If journalism is the first draft of history, future generations will get a whiff of Britain’s fetid Brexit debates when they rake back over some of the contemporaneous media coverage. Only now, as the country finally starts to tiptoe away from the bitter feuding, does the stench of the rot that engulfed Britain fully hit home.
Headlines such as the Daily Mail’s exhortation for Brexiteers to “Crush the saboteurs” during Theresa May’s snap general election campaign in 2017, or its earlier denunciation of judges as “Enemies of the people” are among those to catch in the nostrils. They are startling reminders of the depths to which elements of British media and politics sank.
The authors of one of a clutch of new books by academics on the farrago surrounding Britain’s exit from the European Union, The Parliamentary Battle Over Brexit by Meg Russell and Lisa James, suggest that accounts of the time drawn from media coverage are essentially unreliable. They lament a surfeit of media “misunderstandings generated either deliberately or inadvertently”.
“The print media, with its eye-catching headlines, was extremely polarised over Brexit… [The] detail of developments was sometimes reported inaccurately or not at all,” they say with typical academic reserve. Or British media went mad, as some might now admit.
Their book instead focuses on the political battles within the halls of the Palace of Westminster, the history-laden home to Britain’s houses of parliament. At the heart of the Brexit movement is the notion that Britain’s membership of the European Union eroded the sovereignty of its parliament, which is meant to be the “ultimate authority” in the UK’s unwritten constitution. That is at the core of the “take back control” mantra that burned at the heart of Brexiteer desire.
From the early political rows in the 1990s over the Maastricht Treaty to the incessant political wrangling in the noughties that led David Cameron to call a referendum, parliament was the crucial crucible where the arguments were forged. Yet as the authors eventually conclude, “a saga that began to enhance the sovereignty of parliament gradually developed into one where parliament was vilified” by cynical leaders. If Brexit was the game, parliament was the ball booted around the pitch.
The parliamentary intrigue included May’s three failed attempts to get MPs to back her exit deal with the EU and her successor Boris Johnson’s illegal move to forcibly prorogue, or suspend, parliament when it stood in his way. Both leaders berated parliament, the ultimate arbiter of power, when it wouldn’t bend to their wills.
Brexit had never-ending drama, yet Russell and James have produced a book that, if not completely dry, is only barely moist. Perhaps that was their intention: to be a sober, academic antidote to the partisan bootlicking and shin-kicking of the media. Yet part of the draw of politics is in the emotion and sheer irrationality of it all. The book does not fully capture this aspect of Brexit.
Still, it reaches interesting conclusions. May comes in for particularly sharp criticism for her “closed style” and the “suspicion and frustration” this generated among parliamentarians. “Rather than seeking to ease these tensions, May’s team unfortunately tended to stoke them,” they say.
They hold her to account for eschewing the opportunity that the 2017 hung parliament offered as an excuse to pursue a bipartisan approach. How different and less toxic might the situation subsequently have been if she had gone down the bipartisan route, they argue.
Instead, May, who seemed to put her party’s unity in advance of her country, doubled down in a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party for an approach that left her at the mercy of hardline Brexiteers, who hobbled her in parliament. That paved the way for Johnson’s elevation to Number 10 and the orgy of rancour that followed.
“The central arguments over Brexit were always – and indeed remain – those inside the Conservative Party,” say the authors. It just suited the party for parliament to get the blame.
The notion that Brexit was an internal Conservative Party row that engulfed the country is at the heart of another new book by an academic. The Conservative Party After Brexit, by political historian Tim Bale, is more saucily written than the tome on parliament. For that, it better captures the tension and drama.
We nevertheless need to acknowledge the part played by chance, contingency and human agency— Tim Bale
“[I have] quite deliberately chosen to go with the flow… [to] capture the blooming, buzzing confusion of political life as it is actually experienced by politicians,” he writes. Sometimes you must bathe in the madness to properly understand it.
The book opens with another intriguing “what if?” If Remain had won the 2016 referendum, how different might the following years have been? Bale suggests Cameron would have passed power to the former chancellor George Osborne to lead the Conservatives to victory in 2019. Johnson, having bet the farm on Leave and lost, might have been vanquished.
The book is about what really happened but, as the author says, “we nevertheless need to acknowledge the part played by chance, contingency and human agency” in all that followed. Brexit was never a sure thing. Bale reminds us of the narrow 52 per cent-48 per cent margin of victory for the Leave side. If Johnson had picked a different side, or if Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had campaigned properly, the “parallel universe sketched above” might be what Britain lived through in the subsequent years.
