On June 23rd 2016 the longest, noisiest, most divisive, and what could emerge as the most consequential political debate in modern British history came to an end. The subject of whether or not the United Kingdom should Leave the European Union or Remain a member was settled by a public vote, the question having at times dominated British political life since some time before voters supported membership of what was then the Common Market via referendum in 1975[i]. This time, as in 1975, whichever side got the most votes would win. Practically everyone expected the British to do what almost always happens in referenda: choose the status quo and Remain. As the results began to emerge during the early hours of the 24th, it became clear that the predictions had been wrong. At 4.39 a.m. the BBC’s anchor declared that “the British people have spoken and the answer is: we’re out[ii].” By a margin of 52% to 48%, the British had voted to Leave. Within a few hours, the Prime Minister, who had not only supported Remain but been front and center of the campaign, had resigned. This, as seems self-evident, was really, really big news and looks set to define British politics for at least the foreseeable future. Within just six weeks of the result, Tim Shipman, political correspondent of the Sunday Times, had written six hundred pages of totally compelling reporting, based on comprehensive access to politicians, campaigners, strategists, and others and written what is almost certain to emerge as the best book Brexit and its immediate aftermath has produced. There will be many more books about Brexit; what got us there, the process of actually leaving, and how it turns out. Let us hope Tim Shipman settles down to a sequel (sequels?) to this exemplar of its genre.
Let’s first talk about the book Shipman has not written. He says almost nothing about the reasons certain people voted Leave and certain others voted Remain. Nothing is offered about the merits of the two positions. You will not learn why it might have been that Boston voted 76% for Leave and Lambeth voted 79% for Remain. Nor is any view given of the divides, such as between Leave-voting England and Wales and Remain-voting Scotland and Northern Ireland, between old and young, urban and rural, formally educated and not, which the referendum did not so much create, but reveal. Rather, Shipman’s milieu is:
…leaders and their closest aides, the decisions they make, how and why they make them, and how they feel when they turn out to be wrong. It is about dilemmas faced and confronted. It is about the battle between self and team. It is about principle and ambition, and how the two are sometimes so indivisible as to make divining motive pointless.
Moreover, he alludes to the invaluable truth that success in a democracy means that people on all sides must be prepared to be good losers. A good start would be to note Shipman’s hope that the book demonstrates that the activity carried out by both sides, irrespective of the extent to which one disagreed with them:
…was proof of…passion and belief, not of the widespread view that all politicians are lying bastards who will say or do anything to hang onto power.
What he has done particularly brilliantly is identify developments of a more prosaic nature which allowed events to take the path they did. Anyone in Britain with even a passing acquaintance with the daily news would be able to outline a broad timeline of how the result came about. They will recall that in 2015 the Conservatives won an election they were not expected to, the pledge to hold an In/Out EU referendum a key reason why. They understand that senior Conservatives Boris Johnson and Michael Gove prevaricated before declaring for Leave and that the immigration figures published a month before polling day were a boost for Leave. Most will know that Johnson, who at the time had a weekly newspaper column, drafted separate pieces arguing for both Leave and Remain as an aid to making his mind up (both are included amongst All Out War’s appendices). The manner in which his ambition to become Prime Minister was wrecked by Gove’s post-referendum betrayal are also well known, but few will be aware that according to their version of events, Gove and his entourage might have done Britain a substantial favor. Fewer still know of the tussle between Vote Leave and its foremost rival campaign, Leave.EU, to get official designation and therefore access to funds and media platforms, or that Vote Leave got the paperwork in twenty minutes from deadline. The story of how Vote Leave successfully managed to marginalize not only the highest-profile Eurosceptic politician in the country but dozens of veteran Eurosceptic Conservatives (labelled perfectly as Paleosceptics by Shipman), who in fact turned out utterly useless, is unknown and quite possibly counter-intuitive to those who wondered why veterans like John Baron, John Redwood and Bill Cash[iii] were completely absent from the campaign. The honesty and decency of Leave-supporting Conservative MP Steve Baker, whose cleverness and streetwise politicking overturned some of Remain’s constitutional advantages months before the referendum, sees him emerge from this book utterly beyond reproach. He is not a well-known man. Likewise, no-one except the keenest news-hound knows who Dominic Cummings, Campaign Director for Vote Leave, is, but Shipman’s account of his efforts confirms him as the man whose simple and aggressive yet cerebral and lateral approach allowed Vote Leave to stand any chance at all. All of these subjects are covered in a comprehensive, convincing and adroit manner throughout.
