Brexit has added a new gesture to the repertoire of political fibbing and evasion: the shrug. Former Remainer politicians, well aware that Brexit risks economic catastrophe, absolve themselves of responsibility for doing the right thing with a casual shrug and a reference to the unassailable popular will enshrined in the referendum result. Despite the recent Conservative rebellion aimed at ensuring parliamentary ratification of a final Brexit outcome, no sitting Tory apart from Ken Clarke, who was the sole Tory rebel in the Article 50 vote, has been prepared to reject the Brexiteers’ flat-earth vision outright. Remaining is a lost cause, as politically relevant as Jacobitism or the Anti-Corn Law League.
Labour isn’t much better. Here, among moderates, the twitch of the shoulders has become endemic, signalling a variety of prudent retreats from now obsolescent common sense: not only post-Brexit deference to the referendum result, but also acknowledgment that Jeremy Corbyn, however maladroit and out of step with the party’s rebranding since the era of Michael Foot, is the darling of the growing Labour membership, and that his performance in the general election of 2017 vastly exceeded the party’s expectations. For all that the Labour Party has tried to exploit Remainer discontent with the May government’s push for a clean Brexit, a powerful undertow of Lexiteering persists. The post-2008 crisis of capitalism has delivered a propitious conjuncture: the left’s supplanting of New Labour and its engagement with an electorate that seems willing to entertain the possibility of a Corbyn-led government have arrived just as the UK is set to escape the capitalist constraints of the EU. Lexiteer glee is an ironic, but unpersuasive, counterpoint to the nightmarish vision of the hyper-capitalist gig economy envisaged by Tory Brexiteers. It isn’t, however, the alternative Remainers crave.
A split is emerging between career politicians in the two main parties and the 48 per cent who voted Remain. Most Remainer MPs have moved on, leaving the Remainer public with no reliable option at the ballot box, except in a few constituencies; or in Scotland, where the SNP is in tune with one of that country’s two pro-union majorities, the 62 per cent who voted to stay in the EU. Both Labour and the Conservatives are now unadvertised coalitions of Brexiteers and shruggers. We no longer have parties that reflect the most serious division in the electorate. Indeed, the snap general election of 2017, which was ostensibly all about Brexit, largely avoided the question.
This oddly irrelevant and bizarre election, which, it transpires, was unexpected even to an ill-prepared Conservative Central Office, provides the focal point of Tim Shipman’s Fall Out. The book is a fly-on-the-wall account compiled from off-the-record interviews with many of the dramatis personae in Theresa May’s topsy-turvy first year as prime minister. There is much here that leaves the reader uneasy – including a portent of our stodgy post-Brexit future, the potatoes served with lasagne at a Chequers lunch. Those who follow politics are used to reading about its adrenalin-driven resort to expletives. So it’s no big deal in itself that May’s political advisers do a lot of swearing. But that they did it in front of the clean-living daughter of a vicar, without rebuke or frown or raised eyebrow, suggests that the prime minister’s emotional costiveness is not simply a result of on-stage nerves. It is hardwired into her being. Her sense of Home Counties propriety exists in a numbed state, rather than in its more familiar idiom, the outspoken censoriousness of Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells. As one observer noted, May’s personal popularity in the months before her disastrous election campaign was an inexplicable ‘cult of no personality’. From Buckingham Palace rumours to European Commission leaks, it seems that everybody who dines with May, even the queen, finds the experience a trial, a grim variety bill of empty silences, frosty stares and non-existent small talk.
It is perhaps an even greater surprise, then, that May, for all her charmless, bleakly subdued personality, emerges as the victim in Shipman’s narrative. We feel for her in spite of her unsympathetic character traits. This is because the prime minister is treated as a hostage, an unlikely casualty of Stockholm syndrome. As Shipman notes, ‘several sources’ that he interviewed ‘described May as a “captive” or “prisoner”’ of her former joint chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. Boris Johnson, letting off steam after a tough session at Number Ten with the chiefs of staff, alluded to Hill’s crusading work against people trafficking: ‘That’s modern slavery, right there.’
