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23 April 2024updated 29 Apr 2024 1:34pm

Theresa May’s legacy of chaos

Tim Shipman shows how May’s charisma-free caution over Brexit made the rise of Boris Johnson inevitable.

By Andrew Marr

When that great historian Edward Gibbon presented the Duke of Gloucester with the second volume of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, King George III’s brother reportedly replied to the author: “Another damned thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr Gibbon?”

Tim Shipman is a highly traditional political journalist. That is meant as a compliment: he asks people at or near power questions and writes down the answers and reports them. What the Roman empire was for Gibbon, Brexit is for the man universally known as Shippers.

The first of his Westminster chronicles, All Out War (2016), came in at 688 pages, covered the Brexit referendum and its immediate aftermath and was described (by me) as “essential”. The next, Fall Out (2017), focused on Theresa May’s struggles to make sense of the result and the catastrophe for her of the 2017 election. It was housed within an austere 592 pages. Now, No Way Out takes the story through the rest of her miserable parliamentary struggle, up to the rise of Boris Johnson as prime minister. This thick, square book unbuckles its belt a couple of notches and spans 670 pages. Attentive – and perhaps increasingly nervous – readers, will note that this story is by no means finished. Indeed, Mr Shipman promises a final volume, Out (though “Rout” might turn out to be a better title).

The real question is whether the Westminster struggle over Brexit is really worth such a quantity of punctilious history? Shipman – doyen of the Sunday Times, who has been through three editors and three news editors, and who elbows aside Tolstoy and Henry James as idle lightweights – describes the subject of this new book, the tortuous negotiations and Westminster plotting of the May period, as “perhaps the most turbulent 12 months in parliament for a century”. Well, turbulent perhaps: but in the long run, consequential? This is a tale, after all, of circular frustration, fudge and failure.

Shipman follows a technique which I think was pioneered on his newspaper, and perhaps by the Observer as well, and which used to be known as the “powder-blue Rolls Royce” school of reportage. This describes the remorseless accumulation of incidental detail to give the impression that the reporter, and hence the reader, was actually present in the significant moment – as in: “At 4.03 pm precisely, a powder-blue Rolls Royce nosed round the corner of Downing Street and glided to a halt.”

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So, we learn that during one particularly important confrontation between ministers at Chequers, “a pack of Haribo Supermix sweets was passed around the table. When they reached Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, said, ‘I should take those off you, I think.’” A couple of pages later, “Ministers dined that night on honey and whisky-dipped Scottish salmon, Oxfordshire beef fillet and marmalade bread-and-butter pudding.”

A little later still, when a pyjama-clad Boris Johnson is wondering with his aides whether to resign, we are given the soft furnishing arrangements: “Johnson stretched back on a sofa, [Lee] Cain and [Ben] Gascoigne opposite, [David] Frost in a chair to his left.” To his left, mark you, not to his right.

The steady accumulation of detail does its job. Before long, we believe we are reading something close to 360-degree history. If Shipman hasn’t recorded it, it didn’t happen. And at times his eye for detail is comic: “Chris Grayling was chairman of the Conservative party for just 27 seconds.”

The quantity of work required to tell a complicated, many-sided story in such detail is astonishing. Gibbon would have gaped. Who said what, in which meeting, in which order, in response to whom? Shipman thanks no fewer than 27 different named transcribers for turning 300 hours of interviews into 3.3 million words. He tells us: “My goal has been to reconstruct what happened without stating the origin of each scene or quote” but inevitably, in the shaping of sentences, the identity of many of his sources becomes clear enough: my copy of the book is replete with little squiggles, circles and the word “source” in the margin.

Shipman is often at his best when he leaves the details behind and synthesises to get to a bigger point, as in: “Never before has a prime minister had to make the centrepiece of their programme something they believed to be damaging to the country.”  In a book of detail these moments of explanation are hugely important because it requires dedication to follow a narrative which gives us sentences such as: “At 9.30am da Costa went to see David Davis and Raoul Ruparel in 9 Downing Street, home of DExEU, and got their approval for King Pong.”

What do we  learn? Well, many things of genuine interest to political followers and historians. I had not appreciated in full the mistrustful antagonism between key civil servants such as Olly Robbins – May’s Europe adviser – and the lead ministers on Brexit such as David Davis and Dominic Raab. I hadn’t realised quite how inexperienced the British negotiating team was. Shipman quotes Ivan Rogers, the former senior British civil servant in Brussels: “The whole team, not just the chief negotiator, had no EU experience. It was like one of those friends’ battalions in the First World War, innocents with little experience, sent off to fight… Imagine running a financial crisis and saying, ‘Let’s put someone on top of it who is not contaminated by expertise in the financial sector.’ Absurd.”

We learn just how connected the Corbyn anti-Semitism trauma was with Brexit, because it destroyed the possibility of a respected Labour leadership working with Tories for a softer deal – for which there was a Commons majority. We learn that, beginning to confront the dilemma of the Irish border, Boris Johnson said “f**k Northern Ireland”. And we learn to our surprise that, “Johnson does not recall this.”

Above all, we get the full case against Theresa May, as a leader who simply lacked to the emotional skill-set to do what needed to be done in her time in office – charming, warming up, flattering her EU opposite numbers, showing flexibility at moments of crisis, persuading doubters, keeping allies loyal. Shipman is the best kind of reporter, rather than a columnist, and he keeps most of his thoughts to himself. Yet I don’t think he liked May, and is more impressed by the Brexiteer warlords, whose macho self-regard, disloyalty and grandiosity in the end came crashing down.

Is his book worth it? In the end, undoubtedly yes. It can be an exhausting read but in an age of short-attention-span social media caricature, this is proper work, the real stuff of understanding. Historians will lean on it heavily. Would-be political leaders of the future will learn from it. It will set the narrative about how Brexit was handled, in a way other journalists can only envy. Even the less flamboyant or wicked Roman emperors needed their place in Gibbon’s history. If we want the full story, and we do, we mustn’t complain at the duller or tougher passages.

I suffered, I have to confess, a form of PTSD in returning to the endless petty and unpleasant scandals, the abortive votes, the brain-numbing arguments and the over-complicated intrigues of the era. Westminster during the years Shipman chronicles, too often felt soiling and petty; and all the grandiose “grandees” and expletive-filled meetings of “brilliant” aides cannot raise what was going on to epic status.

The dilemma with which everyone here was wrestling – how to have good access to the EU market while completely outside it – could not be resolved. In all the increasingly elaborate and intricate plans being devised by No 10, all that detailed procedural padding down blind alleys, there was – as the book’s title rightly puts it – no way out. And as one EU player pithily observed, “The UK wanted a common rulebook but no common institutions.”

So despite the author’s verbal exuberance and diligence, this was bound to be a depressing narrative. It is the forensic account of futility, decay; and as much the obituary of an era of Toryism as its admiring record.

But if you are interested in politics, you have to be interested in this. And I can’t resist ending this review with the book’s conclusion, which seems to me unarguable: “May would hate this valediction but in the final analysis her premiership so exhausted the possibilities of Remain pessimism, of cautious, details-oriented technocratic grinding, of stilted, charisma-free communication, that she not only made possible the premiership of Boris Johnson – a Brexiteer optimist and gambler, a big-picture improviser and an arresting speaker – she made it inevitable. More than that, for the overwhelming majority of her own party she made Johnson necessary if the referendum result was to be respected… The advocate of caution and duty bequeathed the country a successor prepared to risk chaos to get what he wanted.”

Now, that’s writing.

No Way Out: Brexit: From the Backstop to Boris
Tim Shipman
William Collins, 736pp, £26

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[See also: What’s the point of Liz Truss?]

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This article appears in the 24 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Danger