The Remain side, or Stronger In, are treated with equal focus. The difficulties of functioning across party lines are adumbrated, as is the challenge its bosses had in convincing the hard-left Labour Party leader and closet Leave supporter, Jeremy Corbyn, to campaign with any vim in the EU’s favor. What emerge clearest, however, are its mistakes. Across the whole debate, only Dominic Cummings from Vote Leave appears to have had the slightest notion of what ordinary people in ordinary humdrum Britain think and care about, and therefore what would motivate them to turn out and vote. He viewed the British public as they are, whereas Remain viewed them as substantially more supine, deferential, diffident, and obsequious. Its inability to accurately poll areas of the country outside London produced the deranged conclusion that Remain had won 55–45 just moments after the polling stations had closed. Its digital media operation was abject compared with Vote Leave’s, its negligence even including a basic security error which allowed Vote Leave’s offices to view its embargoed media material hours before release and even sit in on confidential conference calls[iv]. Its biggest error, the repeated doubling-down on what has become known as Project Fear, was perhaps not its fault. It could hardly suddenly start telling the British how marvelous the EU was because practically no senior Conservative had publicly spoken with any enthusiasm about the EU for years, making Remain’s task of portraying it in a positive light substantially more difficult. What was selected as the alternative, to instead warn of the risks of leaving, was also borne out of a misunderstanding of the public[v]. The problem was that no-one believed the economic forecasts of doom which Stronger In depended upon. Even if they did, they were prepared to risk it.[vi]
That said, several things which cumulatively would have in all likelihood contributed to a Remain win went in Leave’s favor months ahead of polling day. In this section of the book, titled “Guerrilla Warfare,” Steve Baker is star. “All wars,” he had concluded, “are won in the preparation.” Yet he had to wage what was effectively a civil war in the Conservative Party[vii] in such a way as unity would be maintained after the referendum whatever the result. This he did by delicately and subtly gathering supporters in the margins, soon compiling a hundred Leavers amongst MPs without fuss, whereas David Cameron had thought he might face fifty most familiar Paleosceptics[viii]. Once this was achieved, five constitutional barriers remained. Baker was instrumental in overcoming most of them.
First, the question on the ballot paper was altered from In / Out to Remain / Leave. Polls showed that this rewording had an effect of around four points in Leave’s favor. Second, the idea of holding the referendum on the same day as local elections was jettisoned after Baker and others pointed out that campaign literature would necessarily have to support the government for the purpose of the local vote and oppose it on the referendum. Third, and according to Shipman “perhaps most importantly,” was the issue of purdah. This is the term afforded by the arcana of British politics to the period between the formal start of an election campaign and announcement of the result. Shipman explains it better:
During that period, government officials are forbidden from doing anything that might influence the vote one way or another…but buried in small print…was a plan to scrap purdah altogether. When this was spotted by the Eurosceptics they immediately smelt a rat.
By means of a meeting in Baker’s office, Leavers decided that they would “mount the first major rebellion against a Conservative government in twenty-three years.” Via an assortment of further constitutional and procedural twists and turns, the Leavers won out. According to Shipman, this dry and apparently banal jockeying “…had a material effect on the campaign,’ the start of purdah on May 29th 2016 coincided “almost exactly with the moment the Leave campaign gained the advantage.”
There was more. The government intended to mobilize what is known in the UK as “the party machine.” This would have meant money, street campaigners and voter data, as well as the ability for Conservative Remainers, as pro-EU MP Alistair Burt put it, to say “We are the Conservative Party, in favour of the European Union.” This is a mistake Steve Baker would never have made. The party could easily have atomized if its activists, two thirds of whom supported Leave, had been forced to side with Remain. David Cameron eventually intervened to propose that the party and its staff would remain neutral. Cameron also prevented 16 and 17 year olds getting the vote[ix] having recognized that the logical extension of this to all future elections would benefit Labour. This was one of the occasions where Cameron put the country first. Shipman outlines some awful miscalculations and self-deceptions on Cameron’s part[x], but he did refuse on several occasions to risk damaging British interests in favor of the Remain campaign. Most notably, he refused to say that he would veto Turkish accession to the EU[xi] because he was concerned it might jeopardize an increasingly important bilateral counter-terrorism relationship.
