The bluster and blunder that birthed a new political era

Four new books, from the cast that brought us Brexit, chronicle the end of one political age – and the start of another.

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Not long after his party’s victory in the general election of 2015, David Cameron was in his prime ministerial ­Jaguar with his communications chief, Craig Oliver. The latter seems to have forgotten where they were or what date it was, but he clearly recalls what they discussed: the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU that had been promised in the Conservative manifesto and the anxieties that were already swirling around it.

In the account of Tim Shipman, the Sunday Times political editor, Cameron briskly went through the arguments in favour of a vote: “the public’s democratic right to decide, the need to placate his party [and] to lance the boil that had spread across British politics since the public were last asked their view on Europe in 1975”. He then summed up the case against it, using words that sound as if they might have been taken from Shakespeare but seem to have been coined by Cameron: “You could unleash demons of which ye know not.”

Five months after a referendum that now feels like something that happened several years ago, the right-wing press is in full roar, with the Daily Mail maligning judges as “enemies of the people” and Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper the Sun decrying the “loaded foreign elite” supposedly intent on defying the people’s will. That Pooterish demagogue Nigel Farage is warning of imminent “betrayal” and is planning to lead a 100,000-strong march on the Supreme Court. There has been a surge in what the modern vernacular calls hate crimes and two murders in the UK of people from eastern Europe. As it must, the government, led by Theresa May, affects to stand back from all the horror and hurly-burly, but, given its apparent belief in a so-called hard Brexit and its ugly rhetoric on immigration, it is pretty clear where it stands. Every day, we face the question: how did we get here?

Part of any credible explanation has to lie in the dire social state of large parts of England and Wales and the long tail of deindustrialisation. Another element is bound up with the internet and the ever-growing culture of mistrust and nastiness, in which fiction can easily be transformed into what some people construe as fact. Yet what detonated it all was the action taken by the politicians and campaigners who form the cast of these four books. They are all examples of what Shipman calls “elite history”, in which the public is always viewed from a distance; but that does not make them any less compelling, nor detract from the sense that they all chronicle the end of one political era and the start of another.

Shipman’s book is by far the best. It is a detailed, often pitch-perfect account that delivers the tale with an infectious sense of human drama – no mean feat, given the task of completing the whole thing so quickly. By contrast, The Brexit Club, by the Huffington Post reporter Owen Bennett, embodies the perils of the quick turnaround, telling much the same story not nearly as well, though it gains pace and readability as it nears the end of its narrative. Oliver’s book is an authoritative but dull portrait of the referendum as seen from his Downing Street bunker and the back of the prime minister’s car: a glimpse of the formulaic style of politics that sealed the referendum’s result.

Then there is the 340-page tale put together by the political donor and insurance tycoon Arron Banks and the former Sunday Times journalist Isabel Oakeshott. It recounts the story of a roguish element of the Leave campaign tied to Ukip as a real-life caper movie, awash with booze, in which the principal character is forever disappearing to Africa and central America, variously to catch exotic fish, check up on his diamond mining interests and take part in car rallies. The comedian Jim Davidson appears twice and adversaries are damned with such choice insults as “knob-end” and “bell-end”. It may be some token of these strange times that it is the story not just of an amazingly successful campaign, but of a man who may yet have an equally amazing influence on the future of British politics.

 

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Although the story of Brexit goes back into the details of postwar history, it began decisively in September 2007, when Cameron gave a “cast-iron guarantee” that if he were to lead a Tory government, it would hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Once that agreement was ratified across Europe, however, he backed down – even though, by then, not only had he planted the idea of an EU referendum in British politics but he had watched as it was inevitably seized on by the seemingly imperishable forces of Tory Euroscepticism.

Four years later, more than 100,000 people signed a petition demanding an In/Out popular vote and a Tory backbencher called David Nuttall put down a Commons motion echoing the demand. According to Shipman, Cameron could have let the whole mini-drama pass but instead he ordered an “industrial-scale operation” to tame a burgeoning backbench revolt and ensure that the motion was defeated. However, 81 Tory MPs defied him. One of Cameron’s aides said: “It was clear after that that the parliamentary party would not stand for anything but a referendum by the next election. I think the PM knew instinctively that was where he was going to end up.”

Much of the story as seen from Downing Street is full of the same sense of butter­fingered mishap. When it came to tying the referendum to his attempt to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership, Cameron made three big mistakes: hugely inflating expectations of what he could achieve in Brussels, rushing into the process, and then allowing his enemies to claim that he had not pushed hard enough. Compared to his early talk of some watershed breakthrough on immigration – “When it comes to free movement . . . I will get what Britain needs,” he had said – the comparative arcanum of an “emergency brake” on migrant workers’ right to claim certain benefits would always look like a dreadful climbdown. Rarely has so much hype and effort been expended for so little political gain.

In the build-up to the referendum, Cameron might also have faced down the Euro­sceptics in his cabinet by insisting that if they wanted to oppose his line on the EU, they would have to resign their ministerial posts. The decisive showdown came after the then leader of the House of Commons, Chris Grayling, went to see him in January this year, having concluded that whatever the outcome of the prime minister’s final negotiations he would go against him and back the Leave side. Even one of Grayling’s friends tells Shipman that Cameron could have decided to be “bloody-minded” and sack Grayling, and then wait to see if Eurosceptic ministers of any importance ­resigned. Instead, he opted for a fudged position whereby colleagues had to keep shtum only until the negotiations were complete, after which they could begin spraying No 10 with hostile fire.

In all of these episodes, we see that fascinating mixture of strength and weakness which sooner or later comes to define any party leader. Yet there is a distinct whiff of that stereotypical shortcoming of the English officer class: the situation always soundly grasped in the intellectual abstract, but action too often compromised by an aversion to confrontation. According to Oliver, Cameron gave Grayling a meek dressing-down, saying: “I try to be a pretty flexible captain, but like every captain I’ve got to have some rules.” The implied lack of steel and fatal willingness to let the other bloke get roughly what he wants make the words sound like something that might have been fatalistically uttered in a Belgian trench in 1914.

As Cameron fumbled, the campaign that called itself Britain Stronger in Europe was taking its first hesitant steps. Oliver quotes George Osborne complaining that the people in charge had “never won anything in their lives”. The organisation was commanded by Will Straw, the former founder of the website Left Foot Forward, who had just failed to become the Labour MP for the north-western seat of Rossendale and Darwen and was evidently soon emasculated by Downing Street. By way of answering Osborne’s point, he was joined by Peter Mandelson – a man whose winning streak was now history and who had last been glimpsed trying to sprinkle stale New Labour fairy dust over the doomed Gordon Brown. Meanwhile, the whole set-up was compromised by its lack of a sure sense of where the public was: a situation embodied by briefings about polls and focus groups based on a deadening, jargon-ridden view of the great unwashed.

Oliver’s book is full of this stuff. At one point, the Downing Street pollster Andrew Cooper “goes through the segmentation of the electorate and says there is a lot of churn in the key sections: ‘Hearts v Heads’ and ‘Disengaged middle’ . . .”

Oliver was evidently one of those people who were so lost in the machine that when it came to dealing with the world outside, he could interpret blindingly obvious statements as revelations. At the start of this year,he accompanied Cameron to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he bumped into the film director and producer Richard Curtis. “He’s spotted a key problem – hardly anyone has much concept of the European Union or how it impacts on their lives,” Oliver writes. “We agree there needs to be a re-education programme, but I’m also not sure a lot of people will take the word of key figures, or more to the point, if there’s the time available.” As Homer Simpson would have put it: doh!

The Labour aspect of the story is an unending mess of foot-dragging and bureaucratic hold-ups. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, apparently refused to travel on his party’s designated battle bus because to do so would have been “too New Labourish”. One former staffer with the Britain Stronger in Europe media team claims that members of the shadow cabinet were banned from helping, in effect, even if it was a simple matter of supplying a comment for a news story.

When plans were hatched in early June for the Sunday Mirror to run a big piece based on a pro-EU letter signed by 213 Labour MPs, it came to a very telling grief. The original version stated: “The Labour Party
is united in arguing that we are better off remaining in the European Union.” According to Shipman, Corbyn’s consigliere, Seumas Milne, insisted that the words “united in arguing” be changed to “overwhelmingly believes”, in order to acknowledge left-wing Euroscepticism. As a result of the argument that inevitably followed, which took place late on a Saturday night, the item crashed out of the Mirror and its only residue was a news story in the Sunday People about the chaos it had caused.

On this evidence, Corbyn and his people were no use in a fight that required agility and openness. The more fundamental point is that these graduates from the Tony Benn school of anti-EU agitation were hardly minded to help. Bennett’s book describes Corbyn as “the quiet hero of Brexit” and it is not hard to see why.

By contrast, boosted by the leadership of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – to which Shipman’s book devotes exhaustive attention – those at the other end of the ideological spectrum were working tirelessly. Vote Leave, the organisation credited by the Electoral Commission as the official voice of the Out campaign, had a particularly zealous two-man core: the battle-hardened campaigner Matthew Elliott (the one-time founder and chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, who had also led the successful fight against Nick Clegg’s proposal to change the voting system), and Dominic Cummings, Gove’s former sidekick who was Vote Leave’s campaign director.

Cummings is portrayed as an ascetic eccentric who loathes everything about Westminster and makes a point of hosting meetings in Pret A Manger. However, he clearly knew exactly what to do. Having survived an attempted coup by mobilising staff to support him, he soon coined the slogan “Vote Leave, take control”. His sense of how to rally voters to his cause had been forged in both his native County Durham and in towns in the Midlands where people “hate London, hate the elites, think more money should go to the NHS, hate bankers and are not very keen on foreigners”.

