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Reviews

A Bloodied and Difficult Woman

 

FALL OUT: A YEAR OF POLITICAL MAYHEM

 

BY TIM SHIPMAN

 

William Collins 2017

£25.00

ISBN: 9780008264383

 

Tim Shipman, who wrote the definitive contemporary study of the referendum campaign - "All Out War" - has followed up with a sequel, another outstandingly authoritative account of the events of the last political year, following on from the referendum and the effects of that seismic event. 

 

Shipman's range of sources and contacts, inside the Cabinet and outside, is amazingly wide. In the Acknowledgements section he claims to have interviewed over 100 people including 13(!)  members of the Cabinet and many other ministers, 25 Tory campaign staff, 15 members of Theresa May's Downing St staff, a dozen senior figures in the Labour Party, the shadow cabinet, Jeremy Corbyn's office and the trade unions, as well as civil servants, diplomats, ex- ministers and MPs and pollsters -  an astonishing  range. I have little reason to doubt the veracity of this given the extraordinarily deep and precise nature of the revelations in this book, including a number of vignettes of Cabinet discussions and ministerial conversations. Nearly all are off the record of course, given the ostensibly secret and confidential nature of these proceedings, and it must be the case that a great many people have blabbed thus making it impossible to identify, in most instances, the source of Shipman's narrative. Safety in numbers.

 

The events describe by Shipman are scarcely less dramatic than the referendum that preceded them and we are indeed living through extraordinary political times, in which as Halifax said about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, "every ism is now a wasm".  Shipman even gives us a definition of the word or phrase "Fall Out" encompassing its senses of a quarrel, or a breaking of formation, or an adverse reaction to events. 

The central focus of the book is inevitably the general election called, surprisingly, by Theresa May for 8th June and the unexpected and paradoxical outcome of that election, robbing the Conservatives of their overall majority, with Brexit the leitmotif running through the whole narrative. The central question is whether May was right to call an election. The temptations to do so must have been great to the point of overwhelming, with the Labour Party apparently unelectable under the hard left Jeremy Corbyn and in total disarray, and the Tories enjoying massive leads in the opinion polls of up to 20%, unprecedented for a government over an opposition. As Nick Robinson asked her on the Today programme, "What was it about your 20% lead in the opinion polls that made you decide to call an election, prime minister?" 

 

Moreover, there were great advantages to be obtained for May and the government if they could increase their slim majority in the Commons, inherited from David Cameron's win in 2015. For a start it would enable her to cast off the stigma of being an "unelected prime minister", in the silly and misleading journalistic phrase of our day. The ghost of Gordon Brown and his failure to call an election in 2007 to secure his own mandate doubtless hovered over her shoulder. She would be able to secure her own mandate with the authority to carry through a range of measures and to re-shape the political agenda. Crucially it would be easier to get the Brexit legislation through without having to worry about the combined Opposition parties and some Tory Remainers ganging up to defeat the government. Equally if the Brexit negotiations led to a "softer" Brexit than some Tory Leavers would have liked she could not be held hostage by them either. It would be a weapon against both wings of her party. Also, whatever the outcome, it would put back the date of the next election from 2020 to 2022 (under the wretched Fixed Terms Parliaments Act), well after the conclusion of the Brexit talks and the (presumed) exit of the Britain from the EU, so that that issue would not get tangled up with it. 

On the other hand there were also powerful reasons for not holding an election. For one thing it required the acquiescence of the Labour Party since under the FTPA, at least two thirds of the House had to vote for it, but that could more or less be taken for granted because no major Opposition party can vote against an election without losing face and all credibility. The choice for Labour was either to be a chicken or a turkey (voting for an early Christmas). They chose the latter. The SNP abstained, knowing they could scarcely replicate the astonishing success of two years previously. And of course the consequences for the Tories of losing, or going backwards, scarcely bore thinking about, but that was almost inconceivable. Another point was that it undermined May's reputation for honesty and straight dealing since she had repeatedly said that she would not call an early election, and there was little appetite for one in the country (the famous lady from Bristol who said "What! Another one!" spoke for many). The Conservative Party machine was not geared up for an election having been given no warning and many candidates needed to be selected in rather a rush. And it cannot be assumed that just because a party has a big lead in the polls that people are going to translate that into voting for that party, particularly if the election is seen, accurately as opportunistic in character. The argument that it would strengthen May's hand in Brussels and the chancelleries of Europe didn't sound convincing. In fact the election campaign would merely stall the process only just begun a few weeks before with the triggering of Article 50 at the end of March.

 

However, the decision to call one only looks bad in retrospect when one knows the outcome, but it could be argued, and basically is by Shipman, that the fault lay in the campaign, the manifesto and the candidate, not the decision itself. For one thing the logistics of it all required a seven week campaign, obviously far too long for comfort, and for anyone's patience. For a party a long way ahead the shorter the campaign the better, because there is less chance for things to go awry, and for the Opposition to establish itself in the public eye. This was particularly relevant here with Corbyn still largely an unknown quantity to much of the electorate, and whose image had hitherto been largely refracted through the distorting prism of the mainstream media. Now he was able to present himself to the electorate in his own way, with the broadcast media required to give equal time. John McDonnell, shadow chancellor, had opined to much media derision at the start of the campaign that Corbyn would grow in appeal as people were able to see more of him and judge him objectively, and Corbyn did indeed seem to grow steadily in stature just as May shrank in equal measure over the course of the seven weeks. Her refusal to engage in direct debate with Corbyn on television was understandable given that she would have been on a hiding to nothing, but her explanation that she debated him every week in the Commons was feeble and merely made her appear cowardly and unwilling to entertain serious scrutiny of her policies. And to say, as she did, that she was too busy out and about around the country meeting ordinary people was preposterous given that her events were stage-managed to the umpteenth degree and she rarely came into contact with any "ordinary people", even when in ordinary places. 

But it was probably the manifesto more than anything that sank the Conservatives. And this leads on to a major theme of the book, namely the all-enveloping and arguably malign influence of her two leading SPADs , Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, throughout the campaign and indeed throughout her premiership up to that point. They emerge as sinister, Rasputin like figures, pulling her strings, dictating policy and acting as gatekeepers. Incredibly, Shipman recounts tales of Cabinet ministers being told at times they could not speak directly to the PM. This taps into one of the major themes of modern day politics; the triangular tension between Ministers, advisers and civil servants. Unsurprisingly after the debacle of the election Timothy and Hill were for the chop, their heads being demanded by Cabinet. 

 

The biggest single mistake of the manifesto was the projected change to the funding of domiciliary care with property now to be taken into account (albeit with a much higher floor) unlike previously where it had not been but with a much lower floor, a policy heavily advocated by Timothy. One gets the feeling that they were so sure of victory that they felt they could bounce anything past the voters, since nobody reads manifestoes. But though they may not read them they do take notice of what the media says about them and so strong was the adverse reaction that May was forced to retreat on the policy a few days later, an unprecedented volte face in the midst of an election  campaign and one that strongly, and perhaps fatally, undermined the premier's credibility with the electorate, even more so when she insisted a few days later that "nothing had changed". The mantra (almost literally so) of "strong and stable" now looked distinctly weak and wobbly.

This leads to another point about the campaign picked up on by Shipman that there was tension also between the campaign managers led by the Australian Lynton Crosby and his team (drafted in by May after his successful campaigns for Cameron in 2015 and several Australian elections) on the one hand and the Timothy/Hill axis on the other, with the former wanting a quiet campaign stressing the stable and the latter wanting radical policies to reshape the political terrain. All in all the Conservative campaign comes across as rather a mess.

 

Labour's campaign receives less attention from Shipman, probably because he has fewer contacts in the party than he does with the Conservatives, but here the picture is of tension between the Leaders office and his Praetorian guard of Seumas Milne, Andrew Fisher, Karie Murphy and McDonnell on the one hand, and the shadow cabinet and party machine on the other, to some extent a continuation of the battle between pro- and anti- Corbyn forces that had raged ever since he had become leader in September 2015 (with his being forced to face a leadership challenge only a year later). Despite missteps the campaign was surprisingly a rather good one, though they were helped by Conservative blunders. Often, it seems, sitting Conservative MPs were urged to campaign in a neighbouring Labour held marginal only for the party to lose both seats. This highlights another point that the Conservatives private pollsters were correctly detecting a steady shrinkage of the Tory lead but were not conveying this to the leadership, or were not being allowed to convey it, leading to blunders as above and lost seats that may have been holdable.

 

Whilst the election holds centre stage in the book there is also a great deal about the events before and after. The period from September 2016, in the wake of the referendum and May's accession to the premiership, to March 2017 was one of seeming drift and indecision regarding Brexit strategy, and was marked by May's speeches at the 2016 party conference and then her Lancaster House speech in which she seemed to be advocating a "hard " Brexit, leaving the Customs Union and the single market and the jurisdiction of the ECJ, to the chagrin of some Remainers in the party. But there was little forthcoming from the government in the way of position papers, still less a motion or bill to give effect to the triggering of Article 50, the government seeming to think it could do so using the Royal Prerogative, which led to the court case designed to force the government to promulgate a bill. The government seemed to be proceeding in a perverse and incompetent way by fighting the case, at great public expense, and drawing out the process instead of simply acquiescing and bringing forth a bill, which it would almost certainly have passed, given that May could always have threatened an election if it was defeated on the question of Brexit and "honouring the referendum result". This of course highlights the folly, from her point of view, of calling the election when she did because she has now shot her bolt.

 

The period since the election has appeared to be one of perpetual torment for the prime minister who had to be persuaded to stay on in the wake of the debacle of the election result. She emerged for her constituency count looking like thunder with her lipstick apparently applied with a trowel, a great red smear across her face. Shipman reveals that her husband Philip and other influential figures such as the chief whip Gavin Williamson strongly urged her to stay, against her inclinations to resign, contrary to her subsequent assertions to the effect that she was never minded to stand down. The wooing of the DUP with a billion pound bung to Northern Ireland further undermined May's credibility. During the campaign Labour's expenditure proposals were consistently derided as dependent on a magic money tree yet after the election she was able apparently to grow one almost overnight. Gardeners and horticulturalists up and down the country must be in awe of her green fingers. She was also heavily criticised, quite unfairly, for her response to the Grenfell tragedy a few days after the election, which did not display sufficient emotional involvement for some tastes, certainly not by comparison with Corbyn's heartfelt response. But that just indicates how times and manners have changed. Once upon a time a prime minister would have been heavily criticised for getting too closely involved and would have been accused of trying to milk a tragedy for political gain. But it reinforced the general picture of a prime minister not in control of events.

 

Her premiership has been marked by a whole series of blunders and mishaps. There have been manoeuvrings within the party to force her out, all of which have so far come to nothing, chiefly because there is no obvious successor. The party is so badly split between Brexiters and Remainers that no Brexiter would really be acceptable to the Remainers and vice versa. It is interesting that for example the Conservative Home website which carries out a monthly survey of party members on Tory politicians, the favourite for the leadership has usually been Boris Johnson, but even he only gets about 20% with "none of the above" topping the poll every time. Boris, though adjudged by many to be a disaster as foreign secretary, and the most bizarre appointment since Caligula made his horse a consul, nonetheless lurks as the likeliest successor, though not by much, having re-emerged as a contender despite his dropping out of the race the last time around. But his unpopularity in the Parliamentary Party is such that he might not even get onto a ballot of members (the last two standing). Whilst Boris is anathema to many Remainers or "soft" Brexiters in the party, by the same token Chancellor Phil Hammond is similarly disliked by many Brexiters who see his influence as a drag anchor on Brexit, and who also disparage his tin ear for politics . A theme has been the constant plotting with so many Cabinet members briefing against colleagues that this must be the leakiest Cabinet ever. She has also had to endure George Osborne's jibes in the pages of the Standard, gaining his revenge on her for his abrupt dismissal from government, itself an act of revenge on her part for Cabinet rows between them.

 

There is also a real fear within the Conservative Party that a change of leadership might precipitate another election and bring a genuinely socialist Corbyn led government to power. Thus it probably suits everyone in the party for her to remain in Downing St, at least until March 2019. Her position may be stronger than it looks. Strong and stable has been replaced by weak and stable. The DUP upon whom she depends is scarcely going to put Corbyn in power and so their threats are largely empty. Then there was her disastrous conference  speech, famous for its coughing fits, a comedian's stunt and a disintegrating backdrop, none of which  was her fault but seemed symbolic. Her Florence speech recalibrated the government's Brexit strategy and tried to get the stalling negotiations back on track. The book takes us up to October, so has been written very rapidly, and of course does not take account of the latest twists in the Brexit saga.

May's premiership starts to look a cursed one, and it is her tragedy that having finally achieved her goal of getting to number 10 she has had to do so in a way that fatally undermines it. Coming to power on the back of the Brexit vote and Cameron's political demise she has been handed a poisoned chalice, forced, in her view, to carry through a policy in which fundamentally she does not believe (she campaigned of course for Remain, albeit half-heartedly), and in which the bulk of her Cabinet does not really believe, and which will inevitably dominate the course of her premiership however long it lasts (and it may not last much beyond Brexit in March 2019). By contrast, her obvious comparator, Margaret Thatcher, came to power in vexed circumstances in the wake of the Winter of Discontent, but in which she was able to set her own agenda and to some degree to wipe the slate clean.

 

May is also an unlucky prime minister, whereas Cameron and Blair were essentially lucky. In this respect she resembles Gordon Brown and his ill-fated succession to Blair, coming to power just as the financial crisis broke. Mark Twain said that history does not repeat itself but it often rhymes. The rhyme here is that of a successful (at least electorally), long serving (and lucky) prime minister being succeeded by an heir apparent (or heir presumptive) by which time the government is running out of steam, and who is then beset by problems and goes down to ignominious defeat. The obvious rhyme is Blair/Brown a decade ago , but it kind of fits Thatcher/Major (Maastricht), even Wilson/Callaghan (Winter of Discontent) a decade before that, and I suppose in a way even Churchill/Eden (Suez), or going even further back Baldwin/Chamberlain. The rhyme is imprecise but insistent, and perhaps inescapable. Ken Clarke famously described her, in an unguarded moment, as "a bloody difficult woman" (based presumably on long experience of her legendary intransigence in government) but she is now a very bloodied woman, though still unbowed (just about).

The one thing lacking in Shipman's book (apart from the irritating omission of an index which there may not have been time to do) is anything very much in the way of a real assessment or analysis except for a short concluding chapter, but that must be left to the memoirs and academic studies to come in the years ahead.

One hopes there will be another in the Shipman series in a year or so to chart further developments, chiefly the course of Brexit negotiations and the final settlement, if there is one, but politics is so much up in the air at the moment that it is impossible to predict how the pieces will fall.

 

Neville Twitchell

December 2017

 

 

The Boris Factor

 

A Review of "The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History" by Boris Johnson

 

Published by Hodder and Stoughton (2014); pb edition (2015) ISBN 9781444783056; 421 pp.

 

Amidst the plethora of Churchill biographies and studies which still roll off the presses even more than fifty years after his death Boris Johnson has added his own take on the great man to the ever growing canon. It must be difficult to find anything new to say, unless one has uncovered some hitherto concealed source, but Boris has probably managed it. As one might imagine Boris writes with great verve and élan and the 350 or more pages of text positively fly by. Whilst reading large chunks of the book it is impossible not to visualise Boris himself bumbling and burbling away as he chunters around inspecting Churchill memorabilia. His treatment of Churchill’s life is very much thematic rather than chronological, and he deals in some analytical depth with every possible aspect of his character and career, jumping to and fro across the chasms of time to illustrate his arguments. His style is conversational and irreverent, and his overall take on Churchill is, as one might expect, awestruck but not quite adulatory, which seems fitting.

 

            The thing that comes across most strongly from this volume is the staggering energy of his subject, even into very old age, and the vastness of his output in almost every endeavour to which he turned his hand, especially that of the written word. Apparently he produced more written words than Shakespeare and Dickens put together – a staggering volume of volumes for anyone but even more so for someone who was not exactly idle or uninvolved in public affairs. The range of his accomplishments was extraordinary, being a professional (or perhaps semi-professional) soldier who, in the 1890s, served in various outposts of the empire from the north-west frontier to the Sudan to South Africa (and who took part in the last cavalry charge undertaken by the British army at Omdurman), a prolific journalist reporting from the front line, a politician with a 64 year Parliamentary career and the holder of numerous high offices of state, including that of Prime Minister (twice), the author of countless works, not to mention being an accomplished artist with over 500 paintings to his credit, a keen bricklayer and pig farmer. (“Dogs look up to you, cats look down on you but pigs treat you as equals”.)

 

            In keeping with the racy tone of the book Boris mines his subject’s many witticisms (many probably apocryphal and some probably attributable elsewhere but which have got stuck to Churchill). I particularly like the one, which appears to be genuine, where the Lord Privy Seal calls on him when he is in the lavatory, and Churchill calls out that he cannot see the Lord Privy Seal because he is sealed in the privy, and, for good measure (though the alleged follow up may be apocryphal) cannot deal with more than one shit at a time.[1] The sense of humour, even amidst crisis, is another facet of his character that comes through very forcibly. (Another humorous story, where Lady Astor is alleged to have told him that if he were her husband she would poison him to which he is alleged to have said that if she were his wife he would take the poison, I have heard attributed to Lloyd George and probably a different lady)

.

            We start at a critical juncture of the Second World War shortly after his accession to the premiership in May 1940 when the Inner (War) Cabinet of seven meets in cramped quarters somewhere deep in the bowels of the Houses of Parliament to resolve whether to fight on or to parley with Hitler. Ex PM Chamberlain and foreign secretary Halifax are essentially for negotiation but Churchill is adamant for fighting on, and to break the deadlock in the War Cabinet he rallies the full Cabinet to his side, overriding the objections. From there Boris goes back and forth to recount Churchill's life and career up to that point in time, which was a roller coaster of extraordinary achievement and cataclysmic failure, embracing as it did such catastrophes as the Antwerp escapade of 1914; the Dardanelles disaster of 1915; his preposterous attempted counter-revolution in Russia in 1919; his decision as Chancellor to revert to the Gold Standard; his opposition to Indian self-government in the 1930s and his support for Edward VIII during the Abdication crisis of 1936. By 1940 he was viewed with great suspicion and even intense dislike by much of the Tory establishment, partly because of these and other ghastly misjudgements, and because he had, as he himself put it, ratted and re-ratted, crossing the floor to join the Liberals in 1904, and then switching horses again in the 1920s to rejoin the Tories as the Liberals declined (a very nifty piece of Parliamentary saddle-swapping as Boris puts it).

 

            As Boris sees it (and as have many others) his whole life had been an attempt to seek posthumous vindication in the eyes of his appalling father, Lord Randolph, who had dismissed his son as someone who would never amount to anything, and whose premature death from syphilis in the 1895 had removed him from the scene long before Winston had had the chance to redeem himself. This is brought into sharp focus by the oft-told story of “The Dream”, an essay written by Winston in his seventies in which the ghost of his father appears before him and he recounts to him some of the great events of the twentieth century, but the ghost fades before he is able to tell him of his own pre-eminent role in those events. His extraordinary self-belief and reckless courting of danger seems to have sprung from this aching desire for self-redemption. He had time and again risked life and limb in battle and aircraft and elsewhere, and had as Boris puts it been shot at in four continents (as well as shooting at people in at least three). His recklessness was legendary.

