I published my review of Tim Shipman’s All Out War back in November, as the British state grew incomprehensibly gridlocked and the spectre of a no-deal Brexit began to loom larger. Over two months on, we’ve hit January 2019 – the effective shutdown of governance continues, and a no-deal Brexit seems all but inevitable. These turbulent times necessitate a solid understanding of how we got here, and the best way to achieve this is to read Tim Shipman’s political sequel: Fall Out.
The book encompasses just over a year, from September 2016, when Theresa May’s premiership got in full swing, to December 2017, as she succeeded in securing progression in the exit negotiations with the European Union. Between those dates, of course, so much happened: May triggered Article 50, called a snap general election and barely won it, squandering her position as one of the most popular prime minister’s in modern British history, leading to the unexpected, euphoric rise of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.
Fall Out isn’t as rapid a page-turner as All Out War, but perhaps its subject matter doesn’t lend itself for it. The story of cataclysmic failure isn’t as compelling as that of stunning success, and while Shipman continues to enliven political processes through his vivid characterisation, the dull policy detail which has dominated the Brexit process remains dull policy detail. Perhaps the chief difficulty is that the central protagonists of All Out War, with the exception of Boris Johnson, deserted the stage: Gove, Dominic Cummings, Arron Banks, Matthew Elliot and the other colourful characters from the Leave campaigns were all gone. Instead, focus shifts to Theresa May, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy – the elusive leader led by her unlikeable goons, with the chiefs gone too.
Instead of entertainment, Fall Out is better read as a study on how three individuals can seize control of the executive, centralising command at a time which ached for cross-party cooperation. The recurring theme throughout its predecessor was how individuals were responsible for monumental events; this time around, the opposite is true, with Theresa May the consistent beneficiary of others’ mistakes and errors. She became leader by default and navigated Brexit with – relative – ease until the election due to the weakness of the opposition, and the early national mood that we had to accept Brexit and get behind the PM. It is ironic that the one time May and her team engineered events themselves, it blew up in their faces, which is what makes the chapters covering the election campaigns so riveting. Like the Remain campaign, the Conservatives were deficient campaigners with an incoherent and unwelcome message and, like the Remain campaign, they were well aware of this. Shipman makes clear throughout that May was unhappy with the campaign whilst it raged on, as were those surrounding her. It is startling that more was not done to patch up the sinking ship.
On the other side of the fence, Labour is depicted as the new beneficiary of events, managing to strap together a clear vision after two years of infighting. Shipman goes to great lengths to underline the sheer populism of their campaign, revealing how, at one stage, there was a discussion on whether Labour should send their own battle bus around the country reading, ‘£350m a week for the NHS,’ straight-up matching Vote Leave’s now-infamous pledge. “For the life of me I still don’t understand why it didn’t happen,” said a Labour insider. I can think of plenty of reasons why not.
If All Out War was the guns-blazing battle, then Fall Out is the uneasy truce in the aftermath, navigating history unprecedented, before it all blew up again. The beginning of the Tory civil war is presented as a spy movie, one anecdote being of Tory MPs using coded conversational tactics to gauge support for removing May. Time will tell if they eventually succeed. For now, over eighteen months on, the civil war continues to rage, as the legislature attempts to displace the executive, whilst Britain rumbles ever closer to the cliff edge of Brexit. One cannot wait to see what the third instalment entails.
Very kind, Jasper. That’s put me in good spirits as I start to write volume 3
— Tim Shipman (@ShippersUnbound) November 13, 2018