Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

Show Hide image

Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.