Slow train

The EU referendum could not have been dodged,
says former Cameron aide Sir Craig Oliver, even
though it ultimately did for Theresa May

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Jeremy Corbyn’s success in defying the polls at the general election was in part due to broadcasting rules insisting candidates must be treated with impartiality, according to a former David Cameron aide.

Specific laws and guidelines came into force after May called the general election, forcing broadcasters to ensure none of the political parties or candidates got an unfair advantage through partial reporting or a disproportionate amount of screen time.

The exposure that gave to Corbyn was “definitely a factor” in his increasingly confident campaign, said Sir Craig Oliver, former prime minister Cameron’s communications director in 2011-2016 – although he emphasised it was still the third general election on the run that Labour had lost.

“Corbyn had been on the scene for quite some time but a lot of people push politics to the corners of their mind and try and ignore it. But then suddenly he was front and centre and he did well. He handled all the snidey questions. When Paxman was having a go at him he did it with humour and grace and sounded like he was answering questions.

“Theresa May got herself into a situation where if you asked her what she had for breakfast, she would have said: ‘We need strong and stable government.’”

He acknowledged that all leaders need to find ways to repeat their messages, because many people do not follow politics closely, “but maybe don’t treat them quite so much like fools”.

Oliver’s recently updated book Unleashing Demons is a fast-paced insider’s account, detailing the decision to call a referendum on EU membership, Cameron’s campaign to remain, the referendum itself and the fallout in the aftermath.

“The EU was such a massive issue it had become almost impossible for a Conservative PM not to deal with it.”

But although the title refers to Cameron’s warning of the possible consequences of calling the referendum, Oliver insists his boss was right to do so and says nobody predicted it might ultimately lead to a general election only a year later, in which the Conservatives suffered badly.

“The EU was such a massive issue it had become almost impossible for a Conservative PM not to deal with it,” said Oliver, a former TV journalist and executive. “The way I describe it in the book is as a slow train coming into the station on David Cameron’s watch.

“The idea you couldn’t deal with this issue when Ukip had won the 2014 European elections and many MPs were considering defecting – it wasn’t an option not to deal with it but a lot of people are saying he was a fool for calling it. Somebody said to me this weekend it was a forced error, rather than an unforced error.”

He added: “What was interesting was that you couldn’t find anybody who thought Leave would win. At 10pm on 23 June when all the votes had been cast, Nigel Farage conceded, the hedge funds had set their positions very high, sterling was very high, the pollsters were saying we had won by at least 8 points. Literally nobody though that Leave had won.

“The other issue we faced was that Jeremy Corbyn didn’t put any effort into campaigning. In the election that’s just past everybody said how enthusiastic and energetic he was. Compare and contrast that to what happened in 2016.”

Oliver writes that Cameron briefly considered staying on as prime minister after the referendum but soon agreed with his communications chief that he should go. Are there lessons for May, who has insisted to her party that she will get it out of the mess she created by doing a deal with the DUP?

“Each circumstance is different but my feeling is that in the long term she might wish that for her own personal standing she’d gone immediately,” said Oliver. “Lots of other factors come into it – the stability of the country, for example. But it’s going to be a sequence of humiliations because you’re in office but no longer in power.”

He added that it would be difficult for the government to maintain a legislative agenda, asking: “Do your backbenchers feel they have to support you. The Conservative Party is pretty split at the moment and if you compare an MP like Anna Soubry or Nicky Morgan to someone like John Redwood or Bill Cash the gulf is pretty wide.”

May has a significant role in Oliver’s book, not only over the question of her lukewarm support for the Remain campaign but also the behaviour of her key aides Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, now sacrificed after the 8 June election.

“There were a lot of people who knew what Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy were like and they allowed it to happen.”

Eventually Cameron became exasperated by their behaviour and insisted Hill should go, but May brought her back and since then allegations of their rudeness and bullying have become widespread.

Oliver said they should have been stopped. “There were a lot of people who knew what Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy were like and they allowed it to happen. And I think there are questions about that.

“Since I left Downing St there have been endless stories about how they behaved. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum – lots of people know about it.

“It’s a bit of an issue in politics that quite often people are allowed to behave badly. Sometimes people say the ends justify the means but actually they don’t.”

Oliver did not share the criticism some have levelled at campaign strategist Lynton Crosby and polling expert Jim Messina for their role in May’s unsuccessful campaign. He worked closely with Crosby on the EU referendum campaign and describes himself as a “fan”: “What we did in 2015 was that we agreed that Lynton was the campaign boss. He’s a professional campaigner. I was one of his deputies. I did the communications and Stephen Gilbert was his deputy on the ground campaign. But he was in charge and we said you’ve got a plan, we’re going to follow it.

“It sounds to me from having had conversations with quite a number of people after the general election is that were a lot of cooks and not distinctly a plan.”

Despite the excitement and drama of politics that Oliver conveys in the book, he does not miss it.

“The reality is I had six years of it,” he said. “There’s something about being in that kind of world that isn’t entirely healthy in that it’s not just 24-7 but also 360 – it surrounds you. I managed to find ways of dealing with it but  the referendum was so bitter and divisive that I thought, I’ve done my six years. You get less than that for some other crimes. I enjoyed it and David Cameron was a great boss and it was an amazing experience but no, I don’t really miss it.”

Unleashing Demons: The Inside Story of Brexit by Craig Oliver is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£9.99)

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