The fifth and final battle concerned the freedom the Prime Minister’s Cabinet colleagues would have to campaign as they saw fit. Seven eventually did so and supported Vote Leave, though it rather appears to be the case that a few other instinctive Leavers, possibly including current Prime Minister Theresa May or Chancellor Phillip Hammond, reluctantly sided with Remain out of reasons of political expediency or loyalty to Cameron. Some believe that Cameron should have forced the Leavers to side with Remain or sacrifice their careers by refusing. This, though, would have enraged the wider Conservative Party, the cohesion of which was almost as important to Cameron as it was Steve Baker. These five developments are apparently unspectacular in isolation, but Shipman identifies that none were “sufficient to win the referendum on its own, but each of them was necessary, and together they may have been decisive.”
Aside from Steve Baker, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, two other figures on the Leave side emerge as the most important. For the purposes of detoxifying a Leave brand which risked being unable to shed synonymy with pallid and grey Paleosceptics, Gisela Stuart, a Labour MP whose heavily German accented English — even better for Vote Leave was that she migrated to Britain in 1974 — was paramount. The other is Vote Leave campaign director Dominic Cummings, a former advisor of Gove’s whilst he was Minister of Education, whose prodigious reading inculcated him with the primacy of simplicity and treating voters as they are rather than making Remain’s mistake of viewing them how they thought they ought to be. His style is understood to be rather despotic and confrontational, with particular contempt for the political class, but his ability to achieve results inspired tremendous loyalty amongst staff, which eventually turned out to be decisive in the failure of a comedic Paleosceptic plot — subject of a whole chapter of All Out War — to remove him and instead run what would have been a miserable, not to mention losing, campaign themselves. Cummings’ blog has since outlined how he believes that Leave won in spite of the vested interests opposed to it[xii]. Johnson, Gove and Stuart are confirmed as absolutely key and three of only a handful of politicians he could trust to deliver the message (“a baseball bat marked £350m/Turkey/National Health Service”) he knew would win. When the media claimed that the controversy over whether or not Vote Leave’s claim that £350 million a week was the cost to the UK of EU membership was harming their chances, Cummings chose instead to give the line that it was in a fact an underestimate. “This,” he said, “is a row we want to have.” He was right. It is not as if Remain could have drawn much fillip had the actual figure been proved to be, say, £250 million. Cummings has also explained via his blog why he wanted the UK to Leave. None of the four reasons he identifies featured at all in the campaign. It sounds an obvious thing to try and do, but to put one’s own feelings aside and campaign instead on the grounds of what you think will win the contest was evidently beyond both Stronger In and the Paleosceptics. Moreover, amongst several correct Cummings moves, two in particular detailed by Shipman stand out as being hugely important.
First, Remain drew great tonic from President Obama’s visit to the UK mid-campaign, during which he said that in the event of a Leave vote the UK “would be in the back of the queue” for a trade deal. Remain thought that that moment sealed it for them.The media thought it was the moment at which undecided voters would favor Remain. Only Cummings got it right. “This will have no effect,” he told colleagues as he strolled through Vote Leave HQ into his office. If anything, the warning helped Leave, such was the revulsion at the threat of the “special relationship” between the US and UK being trampled upon in the event of a democratic and rational decision to make a change to our future, especially given the cost in British blood and treasure of our very much front-of-the-queue roles in Iraq and Afghanistan. David Cameron’s purring “with all the intensity of a lover on a first date who thinks he has met the one” alongside Obama as he uttered the words “in the back of the queue” like “a professor addressing a bunch of dim undergraduates” was seen as particularly patronizing and must be recorded as another of his great miscalculations. It did not help, as Cummings identified, that Obama had so plainly been fed the line, given that no American has ever said “queue” instead of “line” and that in Britain we say “at the back,” not “in the back.” Shipman devotes a whole chapter to the Presidential visit. It shows Remain at their most detached and Cummings at his most perceptive.
