05 June 2024

No Way Out —
From the Backstop to Boris

All Out War / Fall Out / No Way Out

Tim Shipman’s weekly ‘long reads’ in The Sunday Times have, for the past decade, provided the most incisive running commentary on British politics. His first book, All Out War, was the definitive account of the Brexit referendum. Its sequel, Fall Out, covered the aftermath of the Brexit vote and the 2017 general election. His new book, No Way Out—“the third in what is now a four-part sequence of books designed to tell the full story of the most explosive period of domestic British politics since the Second World War”—is an exhaustive record of Theresa May’s ill-fated efforts to negotiate a Brexit deal.

Shipman characterises the five most recent Conservative prime ministers (David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, and Rishi Sunak) respectively as “a blasé public schoolboy, an indecisive introvert, a self-centred extrovert, an untrammelled ideologue, and the school swot with little feel for politics.” He interviewed three of them for No Way Out, along with an incredible thirty-nine cabinet ministers. The book has taken six years to finish, as he explained in a Sunday Times article published on 21st April: “Every time I thought the end was in sight, Westminster erupted into a fresh round of psychodrama.”

No Way Out (subtitled Brexit: From the Backstop to Boris) shows once again that Shipman has the best sources of any current political journalist. (For a 24th March 2019 Sunday Times story, he spoke off-the-record to eleven serving cabinet ministers who all called for May to resign as PM.) The book includes a minute-by-minute reconstruction of the decisive Chequers cabinet meeting that led to Boris Johnson resigning as Foreign Secretary in 2018, and another ministerial resignation that year provides one of No Way Out’s most memorable quotes: after Phillip Lee defected to the Liberal Democrats, a “mild-mannered aide branded him ‘the Godzilla of cunts’.”

The book’s conclusion is titled Theresa May: A Study in Failure, and Shipman leaves no doubt that May’s uncommunicative leadership style led directly to the Brexit stalemate that defined her time in office. (She admits as much in The Abuse of Power: “I know in my heart of hearts that the political reality is that my premiership will always be seen in the context of Brexit and my failure to get a deal through the House of Commons.”) His next book, Out, will tell the full story of the last five tumultuous years of Conservative government.