Brexiteers have taken the country for a ride
Exit, pursued by a bus
Every writer is always on red alert for a metaphor. Coming out of the gates of Downing Street at the start of the European Union referendum campaign, Craig Oliver, communications supremo at 10 Downing Street, sees a fox scurry across the path of his car. In its mouth the fox is carrying a dead duck. At this stage, he hopes to win and expects the fox to make it rather than the duck. Ted Hughes springs to mind in his poem “The Thought Fox”: “I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:/ Something else is alive/ Beside the clock’s loneliness/ And this blank page where my fingers move.”
The blank page has certainly been filled. It seems there was nobody involved in the referendum who was not simultaneously keeping a diary. It’s a wonder anything got done so busy were they all making notes. The surprising but overwhelming question that emerges from the unnatural act of reading so many accounts of the same campaign is to wonder whether any of it really mattered. The whole genre is predicated, of course, on the claim that it does, yet Denis MacShane’s fine history of British relations with Europe—on which basis he saw early that we would vote to leave—contains the reason why it might not. After four decades in which nobody had a good word to say about Europe, this mountain of books places a colossal weight on a few weeks of frantic activity in which hardly anyone is watching. There are two implications that sit uneasily together. This is all of great historic moment and the decision is in the balance. Yet it will all be settled by quite junior campaigners in a few madcap weeks.
Books of this kind usually struggle with a sense of proportion. The reporting of emails sent and texts not read until the following morning becomes bewilderingly detailed. Inevitably, the blow-by-blow accounts (Tim Shipman, Owen Bennett, Craig Oliver, Arron Banks, Michael Mosbacher and Oliver Wiseman) contain a lot of padding. An awful lot of food seems to get eaten and not many meals go unspecified. There are times when it feels like you are caught in the script of an unusually dull episode of Celebrity MasterChef. Breakfast means breakfast and lunch means lunch too. When Bennett opens one of his chapters by saying, “Matthew Elliott had a lot on his plate—and not just the one in front of him as he ate his lunch,” I found myself screaming, “but what was he eating? Was it seared tuna? With olives?”
You have to search hard among the shrink-wrapped sandwiches for the judgements. The first question, on which the rest turn, is whether the referendum was ever necessary. Shipman, whose enjoyable account is by a distance the best informed of the bunch, suggests that it became inevitable when David Nuttall did something or other. No, me neither and he is my home town’s MP so I keep an eye on him. This is an example of a recurring problem which is that the authors know too much but winnow too little.
The judgement is surely wrong, in any case. The best way to have avoided a referendum was just not to have called one. As Shipman relates, George Osborne certainly thought so. To answer the referendum question properly you need to go far back. Oliver quotes Nicholas Soames, who puts the main point in his usually colourful way: “If you have an Alsatian sitting in front of you and it growls at you and bares its teeth, there are two ways of dealing with it. You can pat it on the head, in which case it’ll bite you, or you can kick it really hard in the balls, in which case it’ll run away.” David Cameron should have chosen the moment of his maximum strength, soon after becoming Tory leader, to kick the Alsatian in the balls. He didn’t.
Cameron then misread the politics, yielding to the demands for a referendum because he exaggerated the threat of losing office in 2015. It’s not really true, as Oliver suggests, that the country would have become ungovernable if the Tories had not promised a referendum in their 2015 manifesto. The correct reading of the last parliament is that it was a search to find a way not to make Ed Miliband prime minister. Cameron should have chillaxed. The threat to the Tories from Ukip was never existential. Plenty of his MPs were wittering in that vein but they were all wrong and should have been faced down.
Maybe part of the problem of proportion is that everyone spends their time obsessed by what’s in the newspapers and on the television. There is a recurring assumption, never explicitly stated, that a poorly placed item on the BBC could be instrumental in changing somebody’s vote. To the extent that it matters, which heretically I think is not very much, the media had a shocking campaign. Oliver spends a lot of his book complaining, with some justification, about his old employer, the BBC. Any report that cites the Governor of the Bank of England is “balanced” by the views of some never-heard-of-him Tory MP enjoying 15 seconds of unwarranted fame. Of the newspapers, the less said the better and I wish this was a precept the authors followed too.
There is just one point worth dwelling on. One of Oliver’s chapter titles is “What It’s Like Being Ed Miliband,” by which he means the Tories discover, as Remain campaigners, that it is no fun having all the newspapers mocking you every day. Taking them at their own assumption, the Downing Street team is admitting that it had a major advantage, during the 2015 election, of a systematically biased press. I don’t really think so but they clearly do.
The clearest point that emerges, cumulatively, from all the accounts is that the campaign was truly awful. The “Leave” campaign, in particular, was a disgrace. Strangely, Arron Banks (interviewed here), friend of Nigel Farage and diamond mine owner, is by no means the worst of it. Banks points out that before his entry into politics he had been enjoying a life of happy anonymity. Not half as much as I’d been enjoying it, I thought, as I opened the book. Banks is desperate for the reader to find him a loveable scallywag and there is more than a hint of the boorish blusterer throughout. It is all relentless bants with Banks although I did formulate a new political rule, which is that any book which contains the sentence, “Simon Heffer was a particular source of inspiration” should not be taken wholly seriously.
