David Cameron lost the referendum but saved the Conservative Party. That is one of many arresting thoughts offered by Tim Shipman in this conversation about All Out War, his astonishing account of the EU referendum and its aftermath.
Shipman, political editor of the Sunday Times, is a reporter who communicates the excitement of covering a great story, which he tells by allowing the combatants to speak for themselves. In a remarkably short period of time, he has produced a 600-page narrative of this summer’s events which is rich in vivid and unexpected detail.
At the end of this Stakhanovite labour, he is able to stand back and try to work out why Leave won. He proceeds on the assumption that what a small number of people did (or declined to do) during the summer of 2016 was of decisive importance.
As he says at one point in this interview, “I think you can argue that between February and the start of July, every single decision that Michael Gove made changed the course of British history.”
One of the things Cameron declined to do was to break the Conservative Party. He knew that after the referendum, someone (himself, as he hoped and expected) would have to bring the party back together again, so he left it in a condition where that was possible.
But we began by touching on the unhappy moment during the referendum campaign when Shipman’s wife kicked him out of the marital bed.
ConHome: “Apart from working very hard, how did you get such a long book written so quickly?”
Shipman: “There were moments when it felt like it was accelerating away into the distance. It took 11 weeks. I think I did four weeks of interviews and seven weeks of writing. The entire summer holiday was spent hunched over the laptop.
“Lady Shippers, as we call her, was Head of Events at the Remain campaign. She not only had this intense period of work which ended in great trauma. To compound the issue her husband announced he was writing a book about it. It was obviously an invigorating experience, but quite disappointing. And a lot of people who were involved are still fairly traumatised by the situation.”
ConHome: “Yes, bereaved.”
Shipman: “Not helped by some of my reporting. We took a very fair and balanced view at the Sunday Times. Whatever we thought the best story was that weekend.”
ConHome: “The book is very fair.”
Shipman: “I’ve tried to be as balanced as I can and give everybody a fair shout. The challenge has been, particularly on the Leave side, I’ve had a lot of calls, ‘You’ve missed this element, there was a very important meeting at which I spoke in 2014 at which I made a crucial point which was vital to the victory that followed…’
“I’ve tried to concentrate on a small cast of characters, as best as I can. But inevitably some people feel their own unique contribution has been missed.
“When I started properly writing I was faced with half a million words of transcripts from the interviews I’d done, which was quite a daunting thing.”
ConHome: “How many words is it?”
Shipman: “It’s over 200,000. People like to joke about Sunday journalists only working one day a week, which is of course not true at the best of times. I now know what it’s like to work seven days a week.”
ConHome: “I listened to the interview you did with James Delingpole. Are you able to tell us any more about this alarming incident when your wife kicked you out of the marital bed for three nights? Delingpole didn’t really get anywhere with that.”
Shipman: “He didn’t pursue it, no. What happened was, into my possession came a series of diplomatic telegrams, leaked documents you might say, on the Turkish situation, which suggested that one of our diplomats in Berlin was suggesting we throw open the door to quite a lot of Turkish passport holders, and in private were encouraging the rest of Europe to let the Turks in as well, which slightly flew in the face of the story David Cameron was trying to tell.
“And so when we printed those in the newspaper, the Remain campaign was not best pleased, and Lady Shippers said other people reckoned this had cost them the referendum, and I was invited to sleep in the spare room.
“There were a lot of traumas. I was not the only journalist with a loved one involved. There were a group of us who would occasionally exchange tales of woe.”
ConHome: “Your last chapter is a very rich analysis of why Leave won. I was particularly struck by the argument of Michael McManus, who used to work for Ted Heath, that Tony Blair was to blame.”
Shipman: “When he initially said that I thought, ‘Oh don’t be ridiculous, everybody blames Tony Blair for everything.’
“But actually it makes a lot of sense in terms of the context of it. Blair encouraged eastern European countries to join the EU. Then he unlike most other countries decided he didn’t want any kind of border controls, thus letting in vastly more people than his government claimed to be the case, which not only changed communities but undermined public trust in government pronouncements on immigration.
“He then backed the Iraq War which a lot of people would say is still having knock-on effects in the Middle East now, which in part created the migration crisis which came back to land on David Cameron’s doorstep.”
ConHome: “If you’re asked – without my having put Blair’s contribution at the top of your mind – why did Remain lose, what is your answer?”
Shipman: “You can’t ignore the context, which is three decades of Euroscepticism, and what appears now particularly after Trump’s victory to be an anti-establishment movement sweeping western countries. But the book itself is about the campaign.”
ConHome: “Which was extremely close. So you can have many different things, any one of which could have made a decisive difference.”
Shipman: “If 600,000 people had changed their minds, you would have had a different result.
“The Leave campaign had a better strategy and a better message. If you go into a room and ask people what was the message from the Leave campaign, there’ll always be someone able to say ‘Take back control’, and they can remember the £350 million a week which is sent to Brussels. Dominic Cummings was clever enough to understand that if you have a row about the figure people would remember it.
