My take on Channel 4’s Brexit: The Uncivil War

My take on Channel 4’s <i>Brexit: The Uncivil War</i>

When I, as a Brexiteer, heard that Channel Four had commissioned a film about the EU referendum campaign, my heart sank: this was surely going to be an account designed to appeal to the Remain-voting liberal, metropolitan elite.

But when I heard that it had been written by James Graham – whose excellent This House about how the 1970s Labour Government clinged to power I had seen at the Garrick Theatre in 2016 – I held out some hope that it would be a fair and reasonable representation of events.

The result – Brexit: The Uncivil War (which airs on Channel Four tonight, Monday 7th January at 9pm) – was certainly based on considerable research by Graham into the events of the campaign and by the actors into the protagonists they are playing; and it draws heavily on the Sunday Times’ Tim Shipman’s authoritative All Out War as well as Unleashing Demons: The Inside Story of Brexit, the memoir of David Cameron’s former spin doctor, Sir Craig Oliver.

But if the film does end up confirming the prejudices of the anti-Brexit #FBPE crowd, it is by virtue of what it doesn’t cover as much as what it does.

Graham has revealed, for example, that the initial draft of the script included David Cameron and George Osborne as characters; that would have opened up the possibility of including scenes which would have helped to expose how the Remain side exploited government resources, the Whitehall machine and taxpayers’ money to the tune of millions to skew the vote in their favour and promote their Project Fear narrative.

But those characters were dropped and the focus is instead far more on the work of the non-politicians at the helm of the campaigns: by far most extensively the victorious Vote Leave campaign, but also the official Stronger In campaign and Arron Banks’ renegade Leave.EU outfit.

The film reminds us that Vote Leave was established by Matthew Elliott (full disclosure: he is of course our Editor-at-Large) and John Heffernan portrays how his calm but constant presence as CEO kept the show on the road during what would be at times a very bumpy ride (and alas the script fails to give a nod to his vital prior experience in running the successful 2011 No2AV national referendum campaign and Business for Britain as a precursor to Vote Leave).

It is, however, Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Dominic Cummings – the Vote Leave Campaign Director – on which the film focuses more than anything. Cummings doesn’t especially care for politicians of any hue – and they don’t care for him either – and that clash is shown as central to his running an insurgency against the establishment. He is shown to hold in contempt even most of the politicians backing the Leave campaign in some notably tense scenes.

The intensity of Cummings’ mission comes through as his campaign theme morphs from “Take Control” to “Take Back Control” and his disregard for politicians and their traditional campaign methods leads him to expend considerable energy and money on state-of-the-art technology to identify potential Leave voters and persuade them of the case with targeted online advertising.

This is doubtless where the recalcitrant Remainers will cry foul and claim that it vindicates all manner of conspiracy theories, but what the film fails to make clear is that the Remain campaign had an equally ambitious (though ultimately less successful) digital operation of their own. It was run by Jim Messina, who had overseen the micro-targeting of voters for Barack Obama, yet for some reason while the campaign methods he embraced for the former US President were viewed as a positively ‘groundbreaking’ or ‘revolutionary’ development, when they were aped by Brexiteers even more successfully here, they are somehow deemed to be dubious or inappropriate.    

And while the internal divisions within the Leave camp are on full display, we only get a relatively brief glimpse of the chaos and tensions within the Remain camp: there is, however, one glorious scene featuring a conference call (taking place while Oliver, played by Rory Kinnear, is attempting to dish up dinner to his children) in which its leading lights complain about Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to throw his full weight behind their efforts and Downing Street’s failure to sanction “blue on blue” attacks on Brexiteers like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.

Johnson and Gove are portrayed on screen, although without any substantial scenes, while Vote Leave Chair Gisela Stuart’s appearances are even more fleeting. As I noted above, the politicians are not the focus of the film, so there are some key players whose efforts go unrecognised as most of the leading political figures are instead shown through occasional video montages of genuine TV footage from the campaign trail.

The depiction of events covered is for the most part, I think, extremely historically accurate (although pedants will point out that Gisela Stuart was not in London but in Manchester with Matthew Elliott on referendum night); the one definite concession to artistic licence is when Cummings and Oliver go for a drink on the eve of the vote to mull over the campaign.

But while the resulting dramatic spectacle is extremely well executed, I can’t help feeling that the inevitably selective focus required for a TV film lasting barely 90 minutes has resulted in significant aspects of the story being left untold.