Comment • reviews • Nordic Noir • whimsy
Tim Shipman’s new book, Fall Out, follows on from his previous account, about the referendum campaign. This new work picks up where All Out War ended, and brings us as far as Theresa May’s catastrophic speech at the Conservative Party Conference.
We’ve been here before, of course, with Andrew Rawnsley’s detailed descriptions of the dysfunctions of New Labour. Shipman’s accounts will be the first place to which people turn to piece together what happened within the governments of 2015 onwards. His contacts within the Conservatives are impeccable and within Labour passable. But while Rawnsley was able to present a government that was largely, in the early days, coherent, Shipman describes in-fighting, delusion, incompetence and betrayal. He is conscientious to present both sides: when criticising one or other player he will provide the case for the defence. The result is to remind the reader of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair the subtitle of which is ‘A novel without a hero’. We wish this were a novel and not actual fact. These are times when we could really do with a hero and Shipman’s book makes it frankly clear that there are no obvious candidates.
If there are no heroes there are plenty of villains. The most prominent were Theresa May’s aides Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy. There’s no shortage of anecdotes illustrating this pair’s arrogance and unfitness to be near high office. (I voted Remain, said Hill, but Brexit will be brilliant because I will personally make it so.) Indeed, their presence underscores one of the main fault lines in Theresa May’s premiership: they were alongside the PM when she was at the Home Office and assumed that the skills and ways of working they’d learned could be transferred wholesale to Number 10. Shipman describes how, rather than tell a compelling story to bring a divided country together, their approach to communications was haphazard at best and destructive at worst, more suited for a bunker-style government. ‘We don’t feed the beast,’ said Hill. The problem was that May was unable to paint a picture of the country she wanted to build; by the time of the general election it was too late.
Under different circumstances, it might have been smart to call the general election. If Theresa May had done the groundwork in terms of policy and presentation, if anyone had been in sole charge of the campaign, if Conservative headquarters had been ready, if May had been a better campaigner. Shipman is good and detailed on this – and on the tensions within Labour too. Labour is often described as a party that can’t get over its past – in particular the Blair government – but I hadn’t realised until reading this just how the Tories were equally self-destructive. May’s style of government was to be the UnCameron, and Team May were startlingly happy to throw away the gains provided by Cameron’s ability to attract votes from minorities and his campaigning discipline. Out went the amazing cyber campaign developed in the 2015 election. In came references to fox hunting and grammar schools.
It’s perhaps understandable why this strategy might have been pursued. The 2015 manifesto is regarded as a document full of policies the Conservatives had expected to trade away in coalition talks. This had already bitten May and her chancellor Philip Hammond. So Ben Gummer and Nick Timothy wrote a document that was good for governing – but not for politics. Labour’s manifesto was arguably the opposite. The Labour party, which had entered the campaign on the rocks, knew that it was fighting for survival. So the various wings of the party stopped pointing their weapons at each other. Whether they supported Corbyn or not, each wing wanted to maximise the number of individual Labour MPs.
The election campaign has been much discussed and the set-pieces are well known. But Shipman makes the point that people were prepared to give May a fair hearing. It follows that they had (in the absence of any real narrative) projected their own ideas has to who she was. It was not inevitable that when detail was required she would be found wanting.
The result, of course, was that the election – which was expected to lead to more Labour bloodletting – actually led to a huge amount of Tory plotting. Shipman is very clear that Boris Johnson was back on manoeuvres. Shipman suggests that Johnson had not wanted a 2017 election because he was playing the long game and preparing to have another leadership bid in 2019. It’s worth an aside – if Johnson had backed Remain and Remain had won, he would probably be foreign secretary now, but with the old FCO intact and not having lost the international trade bits. That Johnson has been one of the losers of Brexit is an interesting irony.
There’s another parallel with Vanity Fair: the original bad apple in Thackeray’s masterpiece is George Osborne. Modern Osborne has defined himself by his opposition to Brexit and his personal resentment of Theresa May – whose sacking of Cameron’s chancellor and heir apparent was famously not done gently. As a result, Osborne is regarded by some as a hero of the centre. I don’t see it that way: Osborne’s ‘punishment budget’ is believed to have sent many 2016 voters to the Leave column but in any case Osborne’s lacklustre but highly partisan application of austerity cannot but have increased the sense of hopelessness in Leave-backing areas. He struts around in the margins of this book but Shipman seems to believe that the former next prime minister has lost his chance.
This book is required reading for anyone wanting to know where the country is headed, and why. It may even unite Remainers and Brexiters in derision at the shambles described. There is so much detail that a review of this length just can’t cover.
It is by necessity a different book from All Out War. There is no natural close. I think that Shipman lets slip a preference towards Brexit (but it’s slight and I was looking for it). I also think he’s better this time on the media – quicker to call out the Mail for their ludicrous headlines. Something he doesn’t say but I wonder about having read his book is whether the more right wing papers’ over-the-top coverage has become counter-productive: for example, the favourable spin the Mail initially gave the Tories’ social care proposals meant the the policy itself came under greater scrutiny which it was unable to bear.
I read this book in the run-up to the Budget. It gave considerable context to the stories that Nick Timothy was, through his Sun column, trying to undermine Philip Hammond. This is both an advantage – we see what the current players are up to – but it can also disillusion the reader. Let’s turn a final time to Thackeray, who ended his magnum opus with a paragraph with which I think Shipman – and all of us – should have some sympathy:
Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied? – Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.
Thanks to William Collins for the review copy.