“You then ask people what was the message from the Remain side, and you are met with a sea of blank faces. All people can remember is being told it would be terribly bad for the economy, and a lot of them didn’t buy that. A lot of people who voted Leave thought their personal financial circumstances could not have been a great deal worse, and were prepared to take the risk.
“They didn’t have Lynton Crosby [running Remain]. Instead they had a rather flat and disorganised campaign. They would have been much better off with a dictatorial leader, like Vote Leave had with Dominic Cummings.”
ConHome: “You quote someone saying you got the Conservatives’ 2010 general election campaign, not the 2015 general election campaign.”
Shipman: “Exactly. There was no one really in charge. The other big strategic problem was the polls, which were wrong. Most pollsters now think that Leave was leading for most of the campaign, and probably had been since the turn of the year. Andrew Cooper [Cameron’s pollster] was not the only one who got it wrong. Pretty much every pollster underestimated the number of traditional non-voters who would turn out to vote.
“Getting that wrong meant there was no sense of crisis and drama when there should have been. And they stuck to Plan A when there were many different Plan Bs they might have gone for.”
ConHome: “And they didn’t go for Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, because they thought they were going to have to put the party back together again having won.”
Shipman: “People who read ConservativeHome may come ultimately to thank David Cameron, because throughout this process he put the interests of the Conservative Party ahead of winning the referendum…
“If you take the view that the Conservative Party is the party that ought to be running the country, and as a Leaver or a Remainer that having a stable and competent Conservative Party, particularly at the moment with the state the Labour Party is in, that it was important to preserve that as an electoral force and as an entity that’s not having a nervous breakdown, then David Cameron’s actions were rather conservative with a small c in a good way. They preserved a situation where the country could move forward after the result.”
ConHome: “And he has in various ways inflicted grievous damage on the Liberal Democrats, by killing them with kindness, on UKIP, by having the referendum, and on Labour, by a centrist economic policy which left them with nowhere to go.”
Shipman: “The Tories are in arguably a stronger position than they were a year ago.
“Michael Gove completed the job by what he did with Boris Johnson. I think you can argue that between February and the start of July, every single decision that Michael Gove made changed the course of British history. The culmination of those decisions was totally disastrous for him and for most of the people around him.
“Gove gave intellectual credibility to the Leave campaign and he gave Boris political cover to make the decision that I think he wanted to make.
“Nick Boles had a rather nice phrase at the point when he was accepting the Boris-Gove dream team, that Gove would be the midfield play-maker while Boris was the Cristiano Ronaldo up front, and to some degree those were the roles they played during the referendum campaign. And had they stuck together during the leadership campaign, that’s how the government might have worked as well.
“Most people think that in the first round of the leadership vote, Boris would have had 120 votes and Theresa would have had about 100. So it would have immediately been clear it was between the two of them and you’d have had a pretty close-run contest over the summer.”
ConHome: “And they’d have had quite a long time to sort out the teething problems in their campaign.”
Shipman: “If they could have got to the weekend from the Thursday morning [when Gove knifed Johnson] in one piece, I think Boris would have had every chance of being Prime Minister. Michael Gove would have had every chance of effectively guiding the governance of Britain.”
ConHome: “If you were giving out the Shipman awards, who would get them on the Leave side and who would get them on the Remain side?”
Shipman: “Well on the Leave side I think it’s hard to give anyone a gold medal other than Mr Cummings. My favourite quote in the book is from Steve Baker, about Dominic Cummings. He says he’s ‘political special forces’.
“This is a guy who takes no prisoners, gets stuck in, knows exactly what he wants, fights for it, is totally uninterested in people who have a contrary view, and focuses relentlessly on the goal in hand.
“You’ve got to give some credit to Nigel Farage. You wouldn’t have had a referendum without Farage campaigning for it for years. If you go back further, Dan Hannan deserves some credit for putting the whole issue of the referendum on the table in the first place.”
Of the collaboration between Trump and Farage, Shipman said: “They worked out between them that if you say a bunch of outrageous things and don’t apologise for it, you can get quite a bit of free publicity.
“On the other side, most of the duff decisions were made by David Cameron himself.
“George Osborne didn’t want the referendum at all and urged David Cameron to delay it until such time as there was a treaty being negotiated, which would have given us leverage.
“Lynton Crosby, his other main political adviser, told him his deal wasn’t good enough and he should walk away from it.
“The weird hero of all this in a slightly odd way is George Osborne, who basically fought like a madman in a referendum that he never thought should have happened, defending a figure limiting immigration to the tens of thousands that he thought personally insane to have proffered in the first place, and lots of Tory MPs were very angry with Osborne towards the end. He consciously blew up his own political career in order to try to save his ally David Cameron.
“All the polling showed that the best message Remain had was ‘a leap into the dark’. But their most prominent campaign materials were specifying in great detail what would happen.”
ConHome: “And someone like Crosby would have said you can’t say both of these things, because they flatly contradict each other.”