Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy. Photo: Getty
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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.

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.

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

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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A Marxist case against Brexit: Trade union leader Manuel Cortes on what Labour should do

“As Jeremy listens to people, I’m sure he could change his mind,” says the pro-EU Corbynite. 

A Venn diagram of those in Labour opposed to Brexit and those critical of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership reveals much overlap. An outlier is Manuel Cortes. The Gibraltarian is a radical socialist, a decades-long friend of Corbyn and the general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA). He also believes that Brexit is a catastrophe that must be stopped.

The trade union leader, who became head of the 22,300-member TSSA in 2011, is a regular platform speaker and op-ed writer but has seldom given detailed interviews. Intrigued by Cortes’s views and his background, I met him for lunch at Haché in Camden Town, north London, a short distance from the TSSA’s headquarters in Euston Tower.

Cortes, whose wiry ponytail and earring reflect his activist heritage, speaks in staccato bursts, never equivocating or wavering in his convictions. “The collapse for the third time of the franchise on the East Coast Main Line just shows that privatisation doesn’t work,” he says of the British railways. “It’s a scam – heads or tails, the private operators [Virgin and Stagecoach] always win… They continue to run other franchises where they’re still making money.”  He highlights the irony of Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, a Brexiteer who vowed to “take back control”, allowing “the Dutch state, the French state and the German state” to profit from British franchises. “The only state that is not allowed to run our railways is our own – that is just craziness.”

Cortes was born in 1967 in Catalan Bay, Gibraltar, and raised on the Glacis council estate (“The climate was a hell of a lot better than the UK’s,” he quips of the British overseas territory). His father was an unskilled labourer and his mother a hairdresser.

The family spoke only Spanish at home and Cortes left his English-language school at 15 with no qualifications. But after becoming an apprentice electrician, and achieving a diploma in engineering from the Erith College of Technology in London, he won a place at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University to study electronic engineering. A tutor advised him to improve his English by reading the Financial Times (a title once described by Noam Chomsky as “the only paper that tells the truth”).

As a teenager, Cortes followed the exploits of Nicaragua’s left-wing Sandinistas on Spanish TV and was a founding member and chair of the youth section of the Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party (Labour’s sister party). After securing a Master’s degree in optical electronics from Strathclyde University, he later returned for a second Master’s in economics. Cortes was determined to absorb the theories needed to challenge capitalism. “For many years people have tried to bamboozle me and others in the labour movement, saying that there is no alternative to the way the economy is run.”

Who were his formative influences? “Marx: he understood that capitalism was global in nature and that those people who owned capital really had no nationality. The only way that working people could combat that was by coming together; more practically, people who tried to make it happen, even if it didn’t work. Lenin and Trotsky were very inspirational.”

Cortes, who joined the TSSA in 1998, was one of Corbyn’s most committed supporters in the 2015 Labour leadership election, providing office space and funding (Carmel Nolan, Corbyn’s first head of press, is now the union’s director of communications). “Jeremy’s seen as a beacon of hope, not just in Britain but for working people across Europe,” Cortes said.

It is just before our food arrives (a goat’s cheese burger for Cortes, chicken breast and sweet potato fries for me) that I raise the fraught question of Brexit. Alone among trade union leaders, Cortes has called for the UK to remain in the EU. “Any Brexit deal that introduces friction and borders will finish off the job that Thatcher started because our manufacturing industry will just dwindle away,” he warns. A “soft Brexit” (remaining in the single market and the customs union), meanwhile, would condemn the UK to “vassal statehood” by making it “a rule-taker, rather than a rule-maker”.

Cortes’s antipathy to borders is born of personal experience. The closure of the Gibraltar-Spain border by the Franco regime forced him to make an arduous, day-long trip, via Morocco, to visit his Spanish grandparents (his family could only afford one visit a year). The free movement of people, he argues, is a demonstration of working-class solidarity. When Cortes spoke at a 2013 May Day rally on the Rock of Gibraltar, he declared: “I have more in common with Spanish workers, with British workers, with German workers than with any boss.”

But Labour’s 2017 manifesto pledged to end free movement and Corbyn has refused to endorse a new referendum on Brexit (Cortes was said to be “furious” when the issue was not debated at last year’s party conference). “The Tories are having a conversation with themselves, I think we need to have a conversation with the country,” says Cortes. “Labour is ideally placed to start that conversation.”

Does he believe that Corbyn, a lifelong Eurosceptic, could yet change his mind? “My view is that Jeremy listens to people and he will continue to look at what the facts are,” Cortes says. “And as those facts change, and he continues to listen to people, I’m sure he could change his mind. I see no reason why he would be fixated on any position.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia