Brexit. Just the word itself is enough to make lots of people want to stick pins in their eyes.
Leavers are wondering why we haven’t left yet, and whether parliament will ever deliver what they voted for. Remainers have been through four of the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining and depression), but not the fifth (acceptance).
And now, in the week when Theresa May finally launches her attempt to get her deal through the Commons, along comes Benedict Cumberbatch in a neatly-timed Channel 4 TV play all about the 2016 EU referendum campaign.
‘Brexit: An Uncivil War’, written by James Graham, is the first attempt to dramatise that battle for Britain’s political soul. To do so, it focuses not on the big names like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and David Cameron, but on the little-known backroom boys and girls in the rival campaigns. The Usual Suspects it isn’t.
The drama centres on Dominic Cummings, the strategic mastermind of the Vote Leave campaign. Playwright Graham has said that he wanted to portray ‘a political mystery’, the story-behind-the-story of the way Cummings managed to pull off a stunning victory.
And given this is more a ‘how-dunnit’ than a whodunnit, there’s no little irony in having our modern-day Sherlock Holmes play the lead role.
Cumberbatch perfectly captures Cummings’ mannerisms, his soft Durham accent and his general air of a dishevelled maverick. A former aide to Michael Gove, in Westminster and Whitehall he has long been as divisive as Brexit itself.
Cummings’ admirers see him as a bona fide genius, while his critics think he’s an arrogant charlatan. The drama manages to balance both, showing him as a committed opponent of ‘The Establishment’, while being variously called “some geeky anarchist who wants to show off” or “an egotist with a wrecking ball”.
One former colleague of his told me: “I’ve been in literal trenches, in Iraq, and there’s no one I’d rather have alongside me than Dom”. Others can’t even mention his name without spitting blood.
His opposite number in the Remain campaign, former Cameron aide Craig Oliver (played superbly by Rory Kinnear), has a typically pithy summary that will have Cummings’ enemies cheering at the screen: “He’s not the Messiah, he’s just a fucking arsehole”.
That nod to Monty Python and a classically British sense of rude humour is also echoed in the seaside postcard portrayal of Nigel Farage and his wealthy, oafish sidekick Arron Banks. Cummings knew both were toxic to swing voters, while allowing them to do his dirty work on the harsher messages on immigration.
Given the arguments around the Brexit campaign are pretty complex, it’s to Graham’s great credit that he manages to condense them down so succinctly. From the infamous ‘£350m a week for the NHS’ bus to the claims that 70 million Turks will somehow come to the UK, he captures the lies without shouting ‘liar’ every five minutes.
Even Cummings’ critics admit Vote Leave’s campaign theme, ‘Take Back Control’, was politically brilliant. Initially, the phrase was simply ‘Vote leave, Take control’. But Cummings added the word ‘back’ to underscore the powerful message that millions of voters felt powerless about the EU, about their factory jobs being shipped overseas, about the 2008 financial crisis and about a surge in immigration.
Still, I suspect only politicos will get a frisson of excitement as Cumberbatch depicts Cummings’ Eureka! moment on the slogan, sitting in bed one night next to his pregnant wife as he spots ‘take back control’ in a book on how to be a better parent.
Graham is excellent on the details (there wasn’t a single inaccuracy I could see) and has been shrewd enough to combine Cummings’ own obsession with data science with the subplot of the role of Cambridge Analytica and other shadowy operatives.
The decision to target three million people who hadn’t voted for any party for years was what gave Leave its ‘edge’ – and what ultimately dumbfounded not just the Remain camp, but also the pollsters.
For me, the best lines in the entire two-hour film came when we heard some of those disaffected voters, rather than the campaign nerds. There’s a real cry of pain from a Leave-supporting woman in a focus group who snaps and shouts: “I’m sick of it!…I’m sick of feeling like nothing. Like I have nothing, like I know nothing, like I AM nothing.”
It finally dawns on the Remain camp that many voters were not put off by all the warnings of the economic risk of leaving the EU. “There’s no risk – come to where I’m from, there’s nothing to lose,” says the focus group woman.
Graham, who is from a working class background in Leave-voting Mansfield, is at his sharpest when capturing this sense of alienation and it’s a subject worthy of a play all of its own.
The divisions within one community or one family, for example, would make for a much more accessible drama than the intricacies of the two Brexit campaigns. Given this is his first stab at the subject, I suspect the precociously talented Graham may well pen a non-Westminster bubble version in coming years.
Yet even on its own terms, ‘Brexit: The Uncivil War’ had some glaring omissions. The sheer incompetence of the ‘Stronger In’ campaign was curiously underplayed. I recall attending its disastrous launch in a trendy former brewery in the East End of London, an unashamedly metropolitan elite venue complete with a pre-event spin story that questioned the patriotism of Leave voters as ‘quitters’.
But perhaps the Remain campaign’s biggest mistake was in making David Cameron its figurehead. Many Labour voters in industrial heartlands simply felt if Cameron was for something, they were even more against it.
The other oddity was the way the drama treated Boris Johnson as a bit-player or hapless bystander, rather than the influential big name campaigner who knew very well the games he was playing. Johnson is even allowed to look quizzical about the ’70m Turks’ claim on Vote Leave leaflets, even though he did nothing to refute the lie.
Just as importantly, Cummings’ expectation that Johnson would be the next PM – the final weeks of the campaign basically offered the fiction of an alternative government that would deliver more cash for the NHS – is never mentioned.
Cameron is also strangely absent, with only real footage used to show clips of his various missteps. I know the intention was to get away from the politicians, but given he was the man who called the referendum in the first place, his almost cameo appearances jarred. Jeremy Corbyn’s own muted role is also only touched upon with a throwaway line of dialogue.
There was a strange subplot-of-a-subplot about a billionaire businessman called Robert Mercer, a Donald Trump donor with links to some Brexit campaigners. It’s worth saying and saying clearly: the Remain campaign was never outspent by Vote Leave. More importantly, it was out-thought and out-maneouvred in the final crucial weeks and days before the vote.
Still, the decision to focus on Cummings at least spreads to a wider audience the huge influence this one man had on the historic decision that affects us all.
An unelected outsider who has long loathed MPs, he defied the odds after creating from scratch a campaign that tapped into something about the state of our country that no politician had managed to really spot. The real ‘political mystery’ is perhaps why this people’s revolt came as a surprise to so many.
Two years on, ‘taking back control’ feels more than ever like a mirage. Graham wisely bookends the drama with Cummings being quizzed before a select committee on why Brexit has failed to live up to any of his promises.
“It’s all gone crap,” Cummings-Cumberbatch tells his inquisitors. As the PM tries to get her own Brexit deal through parliament, both Leavers and Remainers alike will be tempted to reply: no shit, Sherlock.
‘Brexit: The Uncivil War’ airs on Channel 4 on Monday 7 January, 9 pm.