Tuesday 13 February 2018

All Out War by Tim Shipman

I do love a good scrap, especially if it features the most awful people in British politics having a pop at one another. If you do as well, Tim Shipman's All Out War, his celebrated history of 2016's EU referendum campaign comes highly recommended. It's extremely readable, has the knack of turning the obscure stakes politics throws up into moments of high drama, and captures well the febrile desperation of the moment. I look forward to reading his sequel chronicling the subsequent meltdown of British establishment politics, and the Conservative Party in particular.

Just a few quick points about All Out War. As "Shippers" points out himself, this is not a work of political science or sociology. Only at a distant remove does he discuss the forces the referendum stirred up, and even then it's the odd oblique reference or quick observation. For example, when Nigel Farage was touring northern English constituencies he was astonished to find how traders at a market, despite quite a mix of ethnicities, were more or less 85% voting leave. "Class trumps race" Farage mused, though here both he and "Shippers" are thinking working class when, of course, we're dealing with small business people. While this could be construed as a weakness (Alex Nunns' The Candidate does a better job of marrying the narratological with the sociological), what "Shippers" does is he lays bare the uncountable threads tying the Tories and the class of which they are an organic part: business. Often times we have quick glimpses of who's married to/related to/went to school or Oxbridge with, who's bezzy mates and dining partners, and so on. This is a world in which big names are thrown about with abandon and are always amenable to phone calls, chats over coffee, dinner. No professional sociologist would ever be allowed access to these groups of people to study them, not that it entirely matters here. The picture we get of a more or less cohesive and interchangeable group sits atop politics, business, the media, and the state consciously pursuing their interests is accurate enough.

Also quite telling is how thick with each other this gang is. Take, for example, the fun that was had when Michael Gove well and truly shafted Boris Johnson and, consequently, himself during the Tory leader contest that never was. By the end of the book, which finishes about three weeks into Theresa May's premiership, Johnson and Gove had started talking to each other again. And just 18 months later, not only are they firm allies once more, they've teamed up to put the sweats on May. Time and time again, "Shippers" shows how shared interests trump all else. Amber Rudd, who gave Johnson a good pummeling in the EU debates was unseemly quick about pitching her tent in his leadership camp. As was Tory "centrist" Justine Greening who recently said she would not be in a Tory party under the control of the hard Brexit right. We'll see about that. Of course, having to get on with someone you can't stand at work or in any field of life is common enough, but what we see here is something deeper than mere rubbing along. A case of hanging together as opposed to hanging separately, perhaps.

The second drawback, which I suppose can't be really put on the author too much, is the establishment slant. Yes, of course, "Shippers" is an establishment journo with senior politicians on speed dial. And it was these politicians who were the main movers and shakers on both sides of the referendum. But his lack of reach in the Labour Party really does show. The coverage of what Will Straw and Alan Johnson were doing and thought is comprehensive, as is the background work Peter Mandelson put in. As you might expect the party's ancien regime is well represented, but there is nothing new on or from Jeremy Corbyn and the people around him. Instead it's outside-looking-in, and we're treated to pretty standard summations of what the leader did and didn't do, speculation about motive (i.e. Corbyn reluctantly went along with remain because he was a secret Brexiteer), and the suggestion he was being held hostage by John McDonnell, Seumas Milne and Andrew Fisher, with the backing of a half million-strong party of brainwashed crazies. The Labour right's critique of Corbyn to that point is repeated with a sense that he was defying the rules of politics, and "Shippers" proves to have a difficult time getting his head around it. Quite what he'll make of what happened next is going to be interesting.

One surprise, which shouldn't be a surprise really, is not that Dave thought he was going to win this reckless gamble pretty easily, nor that the EU referendum was conceived purely for party management purposes (Osborne, to his credit, thought this was stupid and tried dissuading his boss). No, it was that Dave never really fought to win. Sure, part of it was complacency but time and again Dave scuppered sharp elbowed attacks from Stronger In and even vetoed Labour attempts to take the fight to the Tory Brexiteers. Because, just like his successor, even when the chips were down and the collective interests of his class and, by default, what is accepted as the interests of the country hung in the balance, the need to hold the Tory party together trumped everything else (that, Liz Kendall, is how you put party before country). Perhaps fighting dirty would have made little difference, but none of the Leave campaigns loaded their guns and refused to fire lest they cause too much damage.

Lastly, for people who like to dream of what might have been there are a fair few clues here to what could have come next had Remain carried the referendum. While there is group solidarity among leading Tories, out on the fringes of the Parliamentary party things are a touch more vicious. In my view it is more than likely a remain win could only ever have been narrow, that Dave would have received brickbats more than plaudits, and a backbench stalking horse challenge followed by a leadership election not entirely different to the one we got would have played out. Ditto for Labour as well. The big change would have been UKIP. Farage was knackered and would have retired to his radio station to lick his wounds, and in his absence we'd have seen the same infighting, albeit with a not unsizeable chunk of people pissed off with the result entering politics in some way. The aftermath of a Remain vote would have been a mess, and perhaps even more unhinged and weird than the politics we have at the moment.

In all, All Out War is essential for understanding establishment politics, for its networks, its rivalries, its groupthink, its dynamics and its limits.


Anonymous said...

Like a murmering of starlings, an establishment has behavior which non of its members are aware of.

keith said...

The book does highlight one aspect of the weakness of the current left.

The one-sided view of the Labour campaign, that Corbyn was at fault and Johnson and co. were blameless, has actually become the narrative.

Shipman's account wasn't the first, there was a very, long article by Paul Waugh that came out on the Saturday after the referendum result, with a condensed version published in the afternoon by Laura Kuensberg. So long was Waugh's article that I suspect that Waugh was fed info before the campaign had finished in order to get it out quick. By Sunday 2am, the coup had started.(This isn't the criticism of the journos by the way).

But that narrative has stuck, now exacarbated by the FBPE stuff.

It's similar to the Brown spent too much and crashed the economy in 2008 myth that the Tories, aided by the Labour right, have had so much success in promulgating.

And it could happen again, if the Left allows the Tories to get away with the bullying mantra. The Left really needs an independent media campaign (relying on the Labour Party or neutral newspapers has got us to this point) that can challenge this stuff as it is part of the ideological fight.