When Cummings came up with the claim that leaving the EU would benefit the National Health Service to the tune of £350m a week, he was boldly establishing his side’s supremacy. “Every time there was a row about the size of the cost to taxpayers of EU membership,” writes Shipman, “it simply reinforced in voters’ mind that there was a high cost to Britain’s EU membership.” Such, it seems, is the practice of what we have come to know as post-truth politics.

 

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Leaving Farage aside, among the anti-EU side’s other most important players were three people for whom opposition to the European Union had been a lifelong article of faith. Alongside Cummings in the Vote Leave camp were the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan and his close friend Douglas Carswell, the MP who left the Conservatives and joined Ukip in the comically naive belief that he could single-handedly “detoxify” Farage’s party and thus make the job of selling Brexit to swing voters all the easier. The rival initiatives Leave.EU and Grassroots Out, meanwhile, were funded by Farage’s ally Arron Banks, who oversaw not only a huge on-the-ground campaign but a tightly drilled telephone and social media operation located on a back road near Bristol with the unlikely name of Catbrain Lane.

Each of these men brings to mind what George Orwell said about the kind of ener­getic nationalists who often “do not even belong to the country they have ­glorified”. “Sometimes,” Orwell wrote in 1945, “they are outright foreigners, or more often they come from peripheral areas where nationality is doubtful.” Hannan was born in Peru, where he spent the first eight years of his life before being sent to an English boarding school. Until his late teens, Carswell lived in Uganda. Banks spent a lot of his childhood in South Africa, where he still keeps a second home. All three seem to share a romantic notion of an England unbound and power restored to the people. In the case of Carswell and Hannan, this is all about sovereignty and a hatred of the state. Banks seems to share some of that essential philosophy but he also has much more populist concerns, mostly about immigration.

As made evident by Banks’s ugly claim that Ukip’s most high-profile defector from the Conservatives is “borderline autistic with mental illness wrapped in”, there is no love lost between him and Carswell, and nor is Banks’s approach to politics particularly elegant. Yet, as it turned out, even though they clashed over the shape of the official Out campaign, their two very different approaches to the referendum perfectly complemented each other. Banks’s side specialised in street politics and a gung-ho approach to social media, while Vote Leave was better at national messaging. Crucially, whereas the latter embraced the politics of immigration only reluctantly, Banks and Farage were prepared to beat that drum from the start.

And now, after the Brexit vote, it is increasingly clear which element will go on to prosper. With the referendum won and the debate in England growing ever nastier, it feels as though Carswell’s and Hannan’s high-minded Euroscepticism is withering away, leaving the stage open for a seemingly visceral and brutish politics that is waged by people who are experts in the crafty manipulation of appearances.

Banks’s book is a perfect case in point. Superficially, it seems to be a brash, gorblimey diary of the fight for Brexit, written spontaneously amid the battle. Yet it is nothing of the kind. “In the heat of the campaign, I never even thought about writing a book,” he writes in the foreword. “I can’t imagine myself sitting down religiously every evening and writing up the day’s events.”

Instead, he employed Isabel Oakeshott to put the “diary” together after the fact. She and “several researchers” had to trawl through “thousands of emails and text messages . . . as well as Twitter accounts, media reports and Leave.EU’s press releases”. As such, The Bad Boys of Brexit’s from-the-hip authenticity is just a veneer: the same veneer, perhaps, that this multimillionaire uses to present himself – as Farage does – as a “man of the people”.

Banks’s recollections read like an extended account of a stag weekend, with bit parts for Liz Hurley, the Russian ambassador to London and the proposed cast – the Who, AC/DC, Alesha Dixon – of a pro-Brexit arena concert that never happened. At the heart of it are two very serious matters: Banks’s and Farage’s populist credo, and the way that they propagate it. “The more outrageous we are, the more attention we’ll get,” Banks crows. “The more attention we get, the more outrageous we’ll be.”

As readers of the NS’s recent profile of Banks will know, he is preparing to launch what he calls a new “people’s movement”. And he has one inspiration above all others: Donald Trump, whose name peppers the text of this book and whose sharing of a public platform with Farage forms its finale. Here is one of the greatest modern demons of all, let loose thanks to an economic model that no longer works, people’s displeasure with the politics of pollsters and focus groups, and 21st-century progressives being either confused or asleep.

“He represents a new kind of politics,” Banks writes, coolly, of Trump. “And I think it’s coming here.”

John Harris writes for the Guardian

All Out War: the Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class by Tim Shipman is published by William Collins (630pp, £25)
Unleashing Demons: the Inside Story of Brexit by Craig Oliver is published by Hodder & Stoughton (420pp, £20)
The Brexit Club: the Inside Story of the Leave Campaign’s Shock Victory by Owen Bennett is published by Biteback (340pp, £12.99)
The Bad Boys of Brexit: Tales of Mischief, Mayhem and Guerrilla Warfare in the EU Referendum Campaign by Arron Banks is published by Biteback (340pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump world