Review of Tim Shipman's All Out War


Tim Shipman's All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain's Political Class has won plaudits from, you guessed it, the political class, which remains remarkably well afloat. The major problem with All Out War is that contrary to the subtitle it is very far from a full story. The story that Shipman relates is of the inside information he has gleaned from the key politicians, advisors, and campaign leaders of the official remain campaign (Stronger In), the official leave campaign (Vote Leave), and the more radical leave campaign Leave.EU. Even though the last named campaign sought to appeal to voters disgruntled at the political establishment, All Out War remains an account of life within the Westminster bubble of politicians, advisors, campaigners, and media pundits. Those within the Westminster bubble will love All Out War because it makes Brexit all about them. Unfortunately for Shipman it is impossible to write a full story of the 2016 EU referendum in terms of the Westminster bubble. Only a few thousand of the 33 million voters were part of that bubble and so no account can be a full story that fails to address the electorate. All Out War treats the electorate as people to be polled, put in focus groups, or urged to vote on polling day. Even the concluding chapter, Why Leave Won, is the story of why the two leave campaigns beat the one remain campaign. Leave won because more people voted for that option than voted for the remain option and yet Shipman appears to regard that electorate as automatons awaiting instruction from the bubble.

book cover depicting a politician being attacked by a British bulldog

All Out War is not a full story and nor is about Britain's political class being sunk, at least not as Shipman tells the story. The subtitle leads the reader to expect a story of how disaffected voters turned out in their millions to thwart the designs of their political masters. Instead it is a story of how one cross-party section of the political establishment marginally bested another part of the political establishment. As an example of how the political establishment in Shipman's view was not only not sunk, but alive and kicking was that he devotes 20 percent of the book to the stories of the Labour and Conservative Party leadership battles. They occurred after the referendum result led to the resignation of the Conservative prime minister and to a shadow cabinet attempt to remove the Labour leader. Many customer reviews on the likes of Goodreads and Amazon complained about the length of the book, which is probably driven by the advertised topic of Brexit largely disappearing from view at the 65 percent mark. Shipman's relentless focus on the political players is understandable for the political editor of the Sunday Times, but his inability to see any sense of independent agency among voters is a major disappointment. He would have been better to title his book A Minor Scuffle: How Britain's Political Class Want Residents of Sink Estates to Think Brexit Happened.

Shipman wrote his book with a clear eye on his ongoing career and is remarkably uncritical of the explanations (or excuses) given by the major players. The reader is treated to a regular pattern in which an event is discussed and either someone on the remain side will say that is the only reason they lost or someone on the leave side will say that is why they won. No doubt in years to come Shipman's inside the bubble gossip reportage will provide many quotations for future journalists and historians, but the book sorely misses an attempt by the author to marshal his evidence with a critical mindset. He relates how many of these political players bear long-term grudges and was probably mindful that if he is too critical of their explanations that they might stop sharing insider gossip with him. The best use of All Out War is to treat it as the combined marketing pitch of those wanting to excuse the remain camp's failings, praise the leave campaign's brilliance, or advocate responses to the vote, including calling the whole thing off. It is fine from that very limited perspective so long as the reader remembers that the real story of the EU referendum is why leave voters outnumbered remain voters by 1.2 million. Hint: it probably has very little to do with politicians and their campaigning techniques.

It is surprising that Westminster bubble insiders, such as Andrew Marr, gave All Out War such undiluted praise as it make a major (or Major) error. Near the start of the account Shipman declares that the UK was the only EU member state not required to work towards membership of the euro single currency (omitting Denmark). That is a denial of what John Major saw as one of the crowning achievements of his time as prime minister: saving the Maastricht Treaty. He did not consider that he saved the treaty by negotiating that the UK would be exempt and gaining parliamentary approval. The act of salvation came about because the UK held the revolving presidency of the European Council in late 1992 when the treaty was in crisis due to the Danish referendum that rejected it. Major chaired the Edinburgh Summit of the European Council at which Denmark was granted four opt outs from the treaty, including on the euro. In 2000 the Danish government called another referendum to join the single currency before its launch as a consumer currency, but again the electorate said no. That basic error introduces a doubt about Shipman's research, which casts a shadow over one of his most original claims. He asserts that Fishing for Leave was set up by Nigel Farage not Ayrshire skipper Aaron Brown. Apparently UKIP MEP Bob Spink wanted to repeat his 2007 demonstration of fishing vessels sailing from Southend up the Thames to arrive outside the Houses of Parliament. There is no doubt that Spink was credited in the Southern English media as the organiser of the 15 June demonstration and that Fishing For Leave was not formed until 15 May, but why would Farage be required as the founding figure and if it was his idea why not ask an Essex skipper to set up the organisation. Maybe it is true that Farage set up Fishing for Leave, but as Shipman could not do the simple research on who had opt outs from the single currency I am not inclined to take his idiosyncratic word on a South East England MEP putting an Ayrshire skipper up as a front.

That one glaring error over the euro was the only obvious blunder, but the overriding mistake in All Out War is to think inside the bubble. Considering the shock result it is surprising that Shipman does not spend more time reflecting on why the London-based media called the result so wrong. According to David Cameron's Director of Communications Craig Oliver, Shipman had informed him in the final run up to the referendum that the Sunday Times expected remain to win. Amidst all the recriminations about not seeing outside the Westminster bubble it is surprising that Shipman wrote a thoroughly insider text and it is shocking that his fellow commentators lavished praise on his book, despite the widespread hand-wringing over the media's failure to predict the result. Shipman gives an interesting insight into how deluded the campaign leaders were, but he has pitched his book as a sharer in the unacknowledged delusion. All Out War is useful book to read so long as you do not expect it to tell you why the UK voted to leave the EU.

© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved