Brexit: The Uncivil War makes a big claim right at the start: to show us what really happened in the EU referendum two years ago, and to give us insight into the inner workings of the Vote Leave campaign. It’s an enticing offer but (ironically for a film about allegedly dodgy campaign pledges) I’m not really sure it ever really delivers on this promise.
Now, I admit that I’m as far away as possible from a ‘neutral’ or ‘impartial’ reviewer. Having campaigned for Brexit long before ‘Brexit’ was even a word, and having served as the Research Director of Vote Leave, I realise it’s pretty much impossible for me to approach this drama with a completely open mind. I’m also a close friend of the hero (villain?) of the piece, Dominic Cummings.
But those biases aside, I was there in the Vote Leave battle room – from the moment the lights first went on, in what was initially a small construction site in Autumn 2015, to the moment Dom took out a chunk of the ceiling on victory night. And there’s no doubt that there are things that the film gets right about Vote Leave…and things that it gets wrong.
Let’s get the wrong stuff out of the way first. Benedict Cumberbatch has been at pains to say that he wouldn’t get involved in the drama if it was a hatchet job. And, to be fair, while the show only really risks becoming one a few times (especially at the end when the credits start to roll) you can’t really shake the sense of bias against Vote Leave throughout the whole film. This ranges from the occasional nudge nudge, wink wink that we were allegedly doing illicit stuff with data to the painful attempts to tie us with Donald Trump’s donors. It’s the moments where the drama indulges in some of the Observer’s madder conspiracy theories that things really go off track.
But there’s also plenty of good stuff in the film. In addition to a brilliant script and superb acting, you really get the sense of ‘us against them’ that drove the team throughout 2016; and of Vote Leave’s embracing of serious data-led campaigning – reviewing what campaigning techniques worked and investing in things with a proven track record. This is normal stuff in the real world, of course, but nearly unheard of in Westminster. I’m also relieved that the film didn’t shaft the Remain campaign, as I’ve always thought they were largely decent people who were advancing a cause they believed in.
More than anything, the film successfully conveys the total nightmare that was Leave.EU (some of those linked with the campaign infamously described Vote Leave as the ‘real enemy’) and Nigel Farage’s cronies – the handful of politicians who were supposed to be on our side but who plotted against us constantly. They caused us far more trouble than all of the Remainers put together (some of the MPs on the film are unfairly attacked, there were heroes like Douglas Carswell, who I can never imagine using the word ‘rabble’).
And what about Cumberbatch’s depiction of Dom? On a superficial level, Benedict captures a fair few of Dom’s mannerisms perfectly: his love of serious thinkers like Otto von Bismarck; the slightly eccentric affinity for back to front T-shirts and inside out jumpers; and, yes, his occasional irritability (rarer and more nuanced than the film suggests).
But then there’s the stuff that’s unfair: the desire to make Dom look like a bit of an oddball, including the idea that he had some sort of obsessive compulsion to write on every single wall he walked past. More than anything, the film misses the sense of vision and purpose that Dom brought to the campaign. The reason that the staff came in before 6am and left at the early hours every single day – including weekends – wasn’t just because we wanted to ‘take back control’ from Brussels, it’s because we believed in Dom’s vision for how to change our country.
The film also misses the great sense of camaraderie and dedication that defined the Vote Leave team. It would have been good to have seen, for example, more of the utterly brilliant Victoria Woodcock (without whom the campaign would have floundered at launch), and there are there are other people who gave up so much and who deserve their time in the limelight. Vote Leave’s wonderful research team: Richard ‘Ricardo’ Howell, Ross Allan, James Kirby, and Matt Smith are all people who deserve recognition and who played a key role in changing history for the better.
Ultimately, the film also doesn’t give any sense of why our team wanted to see our country freed from the EU; of our vision to invest in fundamental science research; to revamp our whole rotten Whitehall system; to introduce a immigration system that has mass support; and ensure serious long term investment in the NHS. It’s a vision that (I think) is still very powerful – but sadly one that has been dismissed by Westminster and is largely ignored by this drama. This lack of depth is surprising, but I get a sense that this film was possibly written by two people – James Graham, who seems to have been working hard to write a drama that was as accurate as possible; and then a re-edit by some nameless executive who bolted on false claims that Vote Leave cheated and engaged in dodgy data dealings. And that is a shame, because it doesn’t just mean that there are a load of annoying inaccuracies that creep into the drama, but also things that are missed. As a result, this movie left me feeling frustrated more than anything else.
Now this might be unfair: after all, a lot of my irritation stems from the fact that, ever since 2016, politicians have ignored the Vote Leave team and the things we said during that campaign (including warnings not to use Article 50 until we’re ready for No Deal, not to play games with EU migrants, and to invest hundreds of millions in the NHS immediately). Until politicians do start listening – or until someone more competent takes back control – I can’t help but think that all things related to Brexit are going to get more and more frustrating.
Oliver Lewis was Research Director of Vote Leave