You don’t read a political memoir for good overview - you read it for the view behind the scenes. In that, Oliver delivers with a lot of detail about how the Cameron team handled the referendum and and quite a bit of insight on how Stronger-In functioned. However, the further he gets from what he has direct experience of the more hazy things get. We do get the story of Boris and Grove’s dithering before finally plumping for Leave. From then on Oliver and friends are only reacting to the Boris-Grove media show. We hear a little more of Theresa May who was nominally part of the remain camp. The story here is how she spent most of the time avoiding saying anything at all. The few times she does break silence she is so lukewarm as to seriously harm Remain.
Political memoirs usually serve to justify the actions of the writer. This is no different. He tell us that Cameron had no option but call the referendum and they ran the campaign in the possible way. He puts a lot of good arguments but the very fact that they in the end fall rather flat. Oliver may be an expert on stuff like this but Remain lost. Is there really nothing he thinks now that he could have done better?
Right at the start is the renegotiation. The concessions that Cameron got from Europe were huge – from the point of view the other European leaders. For someone in Britain who is dead against immigration – not so much. It is doubtful the concessions Cameron brought back won over more than a handful of voters. On the other hand the very fact that Cameron claimed he needed those concessions boosted the idea that there was a problem with Europe. Hence he undermined his credibility for when he eventually came out in favor of staying in. Cameron found himself backed into defending free movement as a “price worth paying” for access the single market. Muted were mentions of the positive benefits of free movement – the essential role European citizens have in the health service – how essential it is for science based industries to recruit skilled workers Europe wide etc.
Oliver still has no doubt about the wisdom of avoiding any positive message about Europe. Swing voters, his team concluded, didn’t have a positive view of Europe so any positive message would fall flat. It was too late to reverse the negative coverage European Union had been subject to for many years in a short campaign. The logic sounds fine (even if much of that negative coverage had come from Oliver’s Tories) but what was left was project fear. OK, Oliver is quite right to find it rather rich for Leave to describe Remain as project fear. Leave fear-mongering was more extreme and often bore little relation to reality but Leave wasn’t just a negative campaign. Again and again, Oliver describes how remain seems to hit home with the economic dangers of Brexit but within a few pages that boost has dissipated. On the other hand Leave claims, because they were part of a positive package, had a life of their own. It wasn’t that everyone who voted leave bought into the positive image of a go-it-alone Britain but their arguments had more resonance for being put by people who seemed to have enthusiasm for their alternative. And if there were any remaining doubt that relying on a negative campaign will fail that should be gone now that Trump has been elected US president.
Nowhere does Oliver ask to extent to Cameron’s premiership has fueled the Brexit vote. This was especially stark on pages 299-300 when in coaching Angela Eagle for the ITV debate he veered between telling Eagle to display some “righteous indignation on behalf of working people” to telling her off for blaming public services being swamped on Tory cuts. This won’t do, Oliver told Eagle, this will make the Remain side look divided. But the very reason Labour failed to mobilize working people for remain was that Leave succeeded in misdirecting indignation at the results of Tory-LibDem austerity against the EU and EU migrants. What Oliver was trying to get from Eagle was sanitized indignation and a result during the actual debate it was Sturgeon (who avoided Oliver’s coaching) who hit hardest.
Oliver’s account is an honest one that allows us to see his thinking. As such it is valuable for pro-Europeans to read so that we can understand the mistakes of the referendum so we can avoid making them in difficult times ahead.