18 October 2019

For the Record

For the Record
Just as Tony Blair’s legacy is defined by the Iraq war, David Cameron’s premiership will also be judged by a single decision: to hold a referendum on the UK’s EU membership. Thus, it’s inevitable that Europe also overshadows Cameron’s new memoir, For the Record.

In his memoir, A Journey, Blair acknowledged the polarisation and anger caused by his support for George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion, though he also insisted that he took the decision in good faith. Similarly, For the Record begins with Cameron’s apology for the consequences of Brexit: “I am truly sorry to have seen the country I love so much suffer uncertainty and division in the years since then. But...”

Cameron also accepts some of the responsibility for losing the referendum campaign: “I deeply regret the outcome and accept that my approach failed. The decisions I took contributed to that failure. I failed. But, in my defence...”

This remorse and regret is always followed by a qualifying ‘but’, and he insists that the referendum itself was justified: “I am not apologetic about having been the prime minister who promised a referendum and delivered on the promise.” Cameron is equally unapologetic about austerity. Quite the opposite, in fact: “My assessment now is that we probably didn’t cut enough.”

As for Boris Johnson, Cameron calls him “an irritation” and later, for good measure, “a massive irritation.” He’s also clear about Johnson’s motives for supporting Brexit: “while Boris cared about this issue, it was secondary to another concern: what was the best outcome for him?”

As even Vote Leave admit, the £350m-a-week on the bus was a calculated deception. Cameron puts it rather effectively: “As Boris rode the bus around the country, he left the truth at home.” Absolutely, except now Boris is in the driving seat and, like the end of The Italian Job, we’re teetering on the edge of a cliff.

20 November 2016

All Out War

All Out War
There are other books on the Brexit campaign, from the perspectives of either the leavers or remainers, though Tim Shipman's All Out War is the only account of both the campaign and its aftermath, and the only attempt to tell the story from both sides. As the Financial Times wrote in its review last weekend, Shipman "has spoken to every key individual to produce the definitive first draft of history, a comprehensive yet impartial study of how Brexit won."

The book (subtitled The Full Story Of How Brexit Sank Britain's Political Class) begins with David Cameron's prophecy that a referendum on the UK's EU membership "could unleash demons of which ye know not." As Shipman explains, plenty of demons were unleashed: "The demons were the forces of Euroscepticism that had been growing in the Conservative Party for three decades... Cameron also believed in the demons of economic disaster in the event of a Leave vote, the upsurge in nativist sentiment during the campaign, even the willingness of campaigners on both sides to stretch the truth to make their point during the campaign."

Cameron's decision to hold a once-and-for-all referendum to appease his own backbenchers (labelled "Palaeosceptics" by Shipman, "a term I hope describes their longevity without implying that they were old-fashioned") ultimately resulted in Brexit, the resignation of a socially liberal leader (Cameron), and the appointment of his more conservative successor (Theresa May). Shipman's account of these events is supported by his exclusive access to emails, text messages, and other private documents (notably, Boris Johnson's unpublished pro-EU editorial and Cameron's undelivered victory speech.)

The pre-referendum negotiations with other EU members were destined to produce insubstantial results: "media coverage had focused on what rabbit Cameron might pull from his hat to boost the deal. In the event, it emerged sick with myxomatosis." This led to Boris Johnson joining the leave campaign, an announcement that Johnson calls "an imperial goatfuck". Shipman notes Johnson's history of Euroscepticism ("Johnson invented the 'straight bananas' school of reporting from Brussels"), and describes Michael Gove's extraordinary betrayal of Johnson, who had been almost certain to assume the Tory leadership, as "the most remarkable moment in British politics since May 1940".

The Stronger In campaign was undone partly by its pessimistic forecasts, such as Barack Obama's counter-productive intervention. Shipman doesn't conclusively determine whose idea Obama's comment was - "There are conflicting accounts of how the words 'back of the queue' found their way into Obama's mouth" - though he attributes it largely to George Osborne. The spurious prediction that Brexit would cost £4,300 per household per year was another example of negativity backfiring: "voters did not believe anything they were told by the Treasury, including the £4,300 per household figure."

In contrast, the anti-EU campaigners had a simple slogan ("Let's take back control"), and a misleading though effective statistic. Their campaign bus was plastered with the message "We send the EU £350 million a week", and even when it was exposed as a grossly exaggerated figure, it still worked in their favour: "Every time there was a row about the size of the cost to taxpayers of EU membership, it simply reinforced in voters' minds that there was a high cost."

Shipman cites immigration as the determining factor in the 'out' vote: "If we have to pinpoint a day when Vote Leave gained the upper hand it is undoubtedly... the day the latest immigration figures were published." In this 'post-truth' era, the overwhelming benefit that EU migrants provide for the UK economy (£2.5 billion per year in net tax contributions) was overlooked in favour of an emotional appeal to nationalism, stoked by xenophobic tabloids. It was clear from the final debate that the leavers had a strong chance of success: "The last word... went to Boris Johnson. The final line of his peroration took the roof off: 'I believe this Thursday can be our country's Independence Day.'"

