Thursday 14 December 2017

Inside story of Brexit and a truly terrified Tory party

Politics: Unleashing Demons, Craig Oliver, Hodder & Stoughton, pbk, 420 pages, €17.99

Lapse in judgment: David Cameron and Oliver were much more worried by the defection of the odious Michael Gove than the charismatic Boris Johnson
Lapse in judgment: David Cameron and Oliver were much more worried by the defection of the odious Michael Gove than the charismatic Boris Johnson
David Cameron's spin doctor Craig Oliver
Unleashing Demons by Craig Oliver

Tom Molloy

David Cameron's spin doctor gives a behind-the-scenes peek at a party in chaos in the run up to the UK's vote to leave the European Union.

Unleashing Demons is a thrilling, raw but mendacious account by David Cameron's spin doctor about how the former British prime minister lost the Brexit referendum. While often self-serving and intellectually dishonest, communications director Craig Oliver throws into sharp relief the difficulties of running any sort of political campaign in the teeth of a hostile press, relentless social-media campaigns and widespread hostility to the Establishment.

This up-to-the minute take on modern politics will appeal to almost anybody interested in 21st-century politics as a blood sport.

By the end of 400-odd pages of muddled thinking and political infighting, the reader is left wondering how the Remain side managed to do as well as it did. The memoir, which is based on notes and diaries written as the referendum campaign began earlier this year, portrays a Tory leadership that was chaotic and terrified of civil war; so terrified that Cameron continuously holds back from so-called 'blue-on-blue' battles with Tory party opponents such as former London mayor Boris Johnson and former Lord Chancellor Michael Gove.

In just one of many strange lapses of judgment, Cameron and Oliver appear much more worried by the defection of the odious Gove than the charismatic Johnson. Indeed, one of the book's main themes is Gove's perceived treachery along with current prime minister Theresa May's reluctance to offer almost any concrete support to the Remain campaign.

A second theme is the complete absence of any interest in, or affection for, Europe on the Remain side. The only European leader to play even a passing role is Germany's Angela Merkel. Not once does Oliver express anything but annoyance with the rest of Europe. It is clear Cameron had no allies in Brussels more than six years after coming to power.

With a divided party, no prospect of a meaningful renegotiation of the European treaties, a hostile media and a Eurosceptic population, it is quite extraordinary just how ill-prepared Cameron and his advisors appear to have been as the campaign to honour his election pledge cranked into action.

This failure to prepare was then compounded by a series of own goals such as the story about the offshore finances of Cameron's father and the campaign's decision to focus almost entirely on the alleged economic disaster that would befall Britain if the population embraced Brexit - a line of argument that would always be hypothetical and came to be dubbed succinctly as Project Fear.

Cameron and his chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, invested huge political capital in pretending that business and experts unanimously supported Remain. In fact, many popular business leaders, such as James Dyson or JCB chief Graeme MacDonald, supported Leave while Remain trumpeted support from organisations such as Goldman Sachs, the Bank of England or IMF, which are largely discredited in the eyes of the tens of millions of UK voters still suffering from the financial crisis.

At times during Unleashing Demons, many Irish readers will ask themselves why Cameron and his team did not import one or two Irish advisors. Downing Street appears to have been crawling with American political strategists in the first half of this year; most of them hawking conflicting polls predicting victory. What Cameron lacked was advice from those who had fought and lost referendums on European issues in Europe in the recent past.

An Irish advisor (or his Dutch or Danish counterpart) might have been able to warn Cameron that cross-party support allied with the blessings of trade unions, business organisations and church leaders is meaningless. A second lesson from our referendums might have been that polls tend to overstate support for the European project. A third lesson might be that the public knows little about European institutions and cares even less, so the debate will inevitably be hijacked by red-herring issues that contain a grain of truth. In Ireland, every referendum involves talk of a European army. In the Brexit debate, it was immigration and fears that millions of Turks would one day come to Britain.

Here, Oliver again displays his dishonesty; bewailing the stupidity of the British public for believing this was a possibility when British diplomats have regularly said Turkey should join. How could the plebs be so stupid as to believe their own government policy when this is only a sop to the stupid Turks, Oliver wails.

Unleashing Demons makes clear that Cameron and other wealthy Tory leaders completely underestimated the toxic effects of crowded classrooms and benefits tourism until days before the vote. There are constant, and almost comical attempts to delay the publication of official statistics showing the real levels of immigration from inside and outside the EU.

Perhaps this vote was lost in the classrooms of Eton, which are not yet crowded with children unable to speak English?

Whatever the reason, Oliver's book suggests strongly that it was the lack of focus and urgency in the Remain side that allowed the Brexit debate to be framed as the very real immigration experienced by the many versus a possible economic meltdown.

The hostility displayed by the majority of newspapers was implacable and was obviously a new, and very unpleasant, sensation for Cameron. At one stage, the leaders of the Tory party joke that they now knew what it was like to be hapless Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, who faced a largely hostile press during his short leadership. This hostility, coupled with a BBC that tried to represent both sides, clearly threw Number 10.

At first, one feels sorry for Oliver but as the months roll on and one lame campaign idea follows another as the Tory high command refuses to take on Johnson and Gove directly, it becomes all too clear that the ­referendum was called to avoid a Tory civil war and would now be lost for the same reason rather than media bias.

The role of Cameron in all this is difficult to discern. Oliver appears to be in complete awe of his boss in a way that Alastair Campbell, for example, never was with Tony Blair. Cameron comes across as preternaturally calm and down to earth, much like his public image, but his motivation is never clear. Why does he want to be prime minister? Why is he fighting this referendum. Why does he believe in Europe?

In the end, the British public don't seem to have been able to answer those questions either and gave Cameron and Europe their marching orders on June 23. The evidence of this book is that a different outcome was always going to be a tall order but the team tasked with getting that outcome were too myopic, too comfortable and too limited to shift the consensus.

Tom Molloy is director of public affairs and communications at Trinity College Dublin

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