I spent a bit of time last week on the set of the new Brexit film, which James Graham has written for Channel 4. My book on the referendum has been plundered by the new production, so it was fascinating seeing real events given life again, in several pitch-perfect performances.
The subject of conversation on set was the public slating of a leaked (early) copy of the script earlier that week.
Most agitated of the slaters was Carole Cadwalladr, the Observer reporter who has made her name by uncovering malfeasance around the use of data in politics and the financing of the referendum. ‘It’s profoundly wrong on every level,’ she moaned. ‘It’s wilfully misleading the public.’ Cadwalladr has done some superb reporting but she has also got some things wrong and appears irritated that the smoking gun she seeks won’t be in the first film of those events.
Also agitated were her sometime targets, the self-styled Bad Boys of Brexit — Arron Banks and Nigel Farage — and their American alter ego Steve Bannon, who pronounced the drama ‘bullshit’. Banks’s sidekick Andy Wigmore expressed concern that their ilk would be depicted as ‘bellends’.
What the reaction to the leak shows is how much of a contested space the Brexit referendum remains. Brexit is the story of our times and everyone wants it to be told their way. Yet, more than two years after the referendum vote, there is no settled view about what it means, what it is and what it could be.
None of the mainstream Brexiteers followed Churchill’s dictum that ‘History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it myself.’ Bravely, they left that to the likes of me. Arron Banks did so and played it for laughs. If, as Bannon complained, the Banks-Farage parts of the production are ‘a clown show’, they can hardly complain that they have become the comic relief.
As for the Remoaners, and their favourite Sunday scribe, they give every impression of being people who will find peace only when they have located a photograph with Vladimir Putin’s hand up Nigel Farage’s fundament.
For the rest of us, Graham is the perfect storyteller: a rare combination of someone who cares about the detail but doesn’t let it dominate at the expense of the human drama; someone who doesn’t shrink from showing the shadows his characters cast. To attack Graham is anyway to shoot the messenger when it is the politicians who ought to be censured.
‘Brexit means Brexit,’ our Prime Minister told us in her leadership launch speech on 30 June 2016. What she actually meant by that seems to have been in flux ever since. For a long time Theresa May gave every impression of not wanting to clarify what she meant for fear of upsetting one side or the other.
When she did lay out her vision at Chequers, she suffered two cabinet resignations and has run up against her unwillingness or inability to explain herself in a compelling fashion to a befuddled nation.
For their part, the Brexiteers won the referendum precisely because they did not define which of the myriad future Brexits they wanted. Dominic Cummings — the Vote Leave campaign director who is rightly the central character in Graham’s film — was explicit that his team would never express a preference. The Norwegian, Canadian and Swiss models would be solely for the delectation of Brexiteer MPs who liked stepping out with exotic ladies rather than choices in the campaign literature.
The look on Michael Gove and Boris Johnson’s faces the morning after the result — and Johnson’s decision to play cricket that weekend — have allowed their enemies to tell a story of unpreparedness for victory which has stuck to this day, though it is clear the Remainers were no better prepared for defeat.
The Brexiteers have responded differently to their ownership of what might turn out to be a shopsoiled Brexit. Gove appears keen just to get Brexit home and then apply the polish and the superglue to patch it all together later. Johnson is still in the shop arguing with the stern-looking sales assistant sporting the ‘Call me Theresa’ badge that she has broken the item while wrapping it. Johnson’s recent resignation can be attributed to many impulses, but far from the least of these was that he does not like the story May is telling, or failing to tell, about Brexit.
In his resignation speech, Johnson hailed the ‘global Britain’ vision which ‘she set out with great clarity at Lancaster House’. He went on to complain that, ‘in the 18 months that have followed, it is as though a fog of self-doubt has descended… We never actually turned that vision into a negotiating position in Brussels… instead we dithered’.
They dither still. Part of the reason the story is still up for grabs is that the politicians have been so poor at framing the narrative of what Brexit means, for voters, for the EU or for themselves.
Negotiating means telling a story to your opponents about your character and goals and readiness to leave with no deal, yet for months what little was done was kept secret. It also means convincing the people and businesses they have a bright future.
Where has been May’s address to the nation, appealing over the heads of a divided Commons to level with the public? Perhaps she has concluded she would not be persuasive. Anyone who saw her agonised gurning at a town-hall meeting on Monday when asked how she relaxes might be tempted to agree.
When May began her tour of Europe to explain her Northern Ireland policy, there was no eye-catching story or phrase, and she demonstrated her love of cookery rather than communication. To misappropriate the title of one of the food programmes she enjoys, May’s career is a case of Can’t Communicate, Won’t Communicate.
The story of Brexit is still being written. So far it doesn’t have an ending. It is already a drama. As I start working in earnest on my third volume, the Brexit narrative is being shaped by the losers of the referendum, not the winners. Unless that changes, the political consequences that follow will make losers of us all. Perhaps Downing Street should hire James Graham.
Tim Shipman is political editor of the Sunday Times. His books, All Out War: the Full Story of Brexit and Fall Out: A Year of Political Mayhem, are out now in paperback.