Cameron At 10 (by Anthony Seldon and Peter Snowdon) and In It Together (by Matthew d'Ancona) cover Cameron's first term as Prime Minister, before the Brexit campaign. (Shipman suggests that d'Ancona's book - particularly comments from one of its sources, George Osborne - was one of the reasons why Iain Duncan Smith resigned from the government.) All Out War is as thorough and well-sourced as those earlier accounts, though it has no index. Its author is the political editor of The Sunday Times.

11 November 2015

The Silent Deep

The Silent Deep
The Silent Deep: The Royal Navy Submarine Serivce Since 1945, by Peter Hennessey and James Jinks, is the first comprehensive history of the Royal Navy submarine service, known as the 'silent service' as it operates undetected. Submarine operations during the Cold War and the Falklands conflict are examined in detail, and the book runs to almost 900 pages.

The authors interviewed David Cameron in 2013, and he discusses the task of writing sealed instructions to Navy commanders, to be opened in the event of a nuclear attack. Cameron reaffirms his own commitment to the nuclear deterrent, though he admits that the policy may be revised by future generations: "it's not unthinkable at some time in the future someone will come to a different decision. I don't think Britain will give up nuclear deterrence altogether. I think that is out. I'd be very surprised if that happened in my lifetime."

15 September 2015

Cameron At 10

Cameron At 10
Cameron At 10, by Anthony Seldon and Peter Snowdon, profiles David Cameron's first term as UK Prime Minister. (Matthew d'Ancona's In It Together covered the progress of Cameron's coalition government during the same period.) More than 600 pages long, and based on 300 first-hand sources, including interviews with Cameron, this is another of Seldon's exhaustive political biographies.

In fact, according to the blurb, it is "the most intimate account of a serving prime minister that has ever been published", though Seldon's previous Tony Blair biographies are equally revealing. Written in the historical present tense, it is divided into forty chapters, each focusing on a different event or policy. The subtitle, The Inside Story 2010-2015, echoes those of In It Together (The Inside Story Of The Coalition Government) and Andrew Rawnsley's Servants Of The People (The Inside Story Of New Labour).

Cameron is a relatively bland subject in comparison to his predecessors Blair and Gordon Brown, though the book does have a headline-grabbing quote from an SMS he sent to Boris Johnson: "The next PM will be [Ed] Miliband if you don't fucking shut up." More ominous is his comment on the European Union referendum during a private meeting with Angela Merkel: "I need to make a pitch to the country. If there is no acceptable deal, it's not the end of the world; I'll walk away from the EU."

06 October 2013

In It Together

In It Together
In It Together: The Inside Story Of The Coalition Government is Matthew d'Ancona's account of the coalition in the UK between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. D'Ancona's book is clearly being positioned as a successor to Andrew Rawnsley's Servants Of The People: The Inside Story Of New Labour. They have similar cover designs (political cartoons) and subtitles (The Inside Story Of...), and d'Ancona's level of access is similar to Rawnsley's was during the Labour government.

In It Together covers only three years of the government's term of office: David Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010, and his 'coalition agreement' includes a pledge to serve a fixed five-year term. (Servants Of The People similarly covered only the first three years of Tony Blair's premiership; Rawnsley wrote a sequel, The End Of The Party, in 2010.) The coalition still has almost two years left to run, though the (inside) story of its formation and first few years is already substantial enough.

D'Ancona and Rawnsley are both extremely well-connected, though Rawnsley's book benefitted from the extraordinary tensions at the heart of the Labour party in the 1990s. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, and Alastair Campbell were the dramatis personae of a tragic drama, with Brown as Macbeth. Unfortunately for d'Ancona, the coalition apparently doesn't have the same level of bitter rivalry, thwarted ambition, and back-stabbing as the TB-GB era. George Osborne, who was presumably one of d'Ancona's major sources, is evidently no Gordon Brown. While that makes for a much more co-operative government, it's less compelling in prose.

06 May 2010

Daily Mirror

Daily Mirror
Bullingdon Club
Today's issue of the Daily Mirror newspaper features a photograph from 1987 of a group of Oxford University students who were all members of the Bullingdon Club. Conservative Party leader David Cameron is pictured in the photo, and the accompanying article begins: "THIS is the picture that David Cameron really, really doesn't want you to see."

The image was withdrawn from distribution in 2007 by its copyright owners, Gillman & Soame, to avoid causing Cameron any further embarrassment. Its publication in the Daily Mirror is clearly an infringement of the ban, though the Mirror presumably felt that any potential fine would be worthwhile due to the impact of printing the photo on its front page on the day of the UK general election.