There is, however, at least a guileless honesty to his book and neither of those words, guileless or honest, can be applied to the celebrity advocates of the “Leave” campaign. Let’s name names. This is a story with no heroes, only villains and the pantomime pair is Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. Oliver reports that Cameron took the decision early on not to permit what they call “blue-on-blue” attacks. It was probably an error to be so judicious and you can sense the prime minister’s growing anger that his generosity is repaid with insults. In retrospect, the “Remain” side should have gone in harder on Gove and Johnson. Did they ever deserve it. I defy anyone to read these books and emerge without a low view of both. They ought to be ashamed of the arguments they permitted to be used in their name.
Johnson spends his time “veering all over the place like a shopping trolley,” to use his own phrase. It is obvious that he thinks his side will lose and does not seem unhappy about the prospect. “There will be scarring and burning” says Gove at one point. If he’d said crashing and burning he’d have been even more prophetic. You have here, in all their glory, the occasions on which the articulate, metropolitan advocates for leaving the EU said that 77m Turks and Albanians might be granted licence to live in Britain. Johnson said, fatuously, that the EU super-state was doing the same work as Adolf Hitler, only with different methods. Democracy rather than fascism. Yes, that is quite different.
They end up as fugitives from their own victory. The decision to leave the EU was won on immigration and they contributed to the nasty atmosphere. The “Leave” team knew very well that their men were putting out essentially the same message as Farage, just in more palatable language. The rococo Daniel Hannan, who comes across in every interview as if he lives in a street with Shakespeare, Chaucer and the cast of the Ealing comedies, is the only person in any of these accounts who, apparently, never hears anyone mention immigration. Instead, as he sets out in his book What Next?, Hannan believes Britain’s vote to leave the EU justifies exactly the low-tax, low-regulation utopia that he happened to believe in all along. Lucky, that.
Certainly, Hannan’s utopia sounds like a nice place. He imagines what it might be like to contemplate the future: “A rectangle of light dazzles us and, as our eyes adjust, we see a summer meadow. Swallows swoop against the blue sky. We hear the gurgling of a little brook.” Sorry, but my gurgling brook just got drowned out by the sound of laughter.
Back in the land we actually live in, Gary Gibbon reports that, wherever he went, he heard the demand for control and it was always obvious what it was people wanted control over. There were 2.8m people who voted in the referendum who had not bothered at the 2015 general election and they weren’t casting a favourable ballot for sovereignty, no matter what Hannan discovered in the bubble of his own making.
Maybe that was where Jeremy Corbyn was. The Labour leader is a ghost in these pages. Oliver points out that running a campaign that spans many political parties has its own difficulties but, by and large, partisan differences were respectfully set aside. The glaring exception was Corbyn who simply wasn’t interested. The only person more reluctant than Corbyn to campaign to stay in was Theresa May who seems to have lost her phone for the entire duration, turning it on again just in time to discover that she had been made prime minister. Gibbon points out that when Corbyn is given the stage to engage Labour voters, he attacks the EU treaty with the US and then, asked to list the virtues of the EU, starts talking about the protection of bees.
“The overwhelming sensation left from this battalion of books is that the whole thing was a complete shambles”
It does not follow, though, that a more engaged Corbyn would have made any difference. The strategic direction of the campaign was set in his absence by Downing Street. In defiance of what most professionals took to be the rules of political strategy, immigration trumped the economy. More people disliked the consequences of mass immigration than feared the loss of work. This is the argument that both campaigns have on repeat. The “Leave” people worry about the potent message of economic risk. The “Remain” people know they have nothing to say about immigration but console themselves that they will probably get away with it.
As Michael Ashcroft’s polling data show, they didn’t. The prime minister probably lost the referendum when he failed to secure—as he was always going to fail to secure—a deal limiting the free movement of people.
Cameron came back from his negotiation clasping a dead duck in his mouth. It is a failure that will define his time in office. Gibbon puts it bluntly but accurately: “the voters have written him into history as the biggest political failure since Eden or Chamberlain.” Oliver describes a dinner to say goodbye to Cameron at which Osborne details the government’s achievements, but they must all know he is forever after the Europe guy. “Remind me whose idea this was,” says the prime minister after one especially bruising day. The historians will get to work soon and they won’t let him forget.
Britain now has to begin a protracted negotiation of scarcely credible complexity, to end in a position that nobody can yet describe. On which point I would strongly recommend Ian Dunt’s excellent guide to what happens next. Dunt has taken the extraordinary step of asking a set of experts what they think about matters of law. This is one of the few books of the set to face forwards rather than backwards and it is all the better for that. I learnt a lot, which I find often happens when I have the humility to listen to experts.
The overwhelming sensation left from this battalion of books is that the whole thing was a complete shambles. In a phrase of Cameron’s that provides Oliver’s title, “you could unleash demons of which ye know not.” The “Remain” campaign, like Isaiah Berlin’s fox, was interested in many things; the “Leave” campaign knew just one. Whether that simplicity was created by the campaign or whether the campaign was merely the late description of a decision already arrived at is a matter not speculated on in these pages. They wouldn’t have been written if it wasn’t assumed that it all mattered.
It is quite a story in any case and we’re stuck with it now. Hughes ends like this: “Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox/ It enters the dark hole of the head./ The window is starless still; the clock ticks,/ The page is printed.”