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Tim Shipman’s inside story of Brexit

The journalist who has written a book about Britain’s exit from the European Union on what he has learned about power.

By Harry Lambert

On 24 April I spoke to Tim Shipman, the chief political commentator at the Sunday Times, about his new Brexit book, No Way Out – which Andrew Marr has reviewed for the New Statesman here. I found it fascinating as an insight into a subject I couldn’t always bear to pay close attention to at the time.

Harry Lambert: What would you say is the biggest misconception about Brexit that this book makes plain?

Tim Shipman: The European Commission were not the bogeyman we painted them as much of the time. The clear dynamic of this whole period was that if you go to the civil service side in Brussels with an idea and say “this is how we want it to work”, they were actually prepared to work with you. It’s the member states that often had a more blanket “non” or “nyet” or “nein”.

The European Council, which was the group of bureaucrats who look after the member states, gave up on a deal with Theresa May; they didn’t even want to receive Olly Robbins. In his memoirs, [Michel] Barnier [the European Commission’s Brexit negotiator] repeatedly says, “Ah, those evil Brits, they kept trying to go behind my back to [Martin] Selmayr [secretary-general of the European Commission from 2018 to 2019] and to [Jean-Claude] Juncker [president of the European Commission from 2014 to 2019] and they never succeeded.”

Juncker was quite keen to have a deal, and it was Selmayr – who was regarded as this terribly monstrous evil figure by much of the British media – who was meeting Oli Robbins [May’s chief Brexit negotiator from 2017 to 2019] on the top of hotels and in distant restaurants far away from the scene in Brussels where they weren’t going to be overheard or watched. They would try and crack the big picture stuff.

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Juncker and Selmayr would go running back to Barnier and Sabine Weyand [Barnier’s deputy] and say, “We really ought to try and do this, are you happy with it?” Under both of these regimes, May was given countless concessions by the Commission that Barnier wouldn’t have granted to her. And when Boris Johnson was trying to get a deal, Stéphanie Riso, who was then Ursula von der Leyen’s right hand woman [deputy head of cabinet], was meeting David Frost [Boris Johnson’s Brexit negotiator] and Oliver Lewis [Frost’s deputy] in secret to do a deal. Again, with each of them being smuggled in and out of each other’s offices in the hope that Barnier didn’t really know what was going on.

HL: Did Britain simply start with a weak hand, or did it play it poorly?

TS: I think our hand was always weaker than people wanted to pretend. This idea that Europe was going to put mutual economic interest ahead of the politics was nonsense from the beginning. But we did have some cards, and one of them was procedural.

The EU were very organised from the start. On the morning of the referendum result, Donald Tusk [president of the European Council from 2014 to 2019] put out an agreed statement that said, “This is how these negotiations are going to work: there’s no discussion until you’ve invoked Article 50 and we’ll decide the order.”

Two people told me Britain should not trigger Article 50 until Britain was ready. They were Dominic Cummings and Ivan Rogers – Rogers the ultimate Europhile bureaucrat [Britain’s permanent representative to the EU from 2013 to 2017] and Cummings the boss of the Vote Leave campaign. Both said that under no circumstances should we be notifying until we know what we’re doing. That was completely ignored. We put ourselves on the clock and we spent months working out what any of this stuff meant. David Cameron had told the civil servants not to plan ahead, and they didn’t.

There were ways of playing this, but we had a weak hand that we thought was stronger than it was, and then we played it extraordinarily badly.

Brussels thought the onus was on us to come up with a plan for what this was all going to look like, and we didn’t. Half the time May sent Robbins to Brussels to ask them how we should play our cards. By the time she signs the joint report [in December 2017], she has committed the UK to something we would then spend 18 months trying to avoid – with the added twist of committing to a meaningful vote for MPs, which was enshrined a week after the joint report. And those two things were ultimately the spears on which she impaled herself.

HL: What have you learned about how political power is wielded by writing these books?

TS: Prime ministers need a big strategy that tells you where you’re going, you need a bunch of tactics that get you there, and you need the ability to take everybody else with you. If you look at the past four prime ministers, some of them have had one or two of those attributes. Theresa May, certainly in various phases, had none of them.

She certainly didn’t know what she was going to start with, and by the time she decided she concealed it from her cabinet and from the nation until it was too late. And she had managed to alienate virtually everybody. She wasn’t terribly tactically adept. And she had absolutely no ability to persuade people. Brexit was a sales job, and she’s not a saleswoman.

HL: Who plotted most successfully during this period? Who was the apex predator, if you like, of the negotiations?

TS: Robbins was impressive in that the deal he negotiated was the best possible version of what May seemed to want, which was to have a minimal amount of friction economically whilst being outside the single market and the customs union and being able to control immigration. The deal they actually did, as a piece of negotiation, was quite successful. The EU started off wanting just Northern Ireland to be tied into EU rules, and to get the benefits of the single market in the event of the backstop, and we negotiated a situation where the whole of the UK could benefit from that, which did breach the EU’s initial red lines.

From the beginning, Robbins was quite canny about how he accumulated power in Whitehall. He played up his role as May’s sherpa rather than his role as the permanent secretary at DExEU. As a result, he was able to marginalize successive Brexit secretaries and be the person whispering in May’s ear. He was also extremely secretive. He comes from that Home Office securocrat world. Even people in his own team say he kept everything very tight. As a result, he was able to control the negotiation.

HL: What role does Corbyn play in the book, and in Brexit?

TS: The key moment is March/April 2018. Labour is doing reasonably well in the polls and it looks like it is going to do well in the local elections. Then you have the poisonings in Salisbury, a chemical attack in Syria which causes Britain to take part in airstrikes there, and then the anti-Semitism crisis starts to build in Labour. All three of those contaminated Corbyn’s personal brand. From that point on Corbyn never really recovered.

The significance of that pays off in 2019, particularly in the autumn when Boris Johnson is prime minister. There was all this talk of a government of national unity, and various people were floated as potential leaders of that. Had you had a more popular Labour leader you could easily have conjured a majority in the House of Commons for a new government, or for a referendum, or for at least a softer form of Brexit. Corbyn’s personal behaviour and personal views, I think had a big impact in making that much more difficult. Ultimately, most of the opposition – including large chunks of the Labour Party – thought Corbyn was morally and politically unfit to be prime minister.

HL: How would you describe Keir Starmer’s position on Brexit throughout those years?

TS: The short answer is it evolved. In March 2018, when the People’s Vote campaign was set up, Keir Starmer thought a referendum was a fool’s errand. He went to Alastair Campbell’s house and told him this isn’t going to happen. Throughout the spring and summer of 2018 people are getting disillusioned with Labour’s Brexit position and Starmer begins to see that Labour members – the people who vote in leadership elections – and Labour voters are all becoming overwhelmingly supportive of a referendum. And his position evolves.

The first key moment is at the [2018] party conference where he negotiates late into the night to get an agreement that Labour, if various things happen, are prepared to call a referendum. At that point, on the podium, he writes in words that are not in his speech, that any such referendum could include “Remain” on the ballot paper. Corbyn’s camp went completely berserk. The row rumbles on from October through to when the breakaway happens in February 2019 [and a handful of Labour MPs leave the party]. Starmer shows, again, quite a degree of canniness in the way that he pushes things towards Labour backing a referendum.

He’s doing so partly out of conviction, but partly to become leader of the Labour Party in due course. If you’re looking for politicians who had a goal and a strategy and some tactics to get there, Keir Starmer managed to do that.

But he didn’t do it nearly quickly enough for Labour to get any benefit from it. By the time you get to spring 2019, the Lib Dems are the ones romping in the European elections on the Remain side. If Labour had gone earlier to a pro-referendum position, you can see a world in which they might have benefited from that more.

HL: There’s now a lot of talk about Robbins becoming cabinet secretary under Starmer, as you have reported.

TS: Well, Sue Gray is calling a lot of the shots in Labour, and she loves Olly Robbins. Before he died, Jeremy Heywood made it quite clear that he wanted Oliver Robins and Sue Gray to be running the government one day and Sue Gray, I think, would quite like to pull that off. Whether Keir Starmer goes along with it, and whether that’s acceptable to the other key people in Labour, I don’t know.

HL: Who is good at politics among Labour’s top team?

TS: I think Morgan McSweeney is. He’s largely the one who has positioned Keir. Somebody in Labour said that Morgan is the first person they’ve met in a long time who is really good at the sort of big picture strategising that you would expect from Peter Mandelson, George Osborne and so on, but he also is totally comfortable with the numbers. He is confident in the appendices of a polling report, he can run a lot of that stuff himself, he’s numerate. But as we all know, there are tensions between the people who’ve got Keir Starmer this far, like Morgan, and Sue Gray and those around her who envisage that they’ll be the ones running the government rather than him.

Wes Streeting is arguably the best communicator on either front bench at the moment. Some of his interventions on the NHS have been brave and appear to have rolled the pitch for reform. What we don’t know is how good his tactics will be and how he’ll do at taking the country with him on this. But he certainly seems to have a strategic framework for what he’s doing and he seems to be laying the groundwork for it.

HL: And who has been effective in government?

TS: Michael Gove. In most of the departments he’s run, he’s read around the subject for a month or two, he’s learned what’s happened, he’s worked out how that fits with traditional conservative philosophies [or his own]. Then he’ll meet with everyone and he comes up with a plan. Particularly at Justice and Defra he surprised people with how open he was to listening to some of the things they’d been saying. And then he’d go into the department, and say: here are my three main priorities, here are the things we’re going to do legislatively that the media can understand. And everybody knows where they are. Although I think levelling up may have defeated even him.

Hardly any ministers actually go through anything resembling that process. So many people go in and are just delighted to have the job. They get captured by the department and their diaries are filled up. And everything just carries on as before. My advice to any Labour frontbencher coming in is to think about what you’re trying to do and how you’re going to do it. Not many ministers have actually made an impact. At the moment the people who are responsible for Starmer’s missions have an opportunity to do that. But I would say most of them outside of Streeting have not yet stamped their personality on any policy or given a sufficiently strong sense of direction so that the public knows where they’re coming from.

HL: One front where Labour haven’t laid any meaningful ground is tax reform. I think that’s foolish. How is the media going to react when Labour get in and say it’s worse than we thought and in fact taxes are going to go up, when Rachel Reeves has been so adamant that there won’t be any new taxes on wealth?

TS: Well we’ve all read the New Statesman piece about how that is the only clear and obvious future place where extra money can be obtained. Michael Gove read it as well if I remember rightly, he started talking about it three days later.

I think it will depend a great deal on the size of Labour’s majority. If Labour clearly has the public behind them, the media will not want to get on the wrong side of their readers, listeners and viewers. There will be quite a lot of public sympathy for the idea that this is a total mess.

HL: How, finally, would you say Brexit has worked out for us?

TS: I mean, look, on the face of it: not brilliantly. The one area where I think it has been beneficial has been in foreign policy.

HL: That’s counter-intuitive. The loss of global influence was the main reason people like the former chancellor Ken Clarke opposed it.

TS: I’m a great admirer of Ken Clarke, and he’s been consistent on this for a long time. But I think we have made more difference and been more relevant, because we’ve had a bit more freedom to form quick alliances with like-minded nations when issues arise rather than just being hamstrung by Nato or the EU. I think the Aukus pact will expand. Some of what we’ve done with trade in the Far East is worthwhile.

In the run-up to Ukraine we were able to go further and faster than we would have if we’d still been in the EU. And Boris Johnson was quite effective going to this thing called the Joint Expeditionary Force, which is basically the Nordics and the Baltics and the Dutch and us, and that helped us to lead global opinion. The same happened with Hong Kong. We and the Canadians did lots on that. We’ve seen a whole range of issues where we’ve been able to make a bit of a difference. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a case for some kind of defence deal with the EU. With Nato and Trump potentially returning that might be wise.

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

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[See also: Salman Rushdie: “The world has abandoned realism”]

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