The book skilfully sketches out the Conservative Party’s “turmoil and transformation”. The party, he argues, has shifted from being an orthodox party of sober governance into an anti-establishment “defender of the people” from “shadowy forces” of the elite. It traces how the Tories’ position hardened considerably under pressure from Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. But now it has become “an ersatz version of the radical right insurgency the referendum was supposed to help see off”.
Johnson comes under scrutiny for the “contradictory, economically illiterate” promises that won him a landslide in 2019 and for his stoking of a culture war to keep his opponents divided. But, again, some of the toughest criticism is reserved for the stuttering, weak leadership of May.
One of her advisers said she was “scared” of the central role she was forced to play in her ill-fated 2017 general election campaign: “She literally needed notes to say ‘it is great to be here in Slough again’. She was one of the most nervous people I’ve ever met.”
The loss of the Conservatives’ majority fuelled the subsequent lurch further to the populist right that now characterises so many of its policies, from immigration to social issues. The author argues that the party has “slipped its moorings” as an orthodox force.
Clearly, the speed of events in late 2022, when Johnson was replaced by Liz Truss and then by Rishi Sunak, took even Bale by surprise when writing the book. Early on, he suggests it will comprise ten chapters ending with Truss’s election. In fact, there is an 11th chapter, focused on the elevation of Sunak as a balm to soothe the sting of Truss’s short-lived reign.
While Sunak is more mainstream on tax and spending, Bale predicts he will continue the focus on culture war issues, such as the gender debates, that started under Johnson. He also suggests it would be wrong to write off the party’s chances of winning the next election if it can deliver for voters on issues such as health and the cost of living. Given all the turmoil and the transformation, how remarkable would that be?
Whereas Bale presents the current shape of the Tory party as a consequence of Brexit, yet another new book by a British academic – Values, Voice and Virtue by political scientist Matthew Goodwin – insists Brexit itself was merely the consequence of wider political trends.
Goodwin argues that for decades, much of mainstream politics and institutions such as the press and universities have fallen increasingly under the influence of a band of metropolitan, educated, “progressive” elites whose views on social issues are vastly different from ordinary people, whom they disdain as racist and backwards. A “revolt” is under way and the tectonic plates of politics will shift to create a new centre ground, he argues.
Goodwin takes aim at commentators including Fintan O’Toole of The Irish Times for arguing that Brexit was an exercise in empire nostalgia. He says the theses of O’Toole and others contain arguments that are “interesting and fashionable, [but…] fail to stand up to scrutiny”. Ordinary people don’t care a whit for empire, Goodwin says and other European countries such as Belgium, Spain and France are all former colonial powers and they never sought to leave the EU.
He says this suggests there were other reasons. A weakness of Goodwin’s thesis is he appears to misunderstand some of the arguments of other commentators. Many did not necessarily contend that it was the empire nostalgia of British people that drove Brexit, but rather it was the nostalgia of elites, who harnessed the everyday worries of ordinary people to power their breakaway push.
Goodwin may be on to something when he argues that a big political realignment is under way, even if he appears at times to relish overstating the argument. He grounds his thesis with relevant, empirical data, such as a Reuters study showing that 56 per cent of journalists can be considered left-wing, versus 18 per cent who are right-wing.
Yet this appears contrary to the arguments of the other books, which contend that a rightward lurch in media fuelled the divisions of Brexit. Taken together, the discrepancies and contradictions of the three books suggest that academics may be as divided as everybody else in their diagnoses of what happened.
Out of the Blue (HarperCollins, 2022) by the Sun’s political editor, Harry Cole and James Heale, the political correspondent of the Spectator, is a deep dive into the rise and rapid, chaotic fall of Liz Truss, who was Britain’s shortest-serving prime minister when she resigned after 44 days last October. The book was published within weeks of her departure but still contains plenty of behind-the-scenes detail about the woman whose mini-premiership managed to squeeze in the death of a monarch, a currency crisis and the near-collapse of Britain’s entire pensions industry.
Another book written by a member of the Westminster lobby charting the political demise (for now) of a former British prime minister is The Fall of Boris Johnson by Sebastian Payne (Macmillan, 2022). He wrote it when he was Whitehall Editor of the Financial Times, although he left to run a think tank weeks later. Payne traces the arc of the infighting and betrayals that led to Johnson resigning when it emerged he had misled parliament over his knowledge of lockdown parties at Downing Street.
Pandemic Diaries (Biteback Publishing, 2022) by Matt Hancock with Isabel Oakeshott, was intended by Johnson’s publicity-conscious pandemic health secretary as a ripping insight into what it was like at the heart of government during the greatest health emergency in Britain’s recent history, which came immediately after Brexit. Months later, Oakeshott leaked 100,000 of Hancock’s WhatsApp messages to the Daily Telegraph, which he had given her to help her write this book.
Mark Paul is London Correspondent of The Irish Times