You know that feeling you get when you finish a book you never really wanted to end? It’s almost a feeling of grief. That’s what I’ve got as I type this, minutes after finishing Tim Shipman’s majestic ALL OUT WAR. It’s impossible to fully comprehend what happened on June 23 and the ensuing two weeks without reading this book. I consider myself fairly well informed about most aspects of the referendum, its result and consequences, but reading this book taught me how much I also didn’t know and had failed to understand.
To write an instant, 624 page, fully-footnoted book in less than three months, let along publish it within four makes me doff my cap not only to the author but to the book’s publishers HarperCollins. In all those pages I only spotted one factual error, and not a single typo. Respect to all involved.
Sometimes, with instantly written books, the final chapters can appear, well, rather hurried. Not in this case. Indeed, the final chapter is without doubt the finest in the book. It almost serves as a rather polished executive summary of the whole tome. Shipman gives his verdict on the whole shebang, venturing into several ‘what if’ scenarios and analysing who really was responsible for what. It makes for fascinating reading.
At this point in a normal book review the author of the review usually spends the rest of the article giving his/her own opinion on the events in question. I won’t be doing that here as anything I offer would pale into insignificance compared to what Tim Shipman concludes. I don’t feel worthy. It’s possibly also because I couldn’t really find much to disagree with in his analysis, which in itself is somewhat remarkable. He’s incredibly fair in his thoughts on all the various leading players. Even Michael Gove and Boris Johnson will read this book feeling that he has been very fair to both of them – that’s not because he sits on the fence or writes a palid version of what went on, he writes it warts and all. Arron Banks may possibly feel his role in the campaign to leave the EU is slightly underplayed, and Nigel Farage may also feel that Shipman doesn’t challenge the narrative from Vote Leave that he was seen as toxic by swing voters, something I’ve always felt was overplayed. To the several million ex-Labour voters and non voters who voted Leave, Farage wasn’t seen in that way at all. But those are two minor quibbles.
I don’t know Dominic Cummings. My office in Westminster Tower is three floors about that of where the Vote Leave campaign was. I saw Cummings once but didn’t introduce myself. In fact I only visited their offices once in the whole campaign, to discuss an LBC interview with Michael Gove. If I were Dominic Cummings and I read this book – and surely he has – I’d be fairly confident my place in the political history of this country was assured. Every successful campaign needs a Cummings figure – someone who the campaign workers can look up to and respect. Stronger In didn’t have that. Lynton Crosby or Alastair Campbell could have provided that leadership, but one wasn’t willing to do the job, and the other wasn’t asked. Even then, no one can be certain it would have made a difference.
Stronger In had two main problems – Jeremy Corbyn and the fact that with few exceptions, none of their leading spokespeople were able to offer any sort of positive vision about what Britain’s future in the EU would look like. If anyone doubts Jeremy Corbyn did everything he could to scupper the Remain campaign they should read Tim Shipman’s chapter called JEXIT. Dear oh dear. I’ve always felt that Corbyn probably secretly voted Leave. Reading this chapter convinces me even further.
The relentless Project Fear approach of Stronger In worked to an extent, but it had to be married to something more positive too. Vote Leave had their ‘Take Back Control’ slogan, which was remarkably effective. Stronger In had nothing comparable. I interviewed all the leading players during the campaign, but there was only one who was able to articulate a positive vision, and that was James McGrory, Nick Clegg’s former spin doctor, who carried out the same job for Stronger In, but was also one of their spokespeople. He should have given his colleagues a masterclass in how to do it, because none of them managed it. Ever.
I’ve always considered Andrew Rawnsley’s SERVANTS OF THE PEOPLE to be the best book in that type of contemporary political literary genre. ALL OUT WAR surpasses it. Rawnsley and Shipman are both Sunday newspaper journalists, so they clearly have a lot in common. Both books read at times like thrillers, they have pace and they keep the reader engaged.
There are lots of f****s and c**** in this book. One thing which united both sides of the argument was their liking of swearing. And in this book the reader isn’t spared. I suppose it makes them all seem more human than most people assume people in politics to be. Boris Johnson, for example, comes across in these pages as a much more human, vulnerable, emotional individual than he is usually portrayed as. Farage is portrayed as much less gung ho.
Remarkably, I’ve got to the final part of this article without mentioning David Cameron. Someone is quoted in the book as saying that David Cameron looks like the Lord North de nos jours at the moment. Others have written that he will go down in history alongside Neville Chamberlain and Anthony Eden in the pantheons of our worst prime ministers. People who say that no doubt voted Remain. I suggest that we won’t be able to judge that for 15 or 20 years. I suspect that in 2035 we may look back and think that leaving the EU was the best thing Britain ever did. Just my opinion. Could Cameron have avoided giving a referendum? Yes. But it would have continued the running sore of Europe that has split the Tory Party for the last thirty years. Some might think that would have been a price worth paying. In reality, the sore will continue to run, as the likes of Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry will continue to advocate the pro-European viewpoint.
It’s hard to believe this is Shipman’s first book. I’ve known Shippers (as he’s known to everyone) for donkey’s years. As political editor of The Sunday Times he currently has one of the, if not the – best jobs in political journalism. But it’s taken a long time for him to get there and be recognised as one of the best political journalists of his era. He held a succession of jobs on the Sunday Express, the Daily Mail and Sunday Telegraph, all at deputy level. I could never understand why he had never got a Pol Ed job, as he proved himself to be a brilliant story-getter week after week. Since he’s been at The Sunday Times he’s formed a brilliant partnership with his deputy James Lyons, and they’ve made the Sunday Times unmissable for its brilliant political coverage.
I hope this will be the first of many books by Tim Shipman. It certainly ought to be, and I suspect HarperCollins will already be talking to him about his next one.
This book is brilliant. If you haven’t already done so, buy it. HERE