March 15, 2017

"All Out War"

All Out War is a remarkable book. It's famously remarkable for its speed, appearing some twelve weeks after the EU referendum. It's remarkable for its style. Shipman is always smooth and lucid. I was involved in the campaign, but I actually found the book exciting. And it's also remarkable that the publishers didn't give this detailed account an index.

Shipman himself emerges (rightly or wrongly) as having a mild, almost kindly temperament, though that does mean he is not always steely-eyed.

The title is almost brilliant. It doesn't quite work: by Shipman's own account, Cameron pulled some punches because he didn't want to risk splitting the Conservative party. But most participants did go at it hammer and tongs.

Shipman would not claim that this is the full story of the referendum campaign. It is an absorbing, revealing, detailed account of what happened at the centre of politics. That focus isn't surprising. The people behind the scenes at the centre were the keenest to get their story out; overwhelmingly they were the people who talked to him. And continue to. Shipman amusedly says they contact him saying he's omitted some allegedly crucial meeting or other in which they played an allegedly crucial role.

Maybe there are slightly too many of those meetings in the book already. The narrative is generally tight and pacy, without being superficial, but sags slightly when some of the backroom meetings are detailed. The reader feels he could have done without some of them. Doubtless people at some of those meetings felt the same.

To historians, it doesn't matter how the people they criticise react. The historian moves on. But journalists want to keep their lines of communication open, and Shipman draws back from some deserved criticisms.

Thus Osborne is praised for fighting a referendum he didn't want as an act of friendship to Cameron. Shipman doesn't remind us just how dishonest Osborne's conduct was. He played dirty. In his case it really was All Out War, and honesty and morality were irrelevant. The saving grace was that Osborne was so cack-handed.

Similarly, Cummings is praised as the man who singlehandedly drove Vote Leave to success. Shipman accepts that Cummings was difficult to work with, but Cummings' contribution was actually more problematic. "Vote Leave, Take Control" was simple and brilliant, but (here I disagree with Shipman) Cummings' £350m was a huge blunder. The figure was quickly and easily shown to be untrue. It seemed that in every media interview every Leave politician was probed on the number, undermining the Leave campaign's credibility. This was particularly frustrating because a more realistic figure of (say) £120m would have had just the same shock value, without the disadvantage of being obviously false.

As it was, it was discouraging to be walking miles putting leaflets through doors which prominently featured the big and well publicised £350m lie. Cummings' appearance before the Treasury Select Committee was a cringingly awful disaster (Matthew Elliott's was little better). Vote Leave's campaigning was disorganised. They changed the structure of their website during the campaign, and presumably ran short of money, as this campaigner had to scramble round to other sources for publicity materials when Vote Leave couldn't supply them.

Shipman suggests more than once that the opinion polls may have been unreliable. He can be forgiven for not exploring this, as his book is primarily a narrative account, but for someone who was there the suggestion is fascinating. The published polls were moving in Leave's favour when Jo Cox was murdered, and it was to Cameron's advantage to suspend campaigning for as long as he could get away with, in the hope of braking that momentum.

At the start of negotiations with the EU it looked likely that we would Remain. Cameron must have expected that outcome, MPs showed that they overwhelmingly favoured it. Shipman is right that misjudgements and luck led to Remain's failure, and he catalogues them well. It was a series of narrow squeaks for Leave. The renegotiation was, very obviously, no good (probably Cameron airily told Merkel it would be fine). Gove and Johnson campaigned prominently for Brexit, giving Leave credibility and wide appeal. Vote Leave narrowly won the designation - a campaign headed by Farage would only have captured the diehards.

What did Vote Leave achieve? They facilitated victory by making Leave a respectable point of view and - importantly - non-party. The strategy was good, but much of the tactics was awful.

If Shipman had tried to explore this, his book might have taken twice as long to write and been hopelessly unwieldy. As it is, he has scoped the book well.

The MP Steve Baker praises this book in his Amazon review. Steve Baker does come out of the book very well! - but his praise is more than good manners.

All Out War will be definitive.

1 comment:

James Higham said...

It's still a most volatile time.