I have to admit I have become a bit disengaged from politics over the last few years. But after the political earthquakes of 2016 I felt I had to get back into it. The book I chose was All Out War by the political correspondent of the Sunday Times, Tim Shipman. This job seems to have been given access, going back for years, to most of the major figures in this story, except perhaps to Team Corbyn. Subtitled “The full story of how Brexit sank Britain’s political class“, it is a chronicle of the campaign that would lead to Brexit. It was well worth reading and has drawn plaudits from both sides of the debate. In fact, it is necessary to talk about all sides as what this book makes clear is that both “Leave” and “Remain” were coalitions of rival forces which at certain stages, as Shipman chronicles in exhaustive detail, seemed to spend more time attacking factions on their own side rather than against those of the opposing campaign. If you like tales of bitter political infighting, this is the book for you.
Let’s take a look at those in favour of Brexit. The official campaign group for leaving the EU was Vote Leave, with its big rival being Leave.EU. There were other groups too such as Grassroots Out, Get Britain Out and Better Off Out, but Shipman focuses on the first two. Vote Leave was created in October 2015 by political strategists Matthew Elliot and Dominic Cummings. It was conceived as a cross-party organisation. Its two most prominent advocates were Conservatives Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, who gave it more respectability. They tended to play down immigration and highlighted global trade liberalisation instead. Leave.EU, which was originally called The Know, The campaign was co-founded by Bristol-based businessman and UKIP donor Arron Banks and property entrepreneur Richard Tice. They were The Bad Boys of Brexit” as Banks called his diary of the campaign. Their mantra for the campaign was immigration, immigration, immigration. In the end this double punch was effective, but there was a lot of hatred and there were even coups within Vote Leave.
Opposing them were the Remainers. Their principle figure was of course the PM. David Cameron felt that he had to promise a referendum in order to stem the tide of defections to Ukip, and lead a united party in the 2015 election. Not expecting to lose, Cameron made a number of tactical errors as he was outmanoeuvred by the Eurosceptics in his party. For example Remain fought the campaign with one arm tied behind their backs as Cameron wanted to avoid avoiding direct “blue-on-blue” attacks on fellow Tories. After the successful deployment of scaring the voters in the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, it was decided to repeat the strategy. It stressed the economic risks of leaving. There were messages from the Chancellor, the Governor of the Bank of England, Christine Laggard of the IMF and even Barack Obama who said that Britain would be at “the back of the queue” for trade deals if she left the EU. They may have overegged the omelette, but Remain generally won the economy debate. But this did not prove the decisive factor. Maybe with a sympathetic press it would have proved more effective. But little attempt was made to paint a positive picture of the European Union and Britain’s place in it. After three decades of Euroscepticism, this was always going to be a hard sell.
And then there was Jeremy Corbyn. They say that the problem with political jokes is that they get elected. Corbyn may have been elected as Labour leader twice, but he surely has no chance of ever being PM. I can’t be the only one who thinks that if the Tories had planted someone in the Labour party twenty years ago, he couldn’t have done a better job for them than Corbyn has. The chapter called Labour Isn’t Working is about how Corby and his aides effectively sabotaged Labour’s Remain stance. Shipman portrays Corbyn as a puppet in the hands of shadow chancellor John McDonnell and chief of staff Seumas “Stalin wasn’t so bad” Milne. Lacklustre is the most positive way to describe Corbyn’s strategy of disengagement. McDonnell is said to have refused to travel on his party’s designated battle bus because to do so would have been “too New Labourish”. They were graduates from the Tony Benn school of anti-EU agitation, and many believe that Corbyn actually voted for Leave.
All this meant that Remain came across largely as Tory-run. Given the chaos of the campaign, 48% almost seems like a good result. They lost by 4% or 1.2 million votes. If Remain had won, we would be talking about the chaos that was Leave. It is interesting to compare these results with referendum held on 5 June 1975 in the United Kingdom to gauge support for the country’s continued membership of the European Communities aka the Common Market. In this case Yes won 67% of the vote. For such a transcendental decision I think there should have been a 60% threshold. Alas no such measure was in place, so we now have to accept the result.