Fall Out: A Year of Political Mayhem by Tim Shipman

“He had once seen in Taunton a barely intelligible film about newspaper life in New York where neurotic men in shirt sleeves and eye-shades had rushed from telephone to tape machines, insulting and betraying one another in surroundings of unredeemed squalor.”

So wrote Evelyn Waugh, describing the slight acquaintance with journalism of William Boot, accidental hero of Scoop. Anyone drawing their knowledge of British politics from Tim Shipman’s account of the year since September 2016 might form a similar impression.

Neurotic men and women rush about betraying each other. The language is squalid, especially in the period when Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill are running the show for Theresa May, in the period up to her disastrous decision in April 2017 to call a snap election.

“Downing Street was literally a shag fest, with people drunk on power and living on the edge,” one person who worked there tells Shipman.

According to Shipman himself, “the personal feuding behind the scenes in Theresa May’s Downing Street would not have been out of place in a Christmas episode of EastEnders or the Godfather movies.”

This comes in Chapter 11, entitled “The Snarling Duds of May?”, which is the most vivid of the 28 chapters, for it possesses, in Hill (known here as “Fi”), a first-rate villain. According to one cabinet minister,

“Whenever Fi told you something, it was always ‘ We have decided this, we think this,’ it was never the PM. Fi actually thought she was the PM. Nick thought he was the PM. It was an unhealthy relationship.” 

A Downing Street official said, “Fiona and Nick thought the officials were their slaves.” Civil servants were “shitting themselves all the time” and “were in mourning for the Cameron years. There was a decency about his team.”

According to someone in the Cabinet Office, Hill would send messages such as “It is a fucking catastrophe that you work for the civil service.” Witness after witness tells Shipman that “Hill was out of control”.

The story is told from the point of view of Katie Perrior, who was in theory Director of Communications in Downing Street, but in practice found it impossible to carry out her task, and at one stage “became so frustrated that she briefly considered flushing Hill’s head down the loo”.

Hill did not consider Perrior up the job, an assessment which may well have been correct. Perrior was so miserable she decided she was going to leave. Meanwhile James Slack, a man trained in the ways of the Daily Mail, so possessed of an acute news sense and able to withstand enormous pressure, was brought in as Downing Street Press Secretary, and took over from Perrior as the presenter of the media summary at the daily 8.30 a.m. meeting in May’s office, attended by the Prime Minister and senior staff.

In 2011 Hill had leaked a big Home Office story to Slack. May, then Home Secretary, “was presented with evidence of her team’s attempts to smear a public servant of 40 years’ standing, and she dug in to defend them”. The civil servant in question, Brodie Clark, brought a case for constructive dismissal, which was settled out of court with a payment to him of £225,000.

Shipman is a fair-minded reporter, who quotes favourable verdicts on Hill as well as a mass of unfavourable ones. But he cannot avoid asking why May did so little to rein in Hill and Timothy. He finds that “many of the Prime Minister’s other aides believe she was so in thrall to them that she could not have controlled them even if she wished to”.

This kind of book is quite odd, for much of it is already familiar to anyone who has been reading Shipman’s reports for his newspaper, The Sunday Times. But there is much new detail too, and the cumulative effect is devastating.

By the time one has read his account of the last general election campaign, in which Theresa May’s limitations as a candidate were so cruelly exposed, one cannot help wondering why she has survived as Prime Minister.

Part of the answer is perhaps that there are aspects of politics which are beyond the bounds of the parliamentary lobby’s understanding of what constitutes a story. Shipman describes a world in which time bombs tick, shock waves are sent and Westminster is stunned.

Our senses are assaulted, indeed disorientated, by superlatives, including in these pages “the fastest major budget U-turn in modern political history”, “the most dramatic manifesto U-turn in history” and “one of the most spectacular melt-downs ever seen by a party leader”.

The best political journalists, of whom Shipman is certainly one, search with keen eyes and remorseless industry for things that go wrong, can detect a gaffe where any normal person might at most note a clumsy turn of phrase, and can turn a bump in the road into a cliff edge over which the Government or indeed the country has just plunged, or is at least about to plunge.

Competence is undramatic, so generally goes unnoticed. The concentration is on things, sometimes rather minor, which have gone wrong, or are at least about to go wrong.

A free press is an essential check on the abuse of power. By waxing indignant about minor faults, it averts worse ones. But it also distorts what is happening.

So Jeremy Corbyn is reported to be the worst Labour leader ever, until during the general election it emerges, as Shipman says, that he “had spent decades learning which lines worked with his target audience”. Or as a Labour official quoted here puts it, “Jeremy has spent a lot of time getting middle-class people motivated about the politics of the left. He’s very good at that.”

May then becomes the worst campaigner ever. Yet she got the highest share of the vote for the Conservatives since 1983, and there are quite a few voters who rather like her inarticulate respectability. She expresses something about middle England which a smarter, wittier Prime Minister, able to think on his or her feet and change course at lightning speed, would not convey.

It nevertheless becomes clear from this book that David Cameron possessed greater strengths as Prime Minister than are generally dreamed of in Fleet Street’s philosophy. Ed Llewellyn, his chief of staff, was often disparaged, for he did not throw his weight around with loutish abandon, handing out bollockings to those who incurred his displeasure.

According to Shipman, “all the best political operators I have known – Damian McBride, Dominic Cummings and Alastair Campbell among them – have been divisive figures”. But might it not be the case that the best political operators do not themselves become the story?

Another reason why May has survived – a point well made by Shipman – is that after the cruel disappointment of election night, which forced the resignation of Hill and Timothy, the civil service filled the vacuum, and ensured the Queen’s Government was carried on.

And perhaps – a thought which occurred to Bernard Mandeville in the 18th century – it is not actually that difficult to be Prime Minister. Perhaps lots of people could do it. And once you are the incumbent, you possess a deep well of patronage, and are supported by a high-grade machine, so getting rid of you becomes tricky.

May continues to conduct the Brexit negotiations because a large number of influential people, officials as well as politicians, trust her more than they trust any of the alternatives, and would rather have a weak Prime Minister than an over-mighty one.

In Brussels too, that seems to be the case. A devout Anglican is preferable to a clever but unpredictable pagan. And in June 2017, the electorate in its collective wisdom decided not to make her a dictator, but to put her in a position where she must make compromises on our behalf.

Shipman ends with the charitable observation:

In the most turbulent times of my life, it is hard to see how anyone could have negotiated their way without error through the turbulent fall out from Brexit. We should be grateful someone was willing to try.

Future writers will quarry this book for high-grade materials, compiled contemporaneously, so without the distorting effect of knowing how May’s story ends. But the first edition has no index, so researchers may prefer to wait for the paperback.