I didn’t write a review of Unleashing Demons when I read it last year. I was too furious: as ever on this topic, with David Cameron. There isn’t a huge amount of point in going over some of the well-known weaknesses in the Remain referendum campaign, though, flicking through my notes from the book it’s still astonishing that the Conservative leadership, having won the 2015 election partly through media cheerleaders, forgot that the landscape was extremely different this time round, couldn’t adjust and (no surprises here) then blamed the BBC for their strategic errors.
In this week of impending national calamity there are two points in Craig Oliver’s book that bear repeating. The first is the title itself: ‘Unleashing Demons’. The story is that the downside, in Cameron’s eyes, to calling the referendum, was that you didn’t know what demons would be unleashed. Oliver paints a referendum as inevitable and that Cameron was simply the man holding the ticking parcel when the countdown came to an end. Now, the fine book by Farrell and Goldsmith, How to Lose a Referendum, makes the case that a referendum may indeed have been inevitable, given British domestic politics. But the one man who can’t use that argument to give himself a free pass is David Cameron himself. By 2016, he had led his party for 11 of the 43 years that Britain had been in the European club. It was he who as much as anyone had allowed domestic politics to deteriorate; he had isolated his party in Europe and lost control of the debate. Oliver himself describes Cameron as saying that ‘everyone, including him, has traded on having a go at “Europe” for years’. It would be more accurate to join the dots and to conclude that Cameron had unleashed the demons himself, many years previously.
Among the car-crash of politics over the last three years, this blog has clutched at one straw: I’ve written off, more than once, the chances of the current favoured candidate to be the next Conservative leader. I wrote after the last Conservative conference that those chances were next to zero subject to other candidates’ unforced errors. Commentators should own their mistakes, but I don’t think I could have predicted Theresa May’s catastrophic management of the interim deal. The only straw remaining is that one of my predictions – ‘he will splutter and wheeze into oblivion’ – will eventually come true, as almost all political careers end at a point of failure.
That said, it is a particularly unoriginal point to make, but the rules don’t apply to Mr Johnson. In Unleashing Demons, Oliver makes that point in his own way. He writes that Johnson ‘was able to shrug off the criticisms and humiliations that would have been fatal to others’. But Oliver reserves his real anger for Michael Gove. Gove gets it in the neck for what Oliver describes as the dishonest and poisonous Leave campaign. And, Oliver writes, ‘Many finally saw the personal ambition and willingness to deceive they had not spotted in Gove before’. Oliver does draw distinctions between Gove and Johnson’s behaviour. But I can’t help but feel that Oliver applies different standards; deep down he seems to believe that Gove should be held accountable for his behaviour (including, by the way, recruiting Johnson to the Leave campaign) whereas Johnson (whom Oliver sees as fairly neutral on the whole issue of Europe itself) need not be. That is where we are, and Unleashing Demons makes it abundantly clear why.
God save the Queen. And God help us all.