Vote Leave chair Gisela Stuart reviews Brexit: The Uncivil War

Posted On: 
10th January 2019

The facts may be questionable, but Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Cummings was brilliant: Gisela Stuart finds James Graham’s TV drama evocative but lacking in complexity 

Gisela Stuart campaigning with Boris Johnson during the EU referendum
Credit: 
PA Images

I admit I had mixed feelings. The early trailers looked compelling but then it was a Brexit film commissioned by Channel 4. When you have been part of the events which are being dramatized it’s easy to quibble over details. It is even harder when things are still unfolding and continue to be subject to controversy. The script coming from James Graham – and Benedict Cumberbatch taking on the role of Dominic Cummings – gave me reason to hope it would be worth watching. And it was a good watch, with some reservations.

This wasn’t about the 2016 Referendum as such. If it had been, it would have had to be at least a three-part series. There was no room for narratives to evolve. Big chunks, like the television debates and the carefully choreographed interventions from outside organisations – culminating in President Obama telling us we would be at the “back of the queue” – were missing. Anyone looking for a documentary will find Patrick Forbes’ Brexit: a Very British Coup the best TV account so far. But if you wanted to understand the difference between the strategies pursued by the Leave and the Remain campaign – then this play is a decent start.

Dominic Cummings doesn’t seek the limelight, but he isn’t a shrinking violet. He gave a real-life master class on psycho terror in his appearance in front of the Treasury Select Committee during the referendum. His explanation of our claim that “we send £350 mil a week to the EU” in response to Andrew Tyrie’s questioning should form part of anyone’s preparation for a difficult select committee hearing.

For Graham, Dom Cummings is Sherlock and Matthew Elliot is his Dr Watson. The relationship was more complex as was the interplay between Johnson, Gove and other politicians. But the play wasn’t about the rest of us. We didn’t need to be portrayed by actors who looked or behaved like us. It was about Dom. And Cumberbatch was brilliant. Watching him deliver the victory speech in the Vote Leave office, punching a hole in the ceiling, was so realistic I had to remind myself this was Cumberbatch, not Cummings.

Vote Leave’s offices were in Westminster Tower and by one of these strange twists of life, the very office once occupied by The House magazine team. Not much had changed, Josef was still the concierge and when the IT systems kept crashing, and someone suggested we should blame the guys across the river (i.e. M15), I could assure them that they had always been rubbish in that building. One of the small offices in the far corner was affectionately referred to as “Dom’s brain”. That’s where he’d disappear, scribble words and charts on the wall, and emerge with strategic ideas. Some worked, others didn’t, but he knew that reaching people was no longer about pushing leaflets through a letterbox. Emotional human responses had to be combined with hard data. Inserting the word “back” into the slogan was as important as his analysis on turnout and reaching those who normally don’t vote.

I regret the rolling text at the end of the programme. It portrayed as facts things which are still being appealed in the courts. It spoilt the balance unnecessarily. The Leave campaign was not a men only show. Remain didn’t just lose because there wasn’t enough time to counter the drip-drip tabloid poison of decades, as Craig Oliver claimed.

If you watch nothing else, watch the focus groups – and in particular one woman’s outburst of how no one even bothered to listen to people like her. Brexit was about sovereignty and regaining a voice. 

Gisela Stuart was Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, a former editor of The House magazine and was Chair of Vote Leave