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28 September 2016updated 07 Sep 2021 12:27pm

The winners and losers of the EU referendum campaign

By New Statesman

Winner: Matthew Elliott and his merry men

Yes, they lost. But Matthew Elliot and his band of hand-picked men at the top of Vote Leave gave the Remain campaign a fright and forced what Westminster believed to be a foregone conclusion to a nailbiting conclusion. Expect the names of Elliott, Dominic Cummings and their press chief Rob Oxley to go to the top of most right-wing recruiters’ lists – and the “post-truth” style of campaigning, which was closer at times to science fiction than political campaigning, to be the right’s default tactic from now on. 

Winner: Jeremy Corbyn

It’s true that the Labour leader didn’t exactly light up the contest and his interventions made few headlines, and not always helpful ones as far as the Remain campaign was concerned. But he did a sterling job of making enough noise to keep pro-European Labour members on side without saying anything that embarrassed him, went against his long record of scepticism towards the European project or alienated his pro-Brexit allies.

Even better, the brief entries of his defeated rivals for the leadership into the race – Yvette Cooper’s bizarre promise to renegotiate the founding treaties of the European Union, Andy Burnham’s months of silence followed by an unhelpful attack on the Remain campaign – reminded Corbyn’s critics of their biggest problem: they don’t have a compelling alternative to the man they want to replace. 

Winner: J K Rowling

The Harry Potter author really cut her teeth during the 2014 independence referendum in Scotland, when she was one of the loudest pro-Union voices in the cultural sphere. This time round, she’s deployed the devastating one-two punch of searing opeds on her personal blog, which are then written up by media outlets around the world – “I’m not an expert on much, but I do know how to create a monster,” she says – and publicly smacking down lies from Leave campaingers on Twitter:

Oh, and she also helpfully confirmed what we all thought: Vernon Dursley would totally vote Leave.

Winner: Michael Gove

He may be loathed by the electorate, but the Justice Secretary can never be classed as a loser. Journalists love him too much. He is generally chummy and courteous towards them, and used to be one himself, so he can do no wrong. When he wrote a mediocre piece about why we should leave the EU, it was widely praised as a powerful essay. And when he compared economists warning against Brexit to Nazis, he got away with it – albeit with a mild-mannered apology. That’s our Govey!

Winner: June Sarpong

Sure, none of the Young People she was supposed to appeal to had heard of her, but that doesn’t stop the former T4 presenter being a winner. What she lacked in bolstering the pro-EU campaign she more than made up for in nostalgia for Sunday morning sofa days, soothing our alcopop-headaches between Popworld and the Hollyoaks omnibus.

Winner: Gordon Brown

The former Labour PM pulled off an intervention akin to his eve-of-poll one in the Scottish referendum (remember “the silent majority will be silent no more” speech?). Walking around the bombed ruin of Coventry cathedral in the setting sun, Gordon reminded us all what is at stake in this referendum. It was a timely, moving addition to the debate, and as it was shared over two million times on Facebook, it seems to have hit the mark for a lot of people.

Winner: Sarah Wollaston

The Tory MP and former GP struck a blow for principled Conservatives everywhere when she switched her support from Leave to Remain, citing the former’s misleading claims as just too much. “They have knowingly placed a financial lie at the heart of their campaign,” she wrote in The Times. “Even emblazoning it on their battle bus, alongside the NHS branding, to imply a financial bonanza.” Wollaston provided a rare moment of honesty and reflection in a campaign otherwise awash with unsubstantiated deceptions – something that has only enhanced her reputation for independent thinking and smart scrutiny as the chair of the health select committee.

Winner: Cats

#CatsAgainstBrexit triumphed by a whisker in the inevitable battle of the cat memes during the referendum campaign. Remain supporter Lillian Edwards appears to have been the first to popularise the hashtag, while Kate Bevan’s cat “Daphne” outperformed her #CatsForBrexit opponent on the BBC’s Daily Politics – when the latter retreated under a chair. Both sides however provided welcome light relief during a drawn-out campaign:

Winner: Nicholas Soames

Churchill’s grandson really got in among the internet action during the EU referendum campaign. As well as being a vociferous campaigner for Remain, Soames used his Twitter account to send linguistically inventive reproofs to those on the Leave side he felt weren’t up to scratch. In particular, he really schooled Boris Johnson, biographer of Churchill, on exactly what Sir Winston would have thought of Obama’s intervention for Remain:

Soames’ use of hashtags in particular was a joy:

But best of all was his ongoing piss-take of the right-wing press obsession with so-called “elites”:

Loser: Boris Johnson

At the start of 2016 BoJo was still a popular London mayor who was widely tipped to be the next PM. When he first announced he was backing the Leave campaign, it seemed to swing the odds in favour of a Brexit. The pound crashed. Johnson grandly claimed he and his fellow Leavers had inherited a “liberal cosmopolitan European enlightenment” . But then he appeared to insult the President of the United States, when he dismissed Barack Obama’s warning on trade deals as a bitterness that came with his Kenyan ancestry. Next he managed to anger victims of World War Two by comparing  the EU to Hitler. Now the straw-haired big mouth is battling accusations that he’s Britain’s Donald Trump. 

Loser: David Gauke

George Osborne has a tendency to vanish in times of trouble, sending out his Treasury juniors to face the cameras instead. It’s a task that some have proved incapable of shouldering – just ask Chloe Smith – but not David Gauke, the financial secretary to the Treasury, wheeled out every time the Chancellor U-turns or gets into hot water.

During the referendum campaign Gauke has again sailed into battle for his boss, this time on the side of Remain.

Gauke is in many ways the highest-profile casualty of David Cameron’s aversion to reshuffles – if he reshuffled at the rate that Tony Blair or even Gordon Brown now, Gauke would probably have been rewarded with a bigger job by now. (Equally, given the rate of Blair’s reshuffles, there’s a decentish chance he’d have been sacked for no good reason, too.)

He’s the exemplar of a wave of pro-European, talented Cameron loyalists who may well be stuffed in the Year AC (After Cameron) as they haven’t been promoted fast enough to futureproof their careers, especially if, in the interests of Tory peace-keeping, ministerial space needs to be made for token Brexiteers. (Other names who you could bracket in with Gauke in this sense include Sam Gyimah, Therese Coffey and Gavin Barwell.) 

Loser: Eddie Izzard

Hurrah, they must have thought in the Remain camp when Eddie Izzard offered to take the campaign to young people.  He’s so funny, and so European – maybe he’ll do that one about “la plume de ma tante”. Unfortunately, smiles have been in short supply, as at some point Izzard clearly decided that politics is srs bsns, and is no joking matter. Various grim-faced Marr programme and Question Time appearances followed, and the main response to seeing him on telly these days is not: oh great, funny Eddie! But instead: not that bloody pink beret again. No one can doubt Izzard’s ambition – he wants to be on Labour’s NEC – or his determination, which has driven him to run endless marathons for charity. It’s just that the reason he’s popular is because of comedy. Throughout the referendum campaign, he didn’t tickle our collective funnybone once. 

Loser: Nigel Farage

The EU referendum was Nigel Farage’s chance of a lifetime. Shoved aside by the establishment Leave campaigners, he came back fighting. His rose-tinted visions of Brexit Britain combined with hardline threats on immigration seemed to go down like a much-needed pint of bitter with the voters. As late as 15 June he seemed to be in the ascendance, as he led flotilla of fishermen up the Thames. But a day is a long enough time in politics. The next morning, he unveiled a controversial anti-refugee poster warning Britain was at “breaking point”. Hours later, the much-loved MP and campaigner for Syrian refugees Jo Cox was gunned down in the street, and suddenly Farage’s brand of politics lost its sheen. 


The Prime Minister who took Britain out of the European Union by accident, by holding a referendum to stop Douglas Carswell defecting to Ukip (he defected anyway).

Victory…but at what cost? Cameron is living on borrowed time, his preferred successor, George Osborne, is dead in the water, and the favourite to replace him is Boris Johnson. Ooh-er.

Paul Dacre

This campaign was the Daily Mail editor’s moment. Aggressively eurosceptic, and at the helm of the populist paper since 1992, this was to be the triumphant culmination of endless front pages warning of the horror of migrants and foolishness of Brussels bureaucrats. But it didn’t quite work out that way. Dacre’s influence was somewhat called into question by his paper’s stablemate, the Mail on Sunday, declaring for Remain. Is he losing in the rivalry. Could it be that he hasn’t quite managed to quash the independence of the MoS editor, Geordie Greig?

Public discourse

75 million Turks are coming to steal your house, your job and your womenfolk – but don’t worry, a vote to Leave will unlock £350m of free money that we can spend on the NHS, a new army to fight off the Turks, high speed rail, research funding, and a rainbow bridge to Fairyland. And don’t think we’ve seen the last of fact-free campaigning in the UK.

Loser: Norway

There has not been a lot that Remain and Leave campaigners have been able to agree on, but this much is clear – no-one wants to be Norway. Vote Leave ruled out staying in the single market so they could focus on immigration. Stronger In warned that a Norway-style deal would mean Britain would “pay but have no say”. Even Norway’s own politicians weighed in on how awful their country’s relationship with the EU is. 

Loser: Expertise

Took a real knocking throughout the campaign. But don’t take our word for it. We’re only experts.

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