Book review: Post-Brexit autopsies

Britain’s decision to leave the European Union at the end of this June was a watershed moment for that country’s politics. Years of Tory civil war and discontentment with immigration had finally come to a head, resulting in the possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum, a Prime Ministerial resignation, a brief but bruising Tory leadership race, a new Prime Minister, and failed attempt to unseat Jeremy Corbyn as Labour’s leader. Those were just the biggest headlines, and there was plenty of fat to chew in their respective aftermaths.

Unleashing Demons: The Inside Story of Brexit and The Brexit Club: The Inside Story of the Leave Campaign's Shock Victory
Unleashing Demons: The Inside Story of Brexit and The Brexit Club: The Inside Story of the Leave Campaign’s Shock Victory

We can expect a slew of books to come out about Brexit in the next few years, and one of the first was a “kiss and tell” insider’s account of the Remain campaign from Craig Oliver: David Cameron’s Director of Communications at Downing Street.

Unleashing Demons: The Inside Story of Brexit” offers an unflinching, fly-on-the-wall look at Downing Street and Cameron’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt at keeping the UK within the EU. Written remarkably quickly (it was published on 4th October), Oliver’s was at Cameron’s side for much of the campaign, having served as his Director of Communications from 2011, and built his book around diary entries, emails and texts.

Unleashing Demons makes an enjoyable, if often frustrating read. It drips with dramatic irony as we, the reader, are fully aware of the referendum’s eventual result, unlike David Cameron and the book’s other main characters, including the author himself.

As political autopsies go, it’s a pretty damning one too. A general consensus existed that Theresa May, through no small effort of her own, deliberately avoided campaigning on the Remain side, possibly with a view of being a post-referendum unity candidate in the inevitable Tory leadership case. As for Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, they both stabbed Cameron in the back, before Gove did exactly the same to BoJo in the post-referendum leadership race. Oliver also makes it abundantly clear how weak Labour’s efforts in ensuring a Remain victory were.

The referendum’s end result came as a surprise to many, but Oliver does a good job in his analysis on why team Leave was ultimately victorious. Despite being badly organised and happy to push outright lies as established truths to British voters, the Leavers’ scare-tactics worked.

In “The Brexit Club: The Inside Story of the Leave Campaign’s Shock Victory”, Owen Bennett looks at the process which took Britain out the EU from the Leave campaign’s perspective. Having conducted enormous numbers of interviews with its various leaders and participants, The Brexit Club has a uniquely “inside” feel to it.

While less personal than Oliver’s account, Bennett’s objectivity makes for a refreshing contrast between the two books. He also profiles the big Brexiteers (Gove, Johnson and Farage), following them through the campaign. Despite their stylistic differences, Oliver and Bennett balance each other out, and their two books complement each other.

I would recommend both as good starting points for the reader interested in Brexit, and how it happened. While I started with and slightly preferred Unleashing Demons, either can be read first. Most importantly, neither were written for wonks, and remain accessible to the general reader.

About the Author
Daniel J. Levy is a graduate of the University of Leeds and Oxford, where his academic research primarily focused on Iranian proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. He is the Founding Director and Lead Consultant of the Ortakoy Security Group, and has contributed editorial pieces to The Times of Israel, Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, and Israel Policy Exchange. In his free time, he enjoys reading, running, and cooking. He can be followed on Twitter @danielhalevy.