'I'm Not There to Please Anybody' – We Spoke to Laura Kuenssberg About Covering Brexit
Ahead of tonight's VICE Studios film for BBC Two, 'The Brexit Storm: Laura Kuenssberg's Inside Story', we spoke to the BBC's political editor about Brexiteers, the "culture war" and impartiality.
Laura Kuenssberg outside 10 Downing Street, 2017. Photo: Mark Kerrison / Alamy Stock Photo
Throughout the ongoing Brexit epoch, the BBC's political editor Laura Kuenssberg has been an ever-present on our screens.
On BBC Two at 9PM tonight, an hour-long film produced by VICE Studios, The Brexit Storm: Laura Kuenssberg's Inside Story, shows her at work over the past nine months, illustrating what's been going on behind the often-closed doors of the Brexit process. This morning, for example, you might have seen a bunch of news outlets leading with a revelation from the film – one of those behind the scenes moments, Tory chief whip Julian Smith admitting to Laura: "This is, I think, the worst example of ill-discipline in cabinet in British political history."
I spoke to Laura about Brexiteers, Theresa May, impartiality in journalism and how we got to where we are.
VICE: Some of the most interesting moments in this film are when the fourth wall is broken, or the veil is peeled back and we see how things work behind the scenes. Is that something you wish the public saw more of?
Laura Kuenssberg: I think it's one of the interesting things we've been able to do by doing the film this way, by following some of the key people over a long period of time. I think politics often seems remote, and anything we can do to show more of the workings – how you make the sausage – is useful. Politicians often get a hard time – quite understandably so – but I think one of the things the film does is reveal how much this has meant to them. People who feel strongly about it have had agonies over trying to make the right decisions, even if the decisions are controversial. We try to show them in a more 360-degree way.
There’s a moment when Steve Baker, the Tory Brexiteer, almost starts crying – and we're talking about a person who is a villain to a lot of people. These beliefs are very strongly held, aren't they?
Oh completely. And that's one of the things the film shows that you can't quite get across in the limits of a three-and-a-half minute news report. It explains part of why politicians have been acting the way they have. The problem is that getting this whole thing done was always going to have to be a compromise, and what we've seen is that compromise has almost become more impossible because people are so reluctant to budge. Politicians have not been digging in for a laugh – most of them, anyway!
There is a moment when we're shown Jacob Rees-Mogg in front of the cameras, and the feeling is very much: this is a man who enjoys it.
I think politicians have mixed motives. Human beings rarely do things for a binary reason. So, is it the case that Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson are interested in their own political futures? Absolutely. Has that been part of what has driven them in the last year? Absolutely. Is it the only reason? No, absolutely not.
There's a running thread between you and Boris Johnson, which is you essentially trying to get him to admit his ambition and him trying to avoid that. It's a kind of performance, or dance.
Yeah, a kind of a dance. It's one of the frustrations that a lot of politicians have, too – particularly the next generation – they get frustrated by what they see as a game. Someone like Boris Johnson is reluctant to answer questions about ambition because then the story becomes all about his ambition. Sure, he's got ambition – that's no secret at all. But also, he's very strongly motivated to try to get the kind of Brexit he believes in. There's always that tension between policy and personality in politics, and as voters we have that too: we all vote on issues, but we also vote on whether we like the people who are put forward.
We're also at a moment where there are far clearer differences between the parties than there were ten years ago.
For sure, that's absolutely the case.
Did you think last summer that we would we be here, more or less in the same place, almost a year on?
At the beginning of the film, I ask Steve Baker if it's worth getting to complete chaos to get what he wants, and he says yes. That was months ago. On the other side, people pushing for another referendum also admit that. They didn't want chaos, but you had to show that the process failed before you look for another solution. I always thought we'd have to go through some kind of massive crunch to get out the other side, because if you look at the ingredients you've got massive historic differences in the Labour party, a prime minister with no majority – and you see all along how calling an election and losing her majority, that has been such a strong factor in all of this.
How much has May's own personality and approach to politics been a factor? Her intractableness... she's not a smooth operator.
No. No, she's not.
How much of it, then, is down to her?
I think a lot. You can't have a parallel universe where you see how this would turn out under a different prime minister, but it's clearly the case that her character traits have had an impact, not just in terms of really finding it difficult to woo her colleagues, it's also made a difference with the EU leaders. That kind of one-to-one personal relationship with leaders is really important. It's hard to imagine that if David Cameron and Enda Kenny – the former Irish leader – had been doing this that the backstop issue would have become so bitter.
But Theresa May and Leo Varadkar have had a very, very difficult and fraught relationship, and part of that is that if you bond with someone, you have some sort of feeling for them, and lots of European leaders and diplomats have said to me: 'We can't believe she doesn't want to do any of that.' She wants to stick to the talking points, be very business-like and very formal. A bit of charm and empathy is hugely important, and her interactions with European leaders have not gone well. Her personality has been a big part of it.
There’s obviously – for you, as a BBC journalist – questions around impartiality. The way I think about it personally is that it may not be possible to be impartial, but it is possible to be fair.
I don't agree with that at all. Being impartial and being fair – it's a posh word for the same thing.
What I mean is, journalists are still human beings with our own politics, and that may be hidden, but we still have to think about how that does or does not play out. So that’s why I would use "fair" rather than "impartial".
It's a posh word for the same thing. It's also not like that when you work for the Beeb. I’ve worked for the Beeb on and off for nearly 20 years, and you leave it outside the door. You leave it at the door. Of course you have to think about it, and I have a permanent dialogue with lots and lots of colleagues about what we're doing, and, "Is that right, have we got the balance right here?" There are lots and lots of different kinds of journalism, and we do something that's a bit different – and that's our reason for being, and I think maybe if you’ve not worked at the Beeb it might be a bit hard to understand.
I have worked at the BBC, and I'm asking this in a sympathetic way because I think it's a difficult thing to do: you're in a prominent position and you've been attacked from both sides – perhaps people are more familiar with criticisms from the Labour side – and I was wondering if you felt that those criticisms were fair?
It's inevitable – particularly at a time like this – that someone in my job is going to get heat from all sides. But I am absolutely not there to try to please anybody that works in politics. I don’t agree that it's very difficult and that it's completely impossible. I just don’t agree with that – it’s part of what we do and we take it very seriously. It's not about what I think – it's about what I can find out and how I can explain it.
Do you feel as though the referendum has turned Brexit into a culture war?
No, and I think using terms like "culture war" – it's too far to slap that term on. It's a huge issue, but it's wrong to say that everyone in the country is up in arms about it, and to think that would be like when Westminster thinks it is the whole world, or when social media thinks that's everyone's real world. Is there a kind of war on Twitter about Brexit? Sure. But is that the real world? No. It’s part of our online world, which is like the real world on acid.
What do you hope people take away from this film?
I hope it explains a bit more to people about what's being done in their name, and what we've tried to do is show this thread from the original compromises and the sort of political impossibilities of getting those done. And it's the story of the downfall of a prime minister. The slow, gradual, grinding downfall of a prime minister who tried to do what she thought was the right thing, but all the miscalculations along the way that made that impossible and ended up with her saying she's going to leave.
Watch 'The Brexit Storm: Laura Kuenssberg's Inside Story' at 9PM tonight on BBC Two.