Brow Beat

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in HBO’s Brexit

Did one man really swing the fate of the European Union? We fact-check the new movie.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings in HBO's Brexit movie, and the real Dominic Cummings.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by HBO and David Levenson/Getty Images.

Since the Brexit referendum in June 2016, which asked the British electorate whether they wanted to remain part of the European Union or leave it, the U.K. has been left with the same question that much of the U.S. has been left with since the 2016 election: What happened? Into this morass wades Brexit, an Adam McKay–esque fact-based drama that looks at the machinations of the campaign backrooms.

Writer James Graham, a theatrical wunderkind who made his reputation by creating compelling drama out of such unlikely subjects as parliamentary procedure, is less of a polemicist than McKay. Rather than argue one side or the other, he has focused on process, putting Dominic Cummings (Benedict Cumberbatch), the official Leave campaign’s maverick director, at the center of the story.

Dominic Cummings (Benedict Cumberbatch)

The depiction of Cummings as a rather Zuckerbergian figure impatient with lesser intellects (everyone) and an evangelist for big data and algorithms over messy human intuition is widely perceived as accurate. (A former Leave campaign volunteer described Cummings as “a man who liked to write 8,000-word blogs about how stupid everyone else is.”) The movie’s depiction of the effectiveness of Cummings’ ideas is similarly accurate: All of Vote Leave’s most persuasive (if sometimes misleading) messages, from the slogan “Take back control” to a campaign bus bearing an ad promising £350 million per week for the National Health Service once Britain is no longer contributing to the EU’s finances, are accurately presented as Cummings’ brainchildren.

Arron Banks (Lee Boardman) and Nigel Farage (Paul Ryan)

By contrast, Arron Banks, the co-founder of Leave.EU—the unofficial, more overtly populist Leave campaign group—and Nigel Farage, co-founder of the United Kingdom Independence Party and the loudest and longest-standing public voice for Leave, are portrayed largely as one-dimensional cartoons, buffoonish schemers who wouldn’t say no to another drink.

Paul Ryan as Nigel Farage, and the real Nigel Farage.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by HBO and Leon Neal/Getty Images.

While Farage certainly promotes this hail-fellow-well-met public persona, it disguises a shrewd, ambitious politician plugged into a powerful network that includes Donald Trump, Julian Assange (whom Farage visited in London’s Ecuadorian embassy), Steve Bannon (Breitbart’s former U.K. editor is Farage’s former chief of staff), and Roger Stone, connections which have led to Farage becoming a “person of interest” to the Mueller inquiry. It also glosses over Farage’s more unpleasant nationalist contributions to the referendum campaign, like a poster showing a long line of Syrian refugees with the message “Breaking point: The EU has failed us all.”

Lee Boardman as Arron Banks, and the real Arron Banks.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by HBO and Chris J. Ratcliffe/Getty Images.

As for Banks, who is portrayed as a less benevolent version of Rodney Dangerfield’s character in Caddyshack, the film does not address the charge that much of the cash he splashed may not have been his own. Britain’s electoral watchdog concluded there were “reasonable grounds to suspect that Mr. Banks was not the true source” of the millions he donated to Leave.EU, and the matter is currently being investigated by the National Crime Agency. He is reportedly another Mueller “person of interest.”

Matthew Elliott (John Heffernan)

John Heffernan as Matthew Elliott.
HBO

Matthew Elliott, Vote Leave’s chief executive, is shown as the yin to Cummings’ yang, emollient instead of prickly, happy to work in a conventional political context rather than seeking to disrupt it. While this depiction is not incorrect, it is far from complete. The real Elliott is much more of an ideologue than the amiable professional political consultant shown in the film. In 2004 he founded the Taxpayers’ Alliance, an organization that promotes libertarian principles like low taxes and low regulation, and in 2010 he invited Tea Party–affiliated groups to London for a conference on advancing these goals through creating grassroots activist wings.

In fact, Elliott met his future wife, Sarah Smith, when they were both working with Americans for Tax Reform, an advocacy group set up by Grover Norquist, one of America’s leading advocates for limited government and even more limited taxes. Smith later spent three years working for Americans for Prosperity, a libertarian lobbying group founded by David Koch. She is currently chair of Republicans Overseas UK, which represents expat Republican voters.

