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7 December 2017

Tim Shipman’s Fall Out reveals the nastiness behind the scenes of a Tory tragedy

At the time, I heard plenty about the unhappiness of civil servants and ministers. But the scale of the discontent described here still took my breath away.

By Stephen Bush

When Jane Austen started work on Emma, her fourth novel, she declared that she would “take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. When Tim Shipman began work on Fall Out, the sequel to All Out War, his detailed account of the referendum battle and its immediate aftermath, he could well have said the same.

All Out War closes with Theresa May newly installed at the top of the Conservative Party, Jeremy Corbyn re-elected as leader of the Labour Party, and Vote Leave triumphant in the referendum. Fall Out is the story of what happened next.

Readers who enjoyed the lucid prose and unrivalled access that made the first book such a treat will love its sequel. But if you are looking for something that analyses the condition of Britain and the wider forces behind the election result, this book will disappoint you. Austen reflected that her work covered a sliver of society “two inches wide”, and Shipman likewise focuses on the inner workings of Westminster’s power brokers.

As such, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party are confined to a walk-on part, though there are one or two gems about the campaign, including a marvellous anecdote about the Labour leader, the Queen and a jar of homemade blackberry jam. Corbyn himself believed he would poll only 37 per cent of the vote.

The meat of the book, however, is the Tory tragedy, and its central characters are the Prime Minister and her former joint chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. May herself is the closest the book has to a sympathetic character: socially awkward, deeply weird, essentially unsuited to the job and the inheritor of one almighty mess from her predecessor. May comes across both as someone who is socially trying – everyone who has dinner with the Prime Minister comes back with a story of stony silences and nervous pauses, it seems – and trying her best.

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The same can’t be said for “the chiefs”, or “the twins”, or whatever nickname various people bestowed on Timothy and Hill. This is a far nastier book than its predecessor. Shipman is sufficiently embedded in the upper echelons of the government that almost everyone can guarantee they will remain anonymous; and while in All Out War people used that freedom to be indiscreet, here they take it as a invitation to casual cruelty. 

Among the highlights (if that is the correct word), readers learn that JoJo Penn, May’s deputy chief of staff, was devastated at the break-up of her relationship with fellow aide Will Tanner, and that she once spent a meeting practising signing her name as “Mrs Jojo Tanner”. Hill delightedly planned to email her mother to let her know that Rod Stewart was planning to visit Downing Street, only to discover that she had misread his message declining the invitation.

The extent of the bile is only partially down to the shocking electoral reverse that rounds off the book’s third act (the final section details the backdrop and immediate aftermath and attempt to reboot the troubled Brexit talks in October of this year). All Out War was the story of how David Cameron bet both his and the country’s future on a referendum and lost, yet the undertone of viciousness that marks out this volume is entirely absent from its predecessor. The difference must surely be in the behaviour of May’s chiefs of staff, who seemed to delight at bullying and aggression.

At the time, I heard plenty about the unhappiness of civil servants and ministers, but the scale of the discontent and the bullying described here still took my breath away. In one typical incident, a civil servant and Philip Hammond share their distress. “You’ve got more power than I do, Chancellor, why don’t you do something about it?” “I don’t have any more power than you do,” Hammond responds, “We’re both stuck in this hellhole together.”

Although Shipman stays scrupulously above the fray, even the sympathetic voices contribute to a deeply unflattering portrait. Whether it is in Hill’s almost elephantine capacity for remembering and nurturing grudges, or Timothy’s extraordinary lack of self-doubt – between him and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, one feels that there were few mirrors in Downing Street that went unkissed – let alone their treatment of the bulk of their juniors, neither will use this book as a character reference any time soon.

Neither do their political judgements emerge from the story with credit. Both show an astonishing willingness to believe the optimistic and to punish the cautious. They invest time and political capital in the hunch of an embassy mandarin that Donald Trump would “surely evolve”, a prediction that has yet to bear fruit. To deliver Brexit they force through a reorganisation of Whitehall that no one will now defend. And they have a 20-point lead in the polls and a parliamentary majority with three years to run – and end up squandering both. 

The reader desperately wants May, Timothy or Hill to reach some kind of epiphany at the end of the book; to, like Emma, learn from their mistakes and emerge as a more sympathetic and rounded individual. They all ostentatiously decline the many opportunities they are given – and they are unlikely to be given another chance when, let’s hope, Shipman returns to write the third in the series. It is a measure of the failure contained within this book that the next one could be called “Red Dawn”. 

Fall Out: A Year of Political Mayhem
Tim Shipman
William Collins, 559pp, £25

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special