Review of Craig Oliver's Unleashing Demons


Unleashing Demons: The Inside Story of Brexit was written by David Cameron's Director of Communications, Craig Oliver. It was published a mere eleven weeks after Oliver played a key role in the failed campaign to persuade British voters to back a remain vote in the EU referendum. The haste in getting the book into print is evident in a very unfortunate factual error that anyone who watched the results come in would know and the regrettable decision to write the account in first person present (e.g., "The prime priminster says to me"). The story is primarily from inside Number 10 Downing Street (the prime minister's residence and office), although Oliver's assistance to the official remain campaign, Stronger In, means that side of the equation is covered to a lesser extent. Do not expect a balanced account that gives a fair play to the leave side of the debate. Oliver might have been bound to impartiality when he was the editor of the BBC's News at Ten, but this is a passionate defence of David Cameron and the Conservative Party's side of the failed remain campaign. Oliver's BBC background also means that it is a passionate denunciation of the role of the media in boosting the offical Vote Leave campaign.

The book is apparently based on the diary that Oliver kept throughout the referendum process, which make the choice of first person present even more questionable. On the assumption that he was not constantly asking the prime minister to be quiet while he finished writing a sentence in his diary, we can take it that the diary entries were written in occasional quiet moments. The sense of reading a near contemporaenous diary is hindered rather than helped by the use of present tense, which makes the book sound like the voiceover in the extras section of a DVD. The diary keeping was not entirely accurate as we discover in the book's preface, which deals with the night of the referendum before the opening chapter resets the clock to New Year's Day 2016. In the preface Oliver speaks of the result from Sunderland as one of the first to declare (it was third after Gibraltar and Newcastle), but from the results that trickled in after Sunderland he picks out Newcastle, which declared before Sunderland. That basic error, plus the claim that the Sunderland result was worse than anyone was predicting (it was 61% leave, which was 1% higher than the remain campaign expected), does not inspire trust in the rest of his account.

It is not only the narration that is first person, but the focus of the narrative makes Oliver the person of first importance. While there is a strong element of defending Cameron (who gave Oliver a knighthood) the star of the story is the author. The main revelations come from his introspection, which give a clue as to where the remain campaign went so wrong. In the anti-establishment millieux of contemporary Britain it would concern most voters to read how Oliver tried to bully his former BBC colleagues into telling the story in the way that he wanted it to appear on the news. Oliver carps about the BBC sticking too rigidly to his statutory requirement to be politically impartial, but there would be no shred of credibility left for the corporation if they had caved in to pressure from the prime minister's office to become a mouthpiece for the government line. Oliver appeared to view his role as winning elections and referendums through his extensive contact list of the makers and shakers in the media world and never stops to wonder if maybe the country voted for leave because most of the electorate do not spend their day watching BBC news bulletins.

When Oliver returned to the referendum night at the end of the book he quotes BBC results presenter David Dimbleby saying, "The decision taken in 1975 by this country to join the Common Market has been reversed by this referendum." Oliver shows no awareness of how wrong that statement was. There was no referendum to enter the EU (then called the European Communities and often referred to as the Common Market) and the June 1975 referendum on whether to leave the EU took place two and a half years after the UK joined. Unleashing Demons began with a muddle over the Sunderland result and ended with an uncritical repeat of a clearly erroneous statement. That must place a major question mark over anything that can be gleaned from the book, beyond the clear indication that as Director of Communications Oliver knew how to harrang the media, but had little appreciation for the electorate that he was supposed to help the prime minister communicate with.

© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved