As soon as Channel 4 announced Benedict Cumberbatch had been cast as Dominic Cummings in its Brexit film, a hatchet job was expected. Some might still see it this way. I found it balanced, gripping, and at times funny, even moving. Plenty will be written about which parts were accurate and which not, but this was drama, not documentary. The story it tells is perhaps the most important story of our times: how politicians had become stuck in a late-90s time warp using a Clinton-era playbook, and thought Remain would easily win the referendum. But they lost because politics changes and the new energy was coming from forgotten voters who saw a chance to be counted. And Dominic Cummings, an outsider with contempt for the establishment, spotted this.
Cummings is shown as driven not by ideology, but research – much of which is talking to Wetherspoon’s punters. “We’re going to follow algorithmic statistical analysis, we don’t need to put up with any prima donna MPs,” he says. He tells his team that the Remainers will “run a campaign the way that campaigns have pretty much been run for the last 70 years: they’ll fight from the centre, make it about jobs and the economy.” We see a eureka moment for Cummings: a meeting with an American data scientist who offers to identify “three million voters who the other side don’t know exist”. By fair means, not foul. The data leads them to new people. Three scenes in the film tell this story:
- The couple in Jaywick, Essex
We see the Leave chiefs – Cummings, Matthew Elliott and Douglas Carswell – turning up to a run-down housing estate. “I don’t know this place,” says Carswell. “Well, it’s in your constituency,” replies Cummings. “You’ve just ignored it for years.” An unfair point on Carswell, who never stopped talking about such people, but it’s meant to show MPs’ general disinterest in forgotten voters who are the implicit heroes of this Channel 4 drama.
Cummings asks the couple if anyone else has knocked on their door to discuss the referendum. “I’m saying no one from a political party has knocked on that door since the ‘80s,” comes the reply. Elliott tells him Brexit might help jobs: that doesn’t wash. “Haven’t got a job. Never will again round here. Twenty four years and steel work has gone to shit. How are you going to fix that?” Elliott mentions “cheap foreign labour undercutting your wages,” which resonates. “Oh, yeah, I know. They work for nothing. People like me we get squeezed out,” he says. “It’s not like I’m against them” – a crucial point, the constituent is not portrayed as a xenophobe. But what he associates with mass immigration is, in general, a system that’s not moving to his advantage or that of his community, or family. His wife chips in: “But it has changed a lot around here, hasn’t it? All our neighbours moved away and new people come in. My kids have moved away now, too, because there’s nothing here. And I miss it. I miss having…Oh, you’re getting me all upset now.” She starts to cry. A theme of the film: that there was emotional power to the Leave campaign. And not to Remain.
- The Remain conference call
Craig Oliver is portrayed as the leader of the Remain campaign (he advised the makers of the film and emerges well). One scene shows a conference call with Cameron and Andrew ‘Calamity’ Cooper, the Remain pollster. We hear Cooper admitting that “on the question of the economy, jobs and safety, voter association seems to be moving steadily in the direction of Leave.” This astounds Cameron (“I thought we were hot on the economy and they were (on) immigration?”). Another Remain staffer says the economic claims (remember the £4,300 worse off nonsense?) are falling flat. “Our lines on jobs, the economy, they just don’t want to hear it. Warnings of an economic shock don’t work in areas that are already deprived.”
Cooper babbles on about his numbers and is told they are wrong. This part is an exaggeration: in real life, Calamity Cooper was so sure about his numbers that his polling firm, Populus, released a poll to the public – at noon on referendum day – saying Remain would win by ten points. His colleagues at Remain went bananas: why proclaim victory at noon? What could possibly be gained from this? Cooper’s hubris, a crucial part of the story, is not reflected in the film. But this allows a simpler narrative: that Leave’s argument’s resonated and Remain had no response.
- The focus group
A frustrated Craig Oliver is watching a focus group discussion from behind a one-way mirror, then bursts into the room and starts to make the Remain case himself. Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg – they’re going to be fine, he tells them. “This is just a game to them. A debating society. But, the risk to you and your children…” A woman, a swing voter in the group, hits back. “There’s no risk. Come to where I’m from. There’s nothing to lose.” Another focus group member accused her of being too old, another one of being “nervous about a person with a different colour skin and different accent.” This drives the swing voter mad. She then starts to break down: “You can sit there and say ‘I’ve had all my life’ coming from your big city. The past few years have been fucking awful! If you must know! And all I hear all the time is…SHUT UP! Don’t talk about it! Don’t mention it – ever. Well I’m sick of it! I’m sick of feeling like nothing, like I have nothing! Like I know nothing. Like I am nothing. I’m sick of it!”
The next scene shows all this sinking into Craig Oliver. “I hadn’t realised, and now it’s too late.”
…And for the Remainers
Perhaps because the film was quite balanced, a final anti-Brexit scene was inserted where Cummings is made to confess that the whole Brexit project has gone to hell. This is followed by spooky music and text saying that Britain is more divided than ever, and… well, Trump. (It isn’t really explained). It would have been funnier to say “Craig Oliver was then given a knighthood, with a CBE for Will Straw. None of their post-vote economic forecasts came to pass.” We also have a bizarre scene, that doesn’t fit into the rest of the play, where Arron Banks and Nigel Farage (portrayed as boorish, malign louts) meet murky businessmen with links to Trump. But they don’t do anything in the film, except look like imbeciles.
As with all first class political drama, different people will walk away seeing different things. But to me, it revealed how the Brexit referendum stumbled across and exposed massive discontent with the way the country was going.
As Cumberbatch/Cummings tells Oliver towards the end: “The train coming down the tracks isn’t the one that you expected. It’s not the one that’s advertised on the board. Well, tough. It isn’t even the one that I imagined. But I accept it. And you can’t stop it. And you’re right, there is a new politics in town: one that you cannot control.” Oliver replies: “Be careful what you wish for. You won’t be able to control it either.”
But you can’t control democracy: that’s rather the point of it. This Brexit film rather brilliantly shows how a lot of politicians found this out the hard way.