others) joining the Remain campaign…though in the case of the former, the fact that Sarah Vine (Gove’s wife) told Samantha Cameron that Gove would be campaigning for Remain may have caused it. To be clear, this is the godmother of the other woman’s child lying to her face.
Much has been written, of course, about Boris Johnson’s role – and some of that is borne out here: there are two articles (one pro-Leave, one pro-Remain) but the author believes anyone who read Boris’ writing in the years coming up to it should not have been surprised he was on the Leave side. Either way, he comes across as surprisingly indecisive at times, occasionally incompetent (in preparation for the debates, or in not managing to hold to the terms of a deal with Leadsom in the leadership elections) and more sensitive than might have been thought. But also largely viewing the whole thing through the lens of leadership ambition – which was not the case for Gove, Hannah, Grayling, IDS et al, for whom it was a strongly held ideological position.
Gove comes across as bright and clever, but swift to believe the hype of the bubble around him. His bid for leadership, which looked doomed from the start, was based on a few of his close advisors caught up by the moment and their belief in their friend; not in a cold calculation of what was sensible and likely. The same cannot be said of Theresa May who kept her head down during the campaign, made some relatively pro-Leave comments in a theoretically pro-Remain speech, and moved quickly and decisively when the opportunity came. Again, Gove makes much of his loyalty to the party and to his political principles, but then turns round (in an evening) to stab Boris in the front and ruin his own career, as well as damaging his relationship with Cameron through a distinct lack of clarity.
The blood pressure remained pretty high reading the ‘Jexit’ chapter which covered Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour approach to the referendum. It makes for depressing reading: people rightly (I think) describe Corbyn as a decent and principled man, but he was neither with regard to the referendum. He was neither true to his principles (in that he has long been a critic of the EU and believes in leaving) nor did he act decently or properly in supporting the Remain campaign once he had, to whatever mealy-mouthed degree, endorsed it. The defence that ‘he did lots of rallies’ is quickly debunked: the referendum required reaching out beyond the already converted, and making the most of media opportunities: instead Corbyn and those around him passed up media opportunities, delayed releases over minutiae, and blocked joined-up working within the Labour Party, never mind across parties. In essence, it would have been better for Corbyn to have been true to his personal position and let the rest of the party get on with it.
The true stars of the book are those within the campaigns: Dominic Cummings on the Vote Leave side and his team, and Will Straw / Craig Oliver on the Stronger In side. Cummings is clearly smart, committed and has a ‘win at all costs’ style – the book largely comes out with him as a key and decisive figure in Leave’s win. The debate between the Leave camps is also documented closely: Farage and Arron Banks maintain that it was their more populist, immigration-led approach which won over people. In fact, it was probably the combination of the two (Johnson & Gove being the acceptable face + clever use of data / messaging (NHS, £350m etc), and Farage’s more controversial populism) that won the day. That, and the Stronger In campaign losing a series of small but important battles – on purdah, on the referendum question and so on. However, they also lost in part because their data was wrong (the polling they used comes in for a kicking here) and the approach that had won them an election and a previous (Scottish) referendum didn’t work here.
So why did it happen? Well, a wide range of factors in reality – on the Leave side, messages that resonated and clever and targeted use of social media and data, combined with a broad and wide-sweeping ground campaign (the turnout was higher than everyone expected). The In campaign was too focused on its economic (risk) message, and was too tentative in taking on Leave’s key figures and key messages personally…until too late in the campaign. Labour were a bit of a shower, as discussed above, and there was definitely some complacency from within number 10. We forget that it seems part of the ‘wave of populism’ now, but Brexit came before Trump, Le Pen et al, so it was a surprise. The Tories in the In Campaign also found out the reality of a political battle when the press is not on your side. Finally, and more fundamentally, the predominant discourse for the last 20 to 30 years has been Eurosceptic. Above everything, this was simply too difficult to rebut and turn round in the space of a few months – particularly with too few people prepared to make a positive case for Europe.
I feel like I learned a lot reading this book, despite having read countless articles post-Brexit about ‘the reason’ it happened. Social media and data usage has completely changed political campaigning, but there is still no substitute for face-to-face knocking on doors and getting the vote out. There are levels of incompetence and basic mistake-making from bright and intelligent people that probably shouldn’t surprise, but do. There were lots of marginal wins and decisions that had a significant influence but it was part of a much larger trend.
But the thing that will stay with me the most is the interplay of political and personal principles, of party and familial loyalty, of personal ambition and political ideology – and the hypocrisy and cynicism of politicians and their advisors across the spectrum. Those who know that world better than me will presumably know this already, and be unsurprised: but it’s never been revealed as starkly to me as in these pages. It reminded me of the great Ambrose Bierce’s definition of politics:
Politics: A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage