Tories at War, review: a jarringly jaunty documentary about our democratic crisis

Michael Hogan
Kenneth Clarke in Tories at War - (Channel 4 images must not be altered or manipulated in any way) This picture may be used solely for

Alan Duncan obligingly summed up the story of Tories at War (Channel 4). “The sadness of this documentary is that you’re mapping the day-to-day slow death of the most successful political party in democratic history,” sighed the former foreign minister. “And it’s entirely self-inflicted.” Or as Remainer rebel Anna Soubry more succinctly put it: “It’s a s---storm.”

This fly-on-the-Westminster-wall film from Bafta-winning director Patrick Forbes, shot over the past nine months and impressively up to date, went behind the scenes of the bitter struggle to extract ourselves from the EU. With its fast-cut news footage and chronological timeline, it also provided a handy revision guide to the political year so far. 

Without access to key protagonists Theresa May or Boris Johnson – let alone David Cameron, despite the former PM currently doing the rounds like a washed-up crooner with a new CD to flog – it was left to Duncan and Soubry on one side, and Brexiteer backbencher Andrew “Spud-U-Hate” Bridgen on the other, to provide candid running commentary on the unfolding shambles. 

Cabinet minister Nicky Morgan dithered in the middle, while Jacob Rees-Mogg adjusted his specs with a wolfish grin. Asked for a forecast, Rees-Mogg deadpanned: “Rain at times.” 

Avuncular grandees Kenneth Clarke and Nicholas Soames resembled Falstaff and Aguecheek as they harrumphed and head-shook in the background. When the duo emerged from another late-night Commons session to see Forbes’s camera crew, they groaned wearily and muttered expletives about “bad pennies” before plastering on smiles and exclaiming: “Hello, Patrick!” Ever the pros. 

At times the enjoyably robust language recalled The Thick of It. Duncan turned out to be a gifted mimic of his party colleagues – perhaps a career as a Radio 4 impressionist awaits. There was even a cameo for this newspaper’s own Christopher “Chopper” Hope, chatting to Nigel Farage as he mugged for the crowd.

This was the Brexit saga painted as a social comedy of errors. The jaunty soundtrack and wry tone reminded me of John Morton’s workplace satires Twenty Twelve and W1A. All terribly jolly until you remembered with a queasy jolt that this is no laughing matter. It’s the biggest democratic crisis in decades, with potentially calamitous consequences. The stakes are somewhat higher than wondering whether Hugh Bonneville will be able to fold up his Brompton bike.