 

A chapter is devoted to a discussion of his oratory, as befits a fellow politician, and some of Boris’s judgments are surprising, pointing out that Churchill did not always have a very high reputation for speechmaking, and that some felt his speeches were too much striving for effect and lacking in sincerity. Lloyd George said that he was a rhetorician not an orator, and there is, as Boris concedes, some truth in that. Boris draws on his erudition in the classics and amusingly subjects some of Churchill’s great phrases to a technical exposition. "Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few" is, we discover, a classic descending tricolon with anaphora, just as "Now this not the end..." re Alamein is a classic ascending tricolon, varied by chiasmus. Now we know!

 

He explores Churchill’s political beliefs and philosophy, in so far as he had one, and notes that he has been portrayed and is perceived as both a blimpish reactionary imperialist and Anglophone supremacist, and as a great social reformer and there is plenty of evidence for both of those characterisations. He was, with Lloyd George the progenitor of the welfare state, or at any rate some aspects of it, during the Asquith government between 1908-1910, and was the Welshman’s close ally in the battles for the so-called “Peoples Budget” and the war with the House of Lords that ensued. Boris argues that he was both Liberal and Conservative at the same time, both left and right, progressive and reactionary, and that this wasn't an affectation or a case of blowing in the wind but sprang from deep-rooted if somewhat simplistic beliefs about society. He rebuts the almost universally held view that Churchill was a war-monger who glories in slaughter, and that actually though aggressively-minded and determined to fight war to the utmost once embarked upon he never really desired war for its own sake. This is harder to sustain as a proposition given, for example, his massive enthusiasm for war in 1914 and his previously mentioned abortive White Revolution of 1919 (incredibly almost mirrored after 1945 by the appropriately designated “Operation Unthinkable”). Another facet of his career was his penchant for technological innovation, most famously his work in conceiving and developing the tank, a project that he drove through against scepticism and bureaucratic opposition, to be a decisive factor in the winning of WWI.

 

“Playing Roulette with History” is a fascinating chapter, when, as Boris says all politicians are gamblers with events and they try to anticipate history. In 1902 he quotes Churchill to the effect that a politician needs "the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month and next year. And to have the ability to explain afterward why it didn't happen." A more cynical reviewer than I might almost suppose that Boris is writing his own manifesto hereabouts. Boris is not slow to make parallels with contemporary or more recent events. Churchill, he argues, was goaded into going back onto the Gold Standard against his better judgement just as Margaret Thatcher was likewise "bamboozled" into the ERM by Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe in 1989.

 

Given the identity of the writer and the events subsequent to the first publication of this book (2014) a most intriguing and highly pertinent chapter is  “Churchill the European” in which Boris analyses the case for and against regarding Churchill as a proto-European integrationist (I dislike the commonly used word federalist which is misleading in this context). He has been claimed by both sides in the Brexit debate, but especially by the Remainers who have cited, inter alia, his Zurich speech in 1946 calling for a “United States of Europe” and his attack on the Attlee government in June 1950 for shunning the Schuman plan for a Franco-German coal and steel community with a supra-national “High Authority” as evidence of his support for some form of European Union. Boris argues fairly persuasively that this is far from clear, and that notwithstanding his many expressions of support for some form of European integration, going back to at least 1930, his words are capable of more than one interpretation, and he often seemed to be saying that Britain should sponsor a union but nor be part of it. And, as Boris points out, if Churchill was really so concerned about Britain joining the nascent Coal and Steel Community he could surely have submitted an application after returning to power in 1951 - which he never did. Is Boris seeking succour for his own burgeoning if ambivalent euroscepticism?

 

Boris summarises by dealing with the onslaughts against Churchill’s reputation from both left and right in recent decades, in which he is branded as a racist, sexist, imperialist etc by elements of the left, and, by elements of the far right, as a man who conspired, during the 1930s, to bring about an unnecessary and disastrous war disdaining countless reasonable peace offers. Boris is equally dismissive of these, as one might expect, and the Churchill that emerges from this fascinating volume is of a perhaps slightly misunderstood political genius.

 

Neville Twitchell

September 2017

 

[1] My spellchecker amusingly says “possible word choice error” and suggests “shot” instead, but no I am not relenting!

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