Portrait of four Brexiteers (sitting looking worried)

BY Iain Martin | iainmartin1   /  11 September 2018

There was for a while a fashion on social media for users tweeting a picture and saying that one image or another resembled in its perfection the work of an “old master,” a work of art by one of the greats. Look at the composition, the lighting and the dramatic punch. It has got the lot. Rembrandt might have done that.

The contemporary image in question might be a footballer caught making a filthy tackle, with the opposition fans on their feet, in the background, faces all contorted with rage. Or an under-fire celebrity emerging from a New York restaurant at night, with the photographers’ flashes going off and the faces of the tall bodyguards lit from below brightly, suddenly, starkly. The drama, the darkness and the light. Caravaggio used that technique, a lot.

There are not – truth be told – many such perfect images that emerge from the Palace of Westminster. Downing Street works as a backdrop for the best snappers capturing a PM on the way out. But the Commons and the Lords is mainly stuffy committee rooms and photographers have little to play with when they get in.

Today, though, Dan Kitwood of Getty Images produced perhaps the political picture of our times, a study in late-period Brexiteering capturing the sense of ennui and excessive confidence turning to concern among the purest of the Brexiteers. It is a beautiful photograph, and deservedly it went viral, or as much as these things ever do in politics.

The setting? Assorted senior Brexiteers gathered to listen to a presentation by Economists for Free Trade. I won’t detain you with the terrible details; they are described elsewhere. As the meeting progressed, Kitwood spotted an opportunity and snapped a defining image.

Someone in a suit and tie is speaking but we don’t see his face. Boris is the focal point, sitting forward, looking dishevelled and perhaps even embarrassed. Peter Bone MP, a hardline Tory MP, has his head in his hand. Are they looking at some implausible numbers on a piece of paper on the desk? A coffee cup from Pret sits there between them, its steam gone, its caffeine-driven delights exhausted. Iain Duncan Smith is almost out of shot, but you see just enough of him to get the impression that here is someone long enough in the tooth to suspect this meeting is in media and presentational terms a complete car crash.

Out of focus is Jacob Rees-Mogg. Always charming, pushing back his glasses, looking down.

Look. It doesn’t matter whether you are for Brexit or against it. I am very much for it, and prepared to accept some compromises to get out. But look at the composition of that photograph. I almost said painting. It is the essence of the Tory war on Brexit captured on canvas, or on a screen anyway. The purest Brexiteers have had years to produce a detailed, proper plan for leaving the EU, and it has come to this.