Under May the Blairite informality of shirtsleeve, sofa government gave way to something more traditional: decision making in the closet by overmighty court favourites who seemed to control a less confident ruler. Despite the background chatter about text messages and social media campaigning, the Open Skies arrangement for aviation and the future of Euratom, we could be back in the first century ad, in the world of the nervously reticent Emperor Tiberius and his ambitious favourite, Sejanus, head of the praetorian guard, which with quiet audacity he transformed into the effective government of the empire. Mission creep of similar grandiosity enabled May’s advisers to usurp the role of the cabinet in the formation of government policy. One special adviser recalled Timothy lecturing the underlings in Downing Street: ‘You don’t understand hierarchies. There are three people in this government. It’s me, Fiona and the PM.’ At times, ‘the chiefs’, as they were known, appeared to overrule the prime minister’s wishes, and get away with it. A ‘senior figure’ in Number Ten reported to Shipman that May ‘genuinely loves them. I think they’re the children she didn’t have.’ At the very least, there is a generation gap, which serves in part to explain the vast gulf in manners and indulged behaviours between May (b. 1956), and Hill (b. 1973) and Timothy (b. 1980).
The team came together during May’s long tenure at the Home Office. Timothy is from Birmingham, where his father was a steel worker, and he studied politics at the University of Sheffield. Hill, a journalist from post-industrial Greenock on the west coast of Scotland, was less obviously policy-focused than Timothy, but her role extended far beyond communications and May’s wardrobe. She has pronounced views, and an instinctive political compass which, we discover, proved better calibrated than that of her ostentatiously highbrow co-chief. The botched 2017 manifesto, co-authored by Timothy and Ben Gummer, was designed to be a philosophical restatement of Conservative principles, communitarian, interventionist and anti-free market: nothing so menial as an advertisement for a party trying to win an election.
The two chiefs of staff took very different approaches to the role of counsellor. Timothy, the philosopher-king of blue-collar Conservatism, hoped to reposition the Tories as a statist national party working in the interests of all classes, not just the fortunate haves. Hill was more intuitive and less wordy. But on one thing they concurred: the role of favourite offered opportunities galore for score-settling with enemies, whether big beasts, like George Osborne and the chancellor, Philip Hammond, or smaller fry in the office, like Katie Perrior, May’s official director of communications, who had dared to direct communications, an area of activity that fell squarely within Hill’s bailiwick. The book is peppered with feuds – Timothy-Osborne, Timothy-Hammond, Hill-Perrior – and, then, for a brief period, when Hill realises that Timothy’s manifesto, especially its ‘dementia tax’ provisions, has screwed up the election, Hill-Timothy.
The chiefs are the charismatic, compelling, Iago-like counsellors at the core of Shipman’s story, and political advice is the leitmotif that runs through the narrative. Who gives it? Who receives it, and actually listens to it? Who gets access to the leader, and how often? What was the relative influence of the chiefs, the cabinet and the civil service in shaping May’s Brexit policy? How far did May listen to the expert policy advice of Sir Ivan Rogers, our downbeat envoy in Brussels before his very public resignation in January 2017? Was it a mistake to set up a separate Department for Exiting the EU? Would it have been more efficient, instead of establishing and staffing a new ministry from scratch, to take advice from the Foreign Office and the Treasury, perhaps channelled through the Cabinet Office? Was it also a mistake to give the new permanent secretary at DExEU, Oliver Robbins, an additional role as a ‘sherpa’, an advance man for the upcoming negotiations with Brussels and the EU 27, reporting back directly not to his own secretary of state, David Davis, but to the prime minister? The magnitude of Brexit is daunting enough, but, within the realm of what was manageable, did the May government marshal its counsellors as effectively as it could have done? Cameron’s European advisers had deliberately hammed up the competing arguments in front of him, so that he got a sense of the range of options involved; ‘but May did not like to work that way.’ Rogers, it seems, had lobbied from as early as 2012 for the establishment of a Brexit contingency group. This was blocked by Cameron and Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary. Brexit is Cameron’s mess, but May and the senior civil servants will not escape responsibility when, perhaps decades from now, the inevitable post-Brexit inquiry reports.
Shipman’s narrative examines other genres of political counsel and expertise. At the general election itself, whose advice prevailed? Did the campaign become incorporated within the empire of Timothy and Hill, who had resigned their positions to fight the election, but were open about their lack of campaign experience? Or was it Conservative Central Office and the then party chairman, Patrick McLoughlin? Or Lynton Crosby, the political consultant brought in at great expense from Australia, his business partner, Mark Textor, and their firm, CTF? Or the specialist boffins who understood the new virtual terrain of social media campaigning, such as the external consultants from the digital campaigners Edmonds Elder? Shipman’s background interviews reveal that nobody in the Tory campaign was entirely sure who was running it. He reckons that there were two campaigns at cross purposes with each other. Crosby’s steady-as-she-goes ‘strong and stable’ message conflicted with Timothy’s sense that May should be promoted as a ‘transformational politician’ who could reach sectors of the electorate left cold by unfeeling free-marketeers and paternalistic Old Etonians alike. Whereas Timothy took extraordinary risks with a daring manifesto which pointedly repudiated Thatcherism, Crosby favoured something more minimalist: ‘I wouldn’t have a manifesto at all.’ There was also an orphaned digital campaign. By contrast with Corbyn’s adept and sometimes ingenious use of social media, May’s reluctant use of Twitter and disdain for Instagram limited her channels of engagement, especially with the young, who were, of course, not expected to vote in huge numbers.
