Alex Massie

Theresa May must share the blame for the Brexit bitterness

Theresa May must share the blame for the Brexit bitterness
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As Gore Vidal said, “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little” and by that exacting standard, Tim Shipman has become a significant trial to his many friends. I thought of this again when it emerged – as they say in Westminster – that the cabinet would meet to discuss the future shape of Brexit. It seemed telling that this actually counted as a bona fide 'news' story. That is, it was a man bites dog moment and therefore worth putting in the newspapers. 

Then again, readers of Fall Out, Shipman’s sequel to his best-selling account of the Brexit referendum entertainment, would not have been surprised. Shipman reveals that the shape of Brexit was cooked-up by Nick Timothy and Theresa May before the prime minister’s speech to the Conservative party conference last year. “The foundational decisions of Britain’s withdrawal strategy, which would shape the next two years of negotiations, were taken, in essence, by two people. The cabinet certainly had no chance to debate them”. Neither Philip Hammond nor David Davis saw May’s speech before she gave it; nor did senior officials in the cabinet office or the department for exiting the european union. 

At this point it is useful to remember that May’s team considered themselves adults. They were self-consciously and vaingloriously better people than their predecessors in Downing Street. If David Cameron was prone to glibness, May would make much of her plodding seriousness. If Cameron was an essay-crisis prime minister, May would make Gradgrind proud. May’s team would be imbued with a moral seriousness that, conveniently, signalled their moral superiority over their predecessors too. They would, in short, be Gordon Brown to Cameron’s Tony Blair. A bold approach, you might think. 

Shipman’s account of the Brexit referendum, All Out War, was the best political book published in Britain last year and the same may be said of its triumphant sequel. Indeed, Fall Out is even better than its predecessor. Granted, it is not a complete account but nor does it pretend to be. This is not a book asking why things happened the way they did; it is an account showing how they did. It is a Westminster-centric view of the past 18 months as experienced by those trapped inside the bubble. Wider socio-economic or political trends and movements go unexamined; the hourly-burly of the now, of “winning” each morning, afternoon, and evening, is all that really matters. Small events – at least as measured in the grand scheme of things – become gaffes; everything is triumph or calamity with precious little in between. It is a world in which the prime minister’s trousers matter more than they should. 

By its end you should feel some kind of pity for the people who think themselves forced to live this way. Politics is a brutal business and an exhausting one too. One lesson to be drawn from Shipman’s two books is that our political leaders – and their advisers – desperately need more time to think. If you think our politics is failing right now, these books show you some of the reasons why. Then again, they also show the wisdom of Barack Obama’s first law of politics: “Don’t do stupid shit”. 

Unavoidably, a hefty portion of Fall Out concerns itself with Nick Timothy and Fiona May, the prime minister’s star-crossed joint chiefs of staff. Hill has endured worse press than Timothy. This seems unfair. Hill’s reputation as someone happy to tell everyone and anyone to fuck-the-fuck-off makes for colourful prose, but her political judgement frequently seems more astute than Timothy’s. Hill recognises, for instance, that the “dementia tax” (so labelled by this parish’s Will Heaven) was likely to prove a problem. Timothy, however, wrote an election manifesto so thoroughly imbued with moral seriousness there was no room for political sense. If you’re going to war against the old you need the young on your side; Timothy’s manifesto made almost no attempt to enlist them in his army of virtue. 

Scepticism appears unfashionable, however. Ivan Rogers, Britain’s permanent representative at the EU, warns that the negotiations will be difficult. Based on nothing more than a deep knowledge of the EU, its institutions and its culture, he predicts how the EU27 will approach the Brexit talks. Almost everything he says duly comes to pass but his advice is deemed unhelpful and pessimistic so he has to go. There is a fine line between Tory prudence and Tory fatalism but even that latter debilitating condition seems preferable to Tory exuberance. 

Still, Shipman never loses sight of the fact that what now seems inevitable was not inevitable at the time. He is careful to balance criticism with judicious praise and even Hill and Timothy benefit from this. Nor is he captured by his sources in the manner that, say, Bob Woodward’s insider accounts of American politics are corrupted by extravagant amounts of source-greasing. Shipman’s judgements are, I think, scrupulously fair. (It also helps that, unlike Woodward, Shipman can actually write). 

Insider accounts such as this are often contaminated by hindsight bias; the winners are geniuses, the losers incompetent fools. The great strength of Shipman’s two books – there will surely be a third to complete the trilogy – is that it becomes clear there are almost no great geniuses working their magic behind the scenes. Most of the Leave campaigners still thought they were going to lose; only the most devoted believers in Camp Corbyn foresaw the “Corbyn surge” and even that was predicated on feelings more than hard data analysis. 

The Brexit referendum was a matter of winning and losing but there was still, as this book makes evident, a chance for the meaning of Brexit to be debated once the vote to withdraw had been confirmed. “Brexit means Brexit” became a matter of day-to-day political management but it also seems an opportunity lost and, perhaps, something worse than that too. 

The sense that 48 per cent of voters were to be excluded from subsequent discussions as to what “Brexit means Brexit” has surely helped contribute to the bitterness in which British politics is now soaked. Those voters were given little reason to get with the programme; at the same time, little attempt was made to explain to ardent Leavers that the national interest might require some compromise on their part too. But then as a DExEU official observes, “Liam Fox has said this is going to be the easiest deal in human history. That is spectacularly irresponsible.” 

If the Brexit portions of this book are by turns extraordinary and dispiriting, the general election provides a measure of much-needed hilarity. It doesn’t seem like that, I suppose, if you worked on the Tory campaign but a general election without winners now appears appropriate. At the very least it allows for chapter after chapter of weapons-grade political schadenfreude. There is a marmalade-dropper on almost every page. As Shipman writes, it seems revealing that amongst the dozens of senior Tories interviewed for this book “not one of them gave a straight answer to the question: ‘Who was in charge?”

And so we limp on, born back ceaselessly into the waters first churned by the Brexit referendum. Shipman’s book, like its predecessor, shows how we got here. By the time you finish it, you begin to hope a country does not get the politicians it deserves. 

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articlePoliticsbrexituk politics