The phone rings. It’s a Tory MP. “The book is brilliant. So comprehensive. It reads really well.” You can hear the “but” coming like a Panzer division in a Trappist monastery. “But on page 326, you say . . .” Last week, I had three of these calls. They take three forms: first, the person on the other end tells me that I got a minor detail wrong, such as the quality of John Redwood’s coffee; second, they ask if I wish to know the full story behind an event I described (these lead inexorably to the aggrandisement of the caller); or third, they say that I have missed out a crucial meeting at which the caller did or said something notable. In trying to write the definitive first draft of our recent crazy history, I finished a 600-page book in 11 weeks. At this rate, the paperback will be more than 1,000 pages.
At least the eurosceptic pedants have read All Out War. Writing a book is so all consuming that you imagine that others are as fascinated by it as you are. I bump into a well known Labour MP under the colonnade in the House of Commons. “I hear it’s doing well,” he says. “I haven’t read all of it, just the serialisation.” Some Remainers have a different formula: “It’s all too painful.” I am learning that this loosely translates as: “I haven’t read a bloody word of your bloody book.”
A first time author has more debts than he can easily repay, not the least of which is to more august colleagues who are prevailed upon to say nice things about them on the cover. I’m grateful to Nick Robinson, John Rentoul and Peter Oborne. I run into Sir Alan Duncan and ask if he would give me a quote for the cover. “I’ve given you enough f***ing quotes for the inside,” was his pithy response. Sir Alan is now a foreign office minister and a face of British diplomacy.
It’s a brave new world.
Door of perception
Because of the book and my experience reporting from America, I’m more in demand as a speaker. I tell an audience of City wealth managers that Donald Trump’s gold doors look like the entrance to a Dubai brothel. When the hands go up for questions, the first is from a respectable-looking chap in a pinstriped suit. “How do you know what a Dubai brothel looks like?” I’m quick to say: “I should just clarify that I’ve never actually been to Dubai.” Perhaps I should first have clarified that I’ve never been to a brothel.
Beyond the history front line
I go out for dinner in west London with Guy Walters, the author of popular histories on the Nazis, and Peter Frankopan, the history rock star du jour. While we wait for Peter, Guy and I talk about the media coverage of the lunatic white supremacist who murdered Jo Cox, Thomas Mair, whose shelves were stuffed with books on Hitler’s Germany.
We reflect that our fascination with the Second World War, like for so many other Englishmen in their thirties and forties, would land us in trouble with the tabloids if we ever did anything untoward. Of my three stacks of history books, the first begins in 4000BC and ends in 1933 and the third begins in 1945 and ends with the EU referendum. Guy and I agree it was clear that Mair was a fanatic, because he didn’t just study battles and biographies – he had books on Nazi uniforms and insignia. This, we decide, is where the line should be drawn between lunatics and the rest of us. Walters then has the chutzpah to turn this idea into a column for my newspaper.
Very special advisers
Another dinner, this time in his Islington back yard with Dominic Cummings, the eccentric genius of Vote Leave. Dom was about the only person I know who appeared confident Brexit would win when the campaign started. During the coalition, the two sets of special advisers who knew best what they were trying to achieve were Cummings and Henry De Zoete, Michael Gove’s crack team, and the Nick Timothy-Fiona Hill duo running Theresa May’s home office. Both were cordially loathed by David Cameron’s team. Both emerged triumphant this year. It’s not just historic forces that win campaigns, but able strategists.
Our American friend
The news that Woody Johnson, the owner of the New York Jets, might be Donald Trump’s ambassador to London is being greeted with glee by the hard core of National Football League fans in Westminster, of whom I am one. Britain will get four regular-season gridiron games next autumn and the hope is that a franchise sets up permanently. Johnson ought to help that along.
Sport is the one part of American life that operates on socialist principles. Every year, the worst teams get the pick of the best new players, so the most hopeless side is only ever three years from winning big. Jeremy Corbyn should be a fan. The SW1 gridiron devotees compete in a fantasy league. We’ve got hacks, special advisers and even a minister of the crown. If you’re looking for political omens for 2017, three of the eight qualifiers for the play-offs are Lib Dems . . .
When I worked on the Sunday Express, the picture editor used to phone his counterpart at the Sunday Telegraph every Saturday night to say that the Queen Mother had died. One Saturday, at 3.15pm, she did. The next few hours were quite intense, not least because my boss, who had left for the day, took some convincing that my call summoning her back to the office wasn’t also a wind-up. Since then, it has seemed that big-name celebrities always die (or we find out about it) at the weekend. In November it was Fidel Castro. While the right condemns a tyrant and Corbyn leads the left in dismissing the execution of rivals and the imprisonment of trade unionists as “flaws”, my main sentiment is: I’ve lost the splash.
To Bristol to interview Arron Banks, the multimillionaire behind Leave.EU. Banks hates all politicians apart from Trump and Nigel Farage. We swap stories about writing referendum books. I give him a copy of All Out War, inscribed: “For Arron, who shook up the world”. He gives me one of his, with: “For Tim, a member of the Westminster elite”. I tell him he’s a member, too. Banks disagrees. “Everything I’ve got, I got through my own hard work,” he says. Me, too, mate. What was it Michael Howard said to Tony Blair? “This grammar-school boy will not take lessons from that public-school boy.” To give Banks his due, he was expelled for nicking the Communion wine.
Keep your enemies closer
Farage is floated as Time’s person of the year: not such a stupid idea. I was on the judging panel for the Spectator’s Parliamentarian of the Year awards and we gave Naughty Nige the lifetime achievement gong. When I phone him to discuss Trump, Farage twice says of the Tories: “They loathe me.” So much of his identity is caught up in being hated by the governing gang. The British establishment has usually won by co-opting its critics, rather than confronting them. It can’t be long before it’s: “Arise, Lord Leave.”
Betting on Brexit
Like many in Westminster, I did not confidently predict the Brexit or Trump victories, but I did invest a few quid in bets on both. Lady Shippers worked for the Remain campaign and then endured her husband writing a book about it all. My winnings will now be invested in the only sensible way: Christmas presents for my wife.
Tim Shipman is the political editor of the Sunday Times and the author of “All Out War: the Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class” (William Collins)
This article appears in the 06 Dec 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump