Craig Oliver’s Brexit book is not meant to expose David Cameron’s strategic errors. The former prime minister’s director of politics and communications is at pains to defend his boss’s actions and his own. But his fly-on-the-wall account of the campaign – Unleashing Demons – inadvertently rams home how the dead hand of Downing Street lost the referendum.
Of course, Jeremy Corbyn’s faint praise for the EU was also to blame. So were the lies of the Leave camp, the hostility of much of the press and the BBC’s failure to challenge the Leave side’s arguments adequately. But it was Cameron who called the referendum and Cameron who was the ultimate master strategist of the Remain camp.
Seven bad errors jump out of the book’s pages.
1. Unleashing the referendum demon
Oliver argues that there was no way of avoiding the issue because Tory MPs were rebelling and UKIP was growing as a political force. If Cameron hadn’t promised a vote, “he would have been deposed”.
In other words, the former premier made a Faustian pact to stay in Downing Street and keep right wing nationalists happy. But, as with any deal with the devil, Cameron ultimately had to deliver his side of the bargain. He himself had some glimpses of the troubles ahead. When asked by Oliver in 2015 if he could see any reason not to hold a referendum, he replied: “You could unleash demons of which ye know not.”
There was nothing noble about putting his own interests and those of the Tory party ahead of the country’s. It’s not even certain that Cameron would have been kicked out if he’d taken a different line, say that there would only be a referendum if the voters were clamouring for one – which they weren’t. What’s more, it’s not as though Cameron’s ploy worked: when he lost, he had to resign and he may go down in history as one of our worst prime ministers.
2. Renegotiation charade
Cameron’s next error was to pretend that he would call for Britain to quit the EU if he couldn’t renegotiate our terms of membership satisfactorily. This fooled neither the voters, who saw through the dishonesty, nor our EU partners, who spotted the bluff.
What this charade meant was that the prime minister couldn’t campaign for Remain during the autumn and winter of last year, when the Leave camp was firing its first salvoes. It also meant he was skewered by questions on the lines of: “How could it be so disastrous to leave the EU when only a few months ago you were saying ‘I rule nothing out’?”
Oliver makes clear there was never any realistic chance that Cameron would back Leave. He also reveals that the prime minister himself knew how years of endless Brussels-bashing was going to make for a tough campaign: “His analysis is that everyone, including him, has traded on having a go at ‘Europe’ for years.”
The honest approach would have been for Cameron to say, as soon as he promised the referendum, that he believed we were better off in the EU, and to explain why. This would also have been smart as he would then have had three years instead of four months to turn around public opinion.
He could still have called on the EU to reform. In fact, by working on such an agenda for three years and by taking a constructive rather than a confrontational approach to our EU partners, he probably would have achieved more.
3. Stronger In takeover
The official Remain campaign, Stronger In, was weak. Cameron therefore decided to bolster it by injecting his own team, led by Oliver, into it. Before the prime minister had come out for “in”, his director of communications was working out how his team would “dock” with the Stronger In crowd. As the campaign progressed, Oliver became the organisation’s shadow director, telling it what to do at critical points.
This meant that Downing Street’s priorities became the Remain camp’s priorities. But what it thought was good for Cameron was not good for Britain.
4. Avoiding blue-on-blue rebuttal
Downing Street was anxious to avoid “blue-on-blue” attacks – Tories going head-to-head with one another. According to Oliver, this was to avoid a Tory psychodrama. “The media would love it and it would blot out almost every other story,” he told me at a dinner recounted in his book, when I advocated stronger rebuttal of the lies being spewed out by Michael Gove and Boris Johnson.
If Cameron had played the man not the ball, such attacks would have been counterproductive. But the failure to squish Gove when he said we send £350 million a week to the EU or that Turkey was scheduled to join the EU in 2020 was a terrible error. Vote Leave kept shooting balls into the wide open goal.
Cameron did eventually slap down Penny Mordaunt’s erroneous statement that we don’t have a veto on Turkey joining the EU. But he was taking out a minor figure who wasn’t even in the cabinet, not one of the big beasts. It was too little, too late.
What’s more, there was another motivation behind former prime minister’s obsession with avoiding blue-on-blue attacks. As Oliver writes at one point: “The real danger .. is the way so much poison is being pumped into the party’s bloodstream. How will it be survivable when the referendum is done?”
If Downing Street hadn’t “docked” with Stronger In, it wouldn’t have been so bad. The official campaign could itself have gone after Vote Leave’s errors hammer and tongs, rather than “bringing a spoon to a knife fight” as Peter Mandelson put it. As it was, Oliver neutered Stronger In – at one point pulling a hard-hitting poster that showed Johnson in Nigel Farage’s pocket.
5. No positive agenda
Oliver was a key figure in enforcing Cameron’s Project Fear strategy. While there was nothing wrong in pointing out the risks of quitting the EU, the message should have been mixed with a positive agenda about how Britain in the EU could help lead Europe, create the jobs of the future, stand up to Vladimir Putin, combat terrorism, fight global warming and so forth.
Oliver was having none of this. At one point, he rounds on colleagues pushing a positive line: “I’m sorry. I’m totally confused. We’ve just all been talking about our message being about risk and the economy, how we need to keep hammering it – and now we are talking about handing over one of our last days to the positive case for the EU.”
Maybe, but what about the young, who needed to be enthused to get out to vote in big numbers? What about pro-Europeans who needed to be galvanised to spread the word? What about many Labour voters who weren’t that moved by warnings of economic gloom when they didn’t think they had much to lose in the first place?
Gordon Brown kept pushing this line, but he found it hard to get airtime. The former Labour prime minister struggled to get on the “grid” that Oliver used to determine who should be promoted to speak on what topics on what days. Once when Brown supposedly had a clear day to make his case, he was drowned out by George Osborne saying Brexit would cause house prices to fall.
6. World War Three
Cameron did try another promising line – that leaving the EU would be bad for security. Somehow the media interpreted him as saying that quitting would trigger World War Three. This was, as Oliver says, a “gross misinterpretation” of what he actually said.
But the former director of communications doesn’t provide any insight into how the press made such an error. We are not told if Downing Street spun the speech in advance. Nor does Oliver say if he complained after the event about how the prime minister’s words were twisted – as he should have unless his team was itself partly responsible for the misinterpretation – whereas his book is full of complaints he made to the media on other occasions.
After the misfire on “World War Three”, Cameron didn’t try to argue seriously again that quitting the EU would be bad for our security and our global influence. This was another error. He was left with the one-trick pony – Project Fear – which eventually proved a turn-off to some voters.
7. Mute on migration
Cameron’s final strategic error was to be mum on migration – the Leave camp’s strongest card. His repeated promises to cut net migration to the tens of thousands meant he had zero credibility on the topic. As Oliver puts it: “What can we say on immigration/freedom of movement that will not be met with derision?”
But others could have spoken up. They could have said that the Leave camp’s migration promises were just as false as Cameron’s. They could have pointed out that public services were struggling because of Tory cuts not migration – as, indeed, Labour’s Angela Eagle wanted to in one of the set-piece TV debates before Oliver told her not to.
They could also have said that the government should channel money to those communities struggling with spikes in migration. When Oliver hears that Brown plans to talk about such a scheme, he tells us: “I roll my eyes – with two weeks to go, are we seriously about to go out there with a brand new policy on immigration?” When I read this passage, I rolled my eyes. Was Cameron’s director of communications really unaware that Conservative’s election manifesto contained just such a pledge?
The book is full of eye-rolling passages. This was a referendum that Cameron should never have called – and a vote he still could have won if he’d made smarter strategic choices.
Edited by Geert Linnebank