North of the border Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Tories, not only ignored directions from Hill, a fellow Scot, but took advice instead from a whizz-kid statistician called James Kanagasooriam, who had devised a mathematical model of voting intentions which plotted measures of ‘security’ against those of ‘diversity’ as a means of identifying potential Tories. Using Kanagasooriam’s insights Davidson built an entirely separate campaign, which precisely targeted wooable voters and winnable marginals. The Scottish Tories, who went into the election holding only one seat, harvested a further 12 as a result of the Davidson-Kanagasooriam strategy. By the most unexpected of ironies, it was this dramatic Tory recovery in Scotland that kept May in Downing Street at the head of a minority government.
Was May’s cackhanded electioneering emblematic of her problems as a leader, or was it symptomatic of more generic issues in government well beyond her control? What becomes clear in Shipman’s account is that in modern politics no one person has the bulging quiver of skills required to give detailed, reliable advice 100 per cent of the time, or anything like it, whether in electoral campaigning or policy-making. Of course, civil servants are notionally debarred from politics as opposed to policy, though not from its presentation; and the lines have become increasingly blurred since the era of Thatcher’s courtiers Bernard Ingham and Charles Powell (both, harmlessly at first glance, career civil servants), and then of Blair’s media manager, the former Mirror journalist Alastair Campbell, who was given special executive powers to command civil servants by an order of the Privy Council. However, the subdivision of roles and knowhow is such, both on the policy side and in party politics, that in certain respects the humblest IT functionary might have a better grasp of major technical issues, such as Big Data analytics, than the cabinet secretary or the prime minister’s twin chiefs.
When Hill and Timothy were forced to resign in the aftermath of the bungled campaign, senior civil servants were quick to occupy the vacant space around May, including areas where government impinged on party management. Civil servants ran the post-election reshuffle. When just a week later May’s understated response to the Grenfell Tower fire further dented her image, Shipman reckons that it was in part because she had received poor media advice from apolitical civil servants with inadequate news antennae.
The grown-ups, however incompetent, were back in charge at Number Ten, but not on the wider political scene. The election had further hollowed out the middle ground of British politics. On one side were Brexiteer loudmouths, significantly, in Johnson and Gove, former columnists on national newspapers; on the other, irresponsible rebels who had captured the Labour Party from its pragmatist wing. Orwell described England as ‘a rather stuffy Victorian family’ where there was ‘a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income’ and ‘the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts.’ The young are now thwarted as never before. The costs of housing and higher education are being borne unevenly and are giving rise to major intergenerational tensions. YouGov discovered that in 2017 the most important determinant of voting intention was age. However, there are marked temperamental differences within age cohorts. Postmodern Britain lies well beyond Orwell’s imagining, a country where superannuated teenagers in certain walks of middle-class life, including journalism and politics, stay in a condition of more or less permanent adolescence from puberty to retirement. Some of these not-so-young poseurs are Gove-like Tory boys nostalgically entranced by a sterile fantasy of this island’s immutable heritage. Another kind of middle-aged adolescent opts for the consolations of radical chic in lieu of the compromises of maturity. But it’s still the mysterious family income – better understood by our neighbours than ourselves – that supports lifelong juvenile escapism of this sort.
Surely it’s time for the authentically middle-aged – we know who we are: square, clapped out, disillusioned and cardiganed – to take charge before the inheritance is squandered? Remaining has, alas, all but vanished from the menu of possibilities; but other options are still viable, including extended transitional arrangements and close regulatory alignment with the single market and customs union. The opposition victory in December on the amendment giving Parliament a final say on any deal negotiated with Brussels might offer another possible pathway to a sensible outcome. Economic reality and parliamentary sovereignty notwithstanding, I suspect we will have to go through the motions of leaving the EU in order to respect the referendum result. But what is to stop us imitating the brass neck of the Leavers and launching – even now – a fresh campaign for Rejoining?