Monday 3 December 2018

Fall Out by Tim Shipman

And so the Speaker is allowing a motion of contempt to be debated on the floor of the House of Commons. For those not au fait with what's happening, the government have been bound by Parliament to publish any legal advice received about Brexit and, hey ho, Theresa May and co are refusing to so. To try and head it off Attorney General Geoffrey Cox took to the despatch box earlier to lift the lid on some of the more embarrassing implications of May's backstop deal - one of which being the inability of the UK to withdraw from it without the EU's mutual consent, and that entering it was a "calculated risk". So much for sovereignty. So much for "taking back control". Nevertheless, it wasn't enough and, rightly, it looks like the government will lose the motion and find themselves before the standards committee. And then what?

We know how we got to this point, but how do others - particularly members of the establishment - view the chaotic path to our increasingly chaotic Brexit? One of the more interesting and readable offerings comes from the right. Fall Out by "Shippers" has come in for effusive praise, suggesting it's a good place to look for anyone trying to make sense of what's going on, and who is this lesser mortal to quibble the wisdom of the great and the good of political punditry? In this case the hype is deserved. "Shippers" reporting opens up the window on the country's Tory elite in all its gossipy, bitchy, vainglorious, um, glory.

Like its predecessor, this isn't a sociological work. In fact, this time round he doesn't even drop in a caveat about his method. It's a straight up account of the ins and outs of establishment politics from the moment Theresa May came to power, all the way through her period of imperial pomp, the debacle of the election, her calamitous handling of the Grenfell Tower disaster and the early, discouraging signs of the Brexit negotiations. It's an excruciating story that we're still living, and the big spoiler is we're stuck with the consequences these incompetents have laid out for us.

Fall Out excels in its sketching of the regime Theresa May foisted on the Tory party, and then the revenge the party took after her failed election bid by effectively visiting on her a regime of permanent instability of its own. As the main protagonist, and arguably her own worst antagonist, "Shippers" portrays a politician criminally and cruelly out of her depth and beholden to her two - now thankfully departed - advisers, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy. The impression is oft-given that not only were "the chiefs", as they were styled, part of a triumvirate with May at the centre but effectively her brains. Timothy was more the ideas/philosophy man, and Hill the one selling the image and wrestling with the press, May is cast little more than an empty vessel. On many occasions we are regaled with tales of bad behaviour, arrogant behaviour, screaming matches, attacks on serving ministers, whispered briefings. Hill and Timothy were living their best lives, if those lives were sixth form impersonations of Malcolm Tucker. And when the election didn't turn out as expected, the cabinet quickly made it clear May would not be allowed to carry on if her crutches were allowed to stay to support her.

Speaking of elections, also interesting is "Shippers" take on why the Tories lost. It wasn't because of Jeremy Corbyn (the book goes out of its way to paint the Labour campaign and the folks around Corbyn as a shambles) nor was it really the awfulness of strong and stable, or even the dementia tax disaster. What stung was supposed to be the Tories strong suit: security. After the atrocity at the Manchester Arena, there was a belief among Tory circles it would play to their strengths and accentuate Labour's weakness. After all, Corbyn had rubbed shoulders with unsavoury characters like representatives of Hezbollah and Hamas while the Tories were the party of Britain's martial defence par excellence. But very quickly Labour muscled in by highlighting the decade's worth of police cuts under May's time in the Home Office, which continued to hit home even while May tried making capital after the London spree killings. This is what did for her more than anything else, and is still an issue the Tories have refused to rectify since.

Naturally, with Hill and Timothy out of the picture May, according to "Shippers", is less the toy of her arrogant bag carriers and more a creature of the civil service. With the chaos of the election result, we are told the late Jeremy Heywood more or less assumed the running of the government while the Tories squabbled about continuing with her, weighing up their own chances for leadership, apportioning blame, doing footsie with the DUP, and getting over their shock. From this point on May is less the author of her own fate, regardless of how debatable that designation was in the first place, and more the prime ministerial flotsam and jetsam of those around her. She doubled down on the hard Brexit rhetoric she indulged in her pomp, while all the time laying the ground for the weird soft for Northern Ireland/hard for the rest back stop deal we're lumbered with now.

The unparalleled access to leading members of the Tory party is the chief strength of "Shippers" account, but it's also the biggest weakness too. As per the previous tome, details on what was going on in Labour were much scantier and coloured by his obvious antipathy to Corbynism. His sources are few and far between, occasionally getting a comment from former Jezza presser Matt Zarb-Cousin or some anonymous-but-hostile full-timer at the Southside offices - comrades wanting the inside view from the Corbyn camp should read Steve Howell's Game Changer. Similarly, as you might expect the perspective from the SNP is largely missing and the Liberal Democrats, well, who cares anyway?

The other issue is, yes, the sociology. The screw up of Brexit, the mess of the general election, and the tedious, incompetent, complacent posturing can't all be laid at the door of the dramatis personae of "Shippers" duology. Political crisis moves through the actions of those caught up in it. The fact the activities of the few dozen Tories the book homes in on matters cannot be separated from what parties are and what politics is: the condensation and struggles of classes and class interests. Shippers then provides a way in, a microphysics of the shiftings and movements of the Tory elite, but properly understanding why their party is in an advanced state of decay and how it has brought the UK to the brink of its most profound crisis in 70 years demands we go beyond the interplay of he said, she said.


Tmb said...

I'm still trying to work out from whom or what we are 'taking back control'.

I guess they mean the EU, so that we can become an island of cheap labour. We are indeed stuck between a rock and a hard place.

And whither Labour?

Anonymous said...

Is that the Labour that inflicted three defeats on the Government in the Commons today?

Just asking.