This has been a bumper autumn for political publishing. I’ve recently finished five of the main books on the EU referendum campaign and, although some of the key revelations have already been serialised in newspapers, there is plenty of material in them worth reporting that hasn’t yet been flagged up anywhere. So, as a Christmas service for anyone who has not read enough about the EU referendum already this year, here are 30 things about it that you might not know.
First, the books.
: Shipman is the Sunday Times political editor and this is his indispensable account, 624 pages covering not just the referendum campaign but the Conservative leadership contest too. Shipman seems to have spoken to everyone and he is commendably even-handed. It really is superb; taking into account the speed with which he turned it around, the volume of exclusive detail and the quality of the writing sets a new standard for the writing of contemporary political history.
: Banks became a key player through his alliance with Nigel Farage and the £8m he spent on Leave.EU and leave campaigning generally, and this is his campaign “diary” – reconstructed after the event with the journalist Isabel Oakeshott co-writing. Much of the book is about his feuding with Vote Leave and, although the book is not very good on the high politics of the referendum, or even on what really motivates Banks himself, for anyone interested in low campaign skulduggery it’s hard to put down.
: Bennett, deputy political editor of the Huffington Post, has written a book just covering the leave campaign, and the Vote Leave/Leave.EU rivalry. He published before Shipman and his account is thorough, revealing and very readable.
: Gibbon, the political editor of Channel 4 News, has written a book that combines campaign diary with reflections on what happened. At 82 pages it barely qualifies as a book, but it’s well crafted and contains some lovely quotes.
: Oliver was David Cameron’s communications director and this is the story of the referendum as told from within the No 10 remain camp. Some of the reviews () have been very harsh but it is the first insider account from a member of the Cameron inner circle and it contains quite a lot of juicy detail. It is also good on the physical and mental ghastliness of working full-on for a losing campaign.
One of the best things about Oliver’s book is the title. It is taken from something Cameron said to him in 2015, when asked if he could see the case against a referendum. “You could unleash demons of which ye know not,” Cameron replied. Oliver says he thought this might be a quote from the Bible or Shakespeare, but couldn’t find the source. Knowing Cameron’s cultural hinterland, Oliver might have had better luck checking with Game of Thrones. It crops up quite a lot in these books. For the Blair administration, The West Wing was the TV reference point of choice. In the Thatcher era it was Yes, Minister. For Cameron and his colleagues it was a fantasy epic noted for its violence and its cruelty. That may sound inappropriate, but the EU referendum certainly did unleash very strong passions.
Anywhere, here are 30 new revelations about it.
The Vote Leave campaign
1. Vote Leave came close to losing the contest to be designated the official leave campaign, Shipman says. VL was up against the Ukip-linked Grassroots Out, and Shipman says VL only realised at 10.30pm on the night before it had to submit documents to the Electoral Commission saying why it should get the designation that its draft was missing key information. Staff stayed up until 3.30am rewriting it.
2. tried to get Vote Leave to stop claiming that the UK was sending £350m a week to the EU, Banks says. In a diary entry for 12 June he writes:
Nigel had dinner with a couple of weeks ago and begged them to drop it [the £350m claim]. He pointed out that the net figure is impressive enough, and has the benefit of being accurate.
Gove shrugged, and claimed it was too late, as the figure was “already out there”.
Bennett quotes John Mills, who at one point was VL’s deputy chair, as saying that he also told VL colleagues they should stop using the £350m figure. Mills told Bennett:
Their response was that we’re better off with a big number because, even if it’s disputed, just in tactical terms it keeps the size of the contribution in front of everyone.
3. Vote Leave’s campaign director Dominic Cummings once described hardline anti-European Tory MPs as “flying monkeys”, Shipman reports.
After Michael Heseltine’s attack on , [Paul] Stephenson [VL’s communications director] remembered a conversation he had had with Cummings weeks before about how some of the more hotheaded Eurosceptics would have their uses at points in the campaign. Cummings, with his usual delicacy where MPs were concerned, had said, ‘We just need to kick the flying monkeys in the cage and release them at the right point.’ Now Stephenson went in search of a flying monkey to turn up the pressure on Cameron. He called Steve Baker [chair of Conservatives for Britain] ...
The concept of “flying monkeys” is quite a useful one when trying to understand why Theresa May is wary of announcing anything that sounds like a move towards a “soft” . The “flying monkeys”, and the flying monkey press, are a potent force.
4. Vote Leave asked Chris Grayling to intervene with Farage after the killing of Jo Cox to get him to stop releasing more inflammatory posters, Shipman says. Grayling subsequently met Farage in a pub and Farage said Ukip would be refocusing its campaign on sovereignty. Shortly before Cox was killed, Farage had released .
5. Some Vote Leave campaigners were never aiming for a win, Gibbon says. He quotes what he was told by a pro-leave Tory who worked closely with Michael Gove and VL in a conversation three weeks after the referendum. The source told him:
We weren’t meant to win. That line, ‘you were only meant to blow the bloody doors off’, it’s true. The plan was to run the remain side close enough to scare the EU into bigger concessions. None of us thought we were ever going to win. With the possible exception of Dominic Cummings, who just wanted to drive a car into the Camerons’ living room. It’s all such a mess. I want a second referendum now.
Britain Stronger in Europe
6. Britain Stronger in feared Theresa May could be trying to help the leave campaign because she was so reluctant to support remain. Oliver’s book is particularly good on this, and he quotes Will Straw, Stronger In’s executive director, as saying in a text after she briefed details of a speech in an unhelpful manner:
Are we sure May’s not an agent for the other side!?
7. Cameron came under intense pressure to announce a new immigration strategy in the final days before the referendum, with Labour’s Lord Mandelson even drafting policy he could announce. Shipman records the six pledges Mandelson wanted Cameron to announce: new money for areas affected by high immigration; a law to prevent wages being undercut by EU migrants; a new move to get the EU to cut welfare migration; agreement with France and Germany to review free movement; a cross-party review of immigration; and an affordable housing programme, with new arrivals excluded. Oliver also writes at length about how No 10 considered changing tack to try to win the argument on immigration, but decided against it on the grounds that this approach would lack credibility. He also recalls how, at a postmortem meeting after the referendum, Mandelson attacked No 10 for not taking his advice. Describing Mandelson’s argument, Oliver writes:
It’s not even coded – David Cameron and George Osborne (and their pathetic lackeys) should have turned to me.
8. Cameron refused to announce that he would veto Turkey joining the EU, even though this would help the remain campaign, because this might jeopardise Turkish counter-terrorism cooperation with the UK. Shipman quotes a No 10 figure saying Cameron put the national interest first “although it arguably lost him the referendum”.
9. President Obama may have had a grievance against Britain before becoming president, but not because of the way his grandfather was treated under the British empire, Oliver suggests. Oliver quotes David Cameron telling him:
[Obama] once joked that before he was president his main impression of Britain was formed when he lost his luggage on a British Airways flight.
10. Cameron told Nicola Sturgeon she should be involved in the Brexit negotiations, Oliver says. He says Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, was one of three people Cameron spoke to by phone on the Friday morning before he announced his resignation; the others were Michael Gove and John Major. Cameron told Sturgeon “he wants her to be involved in any negotiations”.
11. remain campaigners thought Jeremy Corbyn’s office was actively trying to sabotage their efforts. Shipman’s book is particularly good on this because he has interviewed so many of the key figures and he quotes Lord Mandelson saying:
We were greatly damaged by Jeremy Corbyn’s stance, no doubt about that. Not only was he most of the time absent from the battle, but he was holding back the efforts of Alan Johnson and the Labour In campaign. At times they felt actually their efforts were being sabotaged by Jeremy Corbyn and the people around him.
And Shipman quotes Alan Johnson, chair of the Labour In For Britain campaign, saying:
Jeremy’s advisers – Seumas Milne, Andy Fisher – absolutely wanted to leave.
Milne, who is serving as Corbyn’s director of communications and strategy while on leave from his job as a Guardian journalist, is cited again by Shipman in a quote from an unnamed Stronger In press officer, who told the author:
The shadow cabinet was banned from doing anything for us by Seumas. Even when people like Heidi Alexander or Seema Malhotra would approach us they’d get slightly threatening calls from the leader’s office, and their offers would be quickly retracted. They couldn’t even do quotes for us.
Craig Oliver also writes in detail about how frustrated No 10 was with the contribution Corbyn’s office was making to the remain campaign. Oliver says:
To us, the Labour leader’s office resembles a madhouse, where the patients have taken over the asylum. There’s also the real possibility they don’t care if we win or not.
And Gary Gibbon recalls meeting Milne in the Commons the week after the leave vote, and being surprised by his reaction to the result.
‘What did you feel when you heard the result?’ I asked. ‘Shocked, really shocked,’ came the reply. ‘Interesting,’ I said. ‘Others say “horrified”, “sad”.’ ‘Shocked, really shocked,’ [Milne] repeated. ‘You’re not really like the general London demographic, are you?’ I said. He walked off with his pastry and coffee, laughing.
Corbyn and his team object to the way their conduct during the campaign is presented in Shipman’s book, I understand. They say Shipman did not speak to Corbyn or anyone in his immediate circle during his research and believe claims that they were out to “sabotage” the remain campaign come from people opposed to Corbyn’s leadership. Corbyn did not use all the Britain Stronger in Europe messages because his argument was different, they say. They also reject the allegation that shadow cabinet members were banned from helping Stronger In.
12. John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, argued in 2015 that Labour should stay neutral in the EU campaign until David Cameron secured his EU deal in February 2016. Shipman quotes a source who worked with Corbyn saying:
John McDonnell was most hostile to the EU, and would have been pleased if we’d been campaigning to leave. John argued forcefully that we should say nothing until February.
At another point, Shipman quotes an unnamed Labour official saying McDonnell refused to go on the Labour In battle bus “because it’s too ‘New Labour-ish’ to be on a bus”.
13. Corbyn’s office kept removing a line from Corbyn’s speeches saying he was campaigning to remain in the EU, Shipman says. He quotes Alan Johnson saying:
We kept trying to get [Corbyn] to say, ‘That’s why I am campaigning to remain in the EU.’ It’s a simple sentence. It kept going into speeches, and it kept coming out. It would be taken out by Seumas Milne, it would be taken out by Andrew Fisher.
14. Corbyn’s office proposed getting Corbyn to visit Turkey during the referendum campaign to meet refugees, Shipman says. Corbyn was supposed to be using the visit to promote the benefits of open borders. Shipman quotes Johnson as saying the proposal was a “disaster” and James McGrory, Stronger In’s head of communications, as saying:
If I’d been making up what is the worst possible thing that Jeremy Corbyn could do right now, I might not have been able to come up with something that shit.
The plan was eventually dropped, but Shipman says that for three weeks it was under consideration and that Labour officials saw the fact that Corbyn’s office was pushing for the visit, despite knowing that highlighting immigration from Turkey would help leave, as further evidence that Corbyn’s aides were trying to undermine the remain campaign.