Second, Cummings was determined that by far the best known and popular Leave-supporting politician in Britain, Nigel Farage, must be excluded from the Vote Leave campaign to absolutely the greatest possible extent. Shipman details how Cummings and a close colleague, Matthew Elliot, expended a great amount of time and bicycle tire rubber travelling around London whilst the campaign was being prepared convincing journalists and other members of liberal society that to favor Leave was a perfectly reasonable thing for a progressive and urbane thinker to do. Stage management of this required any off-putting and sickly talk about immigration, for the time being, to be avoided. Yet that was all Farage and his key financier and sidekick, Arron Banks, have ever wanted to talk about. Whilst that has made him extremely popular amongst some, he is a considerable turn-off to many that Cummings knew were there to either be wooed or put off. Farage’s marginalization was key to two related developments; one, that lukewarm Leave voters were not dissuaded by him and second, lukewarm Remain voters were not motivated into the voting booths in opposition to him.
And so to results night. The point to note is that as the polls closed, practically everyone thought Remain had nicked it. Nigel Farage half-conceded defeat, though it has since been suggested that he did so to help boost the pound in order to help speculator friends make some money. One Brexit supporting investor made £220 million. The first result, Gibraltar aside, was a skin of its teeth win for Remain in the northeastern English city of Newcastle, where the margin was expected to have been greater. Then, neighboring Sunderland gave a resounding 61–39 win for Leave. Something was afoot. This was the point at which, according to Shipman, Boris Johnson jumped out of his chair and said, “My God, we might very well win this.” Michael Gove spent the whole thing asleep in bed, apparently also convinced of his side’s loss. David Cameron sat quietly in front of a laptop, eventually retreating upstairs to drink whisky when he realized all was not well[xiii]. Results from Scotland, which voted 62–38 for Remain, were looked to with hopeful anticipation, but an insufficiently high turn-out meant it did not deliver the number of Remain votes which were being banked on. Scotland’s favoring Remain was such a foregone conclusion[xiv] that no-one had much bothered to campaign there. Once Birmingham, home to the UK’s second largest electorate, returned a narrow win for Leave, that was pretty well that. Farage was the first to declare June 23rd as Britain’s Independence Day. Gove was awoken by his wife at 4:45 a.m. and said, “Gosh. I suppose I had better get up.” He, Johnson, and Stuart spoke at a notably low-key victory press conference in the immediate aftermath of David Cameron’s announcement that he would resign[xv]. Gove and Johnson looked, according to Scottish Conservatives leader Ruth Davidson, “like a couple of teenage arsonists.” Their somber mood has been misinterpreted as dismay that they’d won a contest they had never intended to, but Shipman is clear that they had concluded that triumphalism would have been improper after a referendum result which they had been instrumental in producing had cost a Prime Minister they liked and respected his job. And so there it was. We were leaving.
Of the eight months since, not much has in fact changed between Britain and the EU. This is because Britain has spent most of that time negotiating with itself and the EU seems still to think that we won’t actually leave[xvi]. Remain media and civil society invented the concept of “hard Brexit”[xvii] or “soft Brexit”[xviii], and the highest courts in the land ruled on the question of whether Parliament would get a vote on Britain’s triggering of Article 50, the clause which allows a member state to give its intention to leave[xix]. The Labour Party, full of Remain-supporting MPs and members but reliant for its core vote on the Leave-supporting working class, has some acrobatics to perform if it wants to retain the support of both, or even, in its worse-case scenario, either. The EU’s sole objective, it so far appears, is to punish Britain in order to discourage other countries from subjecting the question of membership to voters who are by no means substantially less Eurosceptic than the British. This, however, must be weighed against the self-harm punitive measures could inflict on, say, French wine-makers and German car-makers, for whom the British market is of fundamental value. Twenty-seven member states and possibly even regional assemblies[xx] must also agree on the terms of exit. For this to happen seamlessly is improbable in the extreme. Britain says it will walk away with no deal if necessary and therefore revert to trade according to World Trade Organisation tariffs[xxi]. If post-Brexit Britain is able to improve or even maintain its current economic well-being, the value of the EU will be called into question to an even greater extent than it is today. The EU must show that countries are better off in than out, whereas a demonstration of the opposite will an axiomatic consequence of Britain’s success outside it.
In short, then, there are clearly lots more books to written about Brexit. Let’s hope Tim Shipman finds himself with another spare six weeks. All Out War is proof that no-one else has the range of contacts nor necessary aptitude to chronicle this story as comprehensively, authoritatively or readably.
[i] The vote was 67–33 in favor of Yes to the question “Do you think the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)?” It had joined two years previously after a saga which had itself lasted some decades.
[iii] John Redwood writes a good blog from a hard-line Leave perspective at www.johnredwoodsdiary.com but is hardly the sort of figure to persuade the undecided, whereas Bill Cash, whose expertise is not in question, is one of the dullest men ever to enter British public life. I offer exhibit A: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=171lz316CGU
[iv] One figure who does emerge rather well from Remain is James McGrory, the closest Remain had to a Cummings. I would not mention this except he deserves more than to be remembered for an unfortunate interview in which he accused Vote Leave of not specifying that leaving meant exiting the Single Market, before being confronted with a number of clips of numerous campaigners — on both sides — saying that a Leave vote meant exactly that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_9dKcjfeVTs
[v] A roving reporter conducting street interviews in a working-class area during the campaign asked one Leave voter if he was concerned that a Leave vote might make an overseas holiday might more expensive or that banks may relocate from London to the continent. “What the bloody hell difference do things like that make to me?” he said.
[vi] In a post referendum TV panel debate a Remain politician told the audience that although they may have voted to Leave, they had not voted for job losses, recession and being poorer. An audience member took the microphone and said that yes they did, actually, because that’s what the government had assured them would happen.
[vii] Entire books have been written on the subject of the Conservatives and Europe. Of the other parties in Parliament, every single Liberal Democrat, each of the Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh nationalists and all but eleven of 229 Labour MPs supported Remain.
[viii] 140 of 336 Conservative MPs eventually supported Leave. The rank and file Conservative Party membership was decisively in favor of Leave.
[ix] Suffrage in the UK is gained at age 18. An exception was the Scottish independence referendum of May 2014. 16 to 18 year olds would have decisively supported Remain though probably not that many would have bothered to vote. It was raining, after all.
[x] The most palpable was that he thought he unexpectedly won in 2015 because he was popular and this would see him home and dry through the referendum. No. The main reason he won was because his Labour opponent, Ed Miliband, was calamitous and English and Welsh voters did not like the idea that he would probably have been in hock to the Scottish nationalists.
[xi] Thereby removing the British government’s ability to control the number of Turkish migrants entering Britain. More on this if you research the EU’s “four freedoms.”
[xiii] His best move of the entire campaign.
[xiv] Scotland sends 59 MPs to the UK Parliament. All 59 supported Remain. It also has a national assembly comprising 129 members drawn from five political parties. 119 of them supported Remain.
[xvi] An illuminating topic to read up on is the manner in which the EU prefers to ignore referendum and election results it doesn’t like.
[xvii] …under which the UK leaves not only the EU but also associated bodies, most importantly the Single Market and the Customs Union.
[xviii] …under which the UK leaves the more overtly political elements of the EU, such as the European Parliament, but retains membership of the Single Market and Customs Union.
[xix] Part of the whole drama is that no-one has ever left the EU before except Greenland, which, come on now, doesn’t count. Incidentally, they did so because of fishing rights, which offers a clue as to why the former fishing hub of Moray was one of only a handful of areas of Scotland to vote almost 50–50 rather than conclusively in support of Remain. If the vote could be split down by industry, British fishing probably voted Leave by more than 90%. Look up the Common Fisheries Policy, should you be inclined.
[xx] An EU–Canada free trade deal, signed in October 2016 after seven years of negotiation, was almost abandoned at the last minute because the local assembly in the Belgian region of Wallonia was worried about its farmers.
[xxi] Whether this would be more costly to the EU or Britain depends on to whom one listens.