AggregateIQ involvement

Vote Leave’s fortunes change when Cummings meets with the mysterious Zack Massingham (Kyle Soller) at the le Carré–ish setting of a park bench, where Massingham reveals his company, AggregateIQ (a Canadian firm associated with Cambridge Analytica and its parent company SCL), has a new method for finding uncommitted swing voters, voters “the other side doesn’t even know exist,” through tools such as Facebook quizzes. Cummings immediately grasps the potential of this hidden voter pool and of targeting them via social media as opposed to conventional ads.

It’s not known whether the initial meeting took place in a park, but Massingham is a real person. In journalist Tim Shipman’s book All Out War, which served as one of the main sources for the script, he noted that Cummings hired AIQ as digital media experts but in addition employed “experts in disciplines like astrophysics, who were confident with statistics and sophisticated computer modelling.”

Whoever set up Vote Leave’s data harvesting operation, the suggestion that it played a crucial role in the campaign’s success is accurate. “Data flowed in on the ground and was then analysed by the data science team and integrated with all the other data streaming in. … This was the point of our £50 million prize for [a Facebook contest] predicting the results of the European football championships, which gathered data from people who usually ignore politics,” Cummings wrote on his blog after the referendum was over. Participants never knew the information they provided was used for political purposes.

Robert Mercer

The film depicts Arron Banks meeting with shadowy tech billionaire Robert Mercer at Breitbart’s London HQ. According to investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr, this in-person meeting never happened. However, Andy Wigmore, the communications director of Leave.EU, told the Observer that the libertarian Mercer did introduce his old friend Farage to Cambridge Analytica—in which he owned a major stake—and offered their services to the Leave.EU campaign for free, an in-kind donation that was never reported to the Electoral Commission (Cambridge Analytica and SCL dispute this). Wigmore also said that Cambridge Analytica used data scraped from more than a million social media profiles to microtarget individuals with tailored advertisements, many seemingly unrelated to politics, like a petition against the inhumane transport of lambs to Europe.

The Cummings-Oliver beer summit

Rory Kinnear as Craig Oliver, and the real Craig Oliver.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by HBO and Oli Scarff/Getty Images.

The Brexit dispute is not a clear-cut partisan dispute like, for example, the U.S. government shutdown. Instead, there are Leave and Remain factions within both the Conservatives and the opposition Labour party, and in fact ex–Prime Minister David Cameron’s main motivation for calling the referendum was to finally see off his party’s euroskeptics and settle this long-running intraparty skirmish for good. So the official opposition to Vote Leave was not the Labour party but the government’s own official Remain campaign, headed up by Cameron himself, whose former director of communications, Craig Oliver, became Cummings’ opposite number.

The film suggests that Oliver (played by Rory Kinnear) ran a (Bill) Clinton-inspired campaign relying on focus groups, traditional advertising, and—so old-fashioned—facts, while Cummings realized that his voters would be swayed by emotionally manipulative messaging, not rational argument, and that such messages need not be factually correct.

However, after a europhile member of Parliament, Jo Cox, is assassinated by a Brexit extremist (this actually happened), Cummings wonders if he hasn’t unleashed political forces the Tories won’t be able to control, a rare moment of self-doubt. Still in this frame of mind, he sees Oliver waiting for a train across the Underground platform, and the two go to the pub and compare notes.

Except, according to Oliver, this pub rapprochement never happened, and they’ve never had a face-to-face meeting, though one can understand why Graham, as a dramatist, wanted to bring his two main characters together for at least one shared scene.

Oliver also disputes that the Vote Leave campaign’s innovative use of data and microtargeting left him struggling to keep up, suggesting instead that the film underplays “the cynical calculation of Cummings and his team, who were too willing to ride in the slipstream of Nigel Farage as he threw out raw, red meat to his supporters with exaggerated and irresponsible claims.” In other words, the willingness to let populist lies go uncorrected won the day.

Cummings’ contrition

The film is bookended with Cummings appearing before a parliamentary committee looking into Vote Leave’s practices. He is defiant at the start, then more reflective and even a bit regretful at the end. This, however, is pure invention.

In June 2018, Cummings was ordered to appear before a committee of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport looking into the use of disinformation in the referendum campaigns after months of refusing polite requests to “clarify allegations raised with this Committee about the unlawful coordination of EU referendum campaigns, campaign spending, and misuse of people’s personal data.” To date he has ignored the order, and the committee has no legal recourse to force him to appear.