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Too feeble by half

Books | December 2016

Michael White on 'Unleashing Demons: The Inside Story of Brexit' by Craig Oliver

Reading Craig Oliver’s appropriately hasty account of Downing Street’s botched defence of Britain’s EU membership, a campaign which he helped to orchestrate, may prompt the irritated reader to ask if the Brexit outcome might not be the Guardian’s fault. If that high-minded pro-European newspaper had not so relentlessly pursued the phone hacking scandal, the News of the World’s compromised ex- editor Andy Coulson would not have been forced to resign as No 10 communications chief, let alone be jailed as the Murdoch clan’s blood sacrifice.

Would such a street-smart tabloid operator have let David Cameron make the feeble fist of his referendum ‘strategy’ that his successor, former TV journalist Oliver, did? Probably not. Essex boys do not need to be reminded, as Oliver was by one of Cameron’s larrikin Australian election advisers, to TTFU (as in ‘toughen the fuck up’) when yet another member of the Cabinet’s famed chumocracy treacherously swam from the leaky ship.

‘Shoot them in the water’ is what tabloid toughies do. But Cameron refused to inflame the Tories’ EU civil war with ‘blue on blue’ attacks on Michael Gove, Boris Johnson or Steve Hilton, his bicycling Rasputin. In a campaign in which both sides said half-baked and foolish things, Leave’s version of Project Fear showed far less scruple about Turkish immigrants, NHS cash or the Brussels jackboot. It was Boris and his fellow Turks wot won it.

The tearful Oliver comes across here as over-impressed, devoted to Cameron (always DC or the PM in this quasi diary): Mr Pooter meets Sylvie Krin. He is admirably loyal but unhealthily protective. When not at hand to make ‘DC’ another coffee or open his bag of cashews, Sir Craig’s response (the K was in the resignation goody bag) to another setback is a text telling him it will be OK on the night. What he should have been doing was tipping the coffee and cashews into DC’s crotch, telling him to TTFU.

But Cameron was never a leader to reward candour and his inner Flashman seems to have taken a sabbatical. As Peter Mandelson (Blairite election winners were mostly kept at bay) asked at one desultory session: ‘Why do you all insist on bringing spoons to a knife fight?’ Oliver is naively trusting about Fleet Street’s reptiles (‘such a good relationship’) and even gets stitched up by the herbivorous BBC when the poisonous Gove makes one particularly silly headline-grabbing claim. Never great Cameron fans, the Daily Beast and Brute both treated him as they routinely do Labour leaders. As for Jeremy Corbyn’s feeble campaign contribution, that was another blow. So was Theresa ‘Submarine’ May’s, but at least she knew what she was doing. ‘She could be PM in six months,’ mused Cameron. Indeed.

Governing liberal states in the age of 24/7 news channels and feral social media is much harder than when Margaret Thatcher and even Tony Blair managed quite well. Oliver’s book confirms the impression that the Cameroons were mesmerised by the flickering screen. But their failure over Europe highlights the wider flaw in DC’s project. As prime minister for six years and 63 days Cameron had his successes, notably the 2010 coalition deal that stablised but did not reform Britain’s unbalanced economy. Alas, it fatally stuffed the Lib Dems in 2015, so that Cameron had to honour the tactical referendum pledge he hoped they’d still be around to veto. Typical of the Blair/Brown tribute band that was Dave and George: think short term, think political. They just weren’t as good at it. Nor did they work as hard. Blair challenged his party’s atavistic impulses; except on gay marriage and (briefly) the environment, Cameron rarely did. On Europe he appeased for tactical advantage to win the leadership in 2005 and kept on appeasing. In her prime Thatcher would not have done it.

Combine an over-confident sense of entitlement with boyish inexperience (most of Cameron and Osborne’s was acquired inside the rich eastern wedge of the M4 and M40), plus a lazy inattention to serious detail, and you get near misses like the Scottish independence referendum, dress rehearsal for Brexit. They should have known how disaffected voters were, many with good reason. But how could they possibly know? They also seem quite ignorant of the EU 27’s politics. The total absence of background context in Unleashing Demons speaks eloquently of No 10’s leap in the dark.

‘Well, that didn’t go to plan,’ Cameron lamely told his staff on the morning of defeat before he started packing, another dishonoured promise which (needless to say) Oliver endorsed. ‘I hope history will be kind to you,’ he writes on the book’s last page. Fat chance of that if Brexit tanks and Scotland departs. Among the gilded Etonians whose portraits adorn the No 10 staircase is Lord North (1770–82). Look him up, Dave.

Hodder & Stroughton £20

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This story was from December 2016 issue. Subscribe Now