In 2016, could the result of the Brexit referendum have gone the other way? One person who thinks it could have is David Lidington, the former Conservative cabinet minister, who I recently interviewed for the New Statesman. In the interview, Lidington set out three different counterfactuals that might have led to a different result of the 2016 Brexit referendum.
[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]
The first was what the result would have been had the referendum taken place at a later date, when the migrant crisis was not at its peak, and with it, a rise in the salience of immigration:
“What happened in 2015 was that [Nigel] Farage’s tactic of linking immigration, which voters did care about, to Europe, which they didn’t, paid off. You had the Calais camps and those stories about economic migrants clinging onto car boots. Then in the autumn, Calais died down and you had the refugee crisis in the Aegean, which carried on for a few months. That linkage that Farage and others wanted to see was made real by events that happened at that time. It’s one of the counterfactuals: had that referendum happened a year later…”
Lidington’s second counterfactual focused on David Cameron, the prime minister at the time. Lidington reflects on what the effect would have been if Cameron had began making the case for the UK to remain a member of the EU earlier, rather than holding out the possibility he might back a Leave vote throughout his process of “renegotiating” the UK’s membership of the EU:
“I think one of the problems was not to start putting the case earlier on. He [David Cameron] hedged. Now, we should have said: [the EU] is not perfect, we have to make compromises, sometimes those are uncomfortable, but for these reasons, it’s still in our national interest….The trouble is that these positions were only really voiced in the final two months. Cameron, right up until to the final deal, was holding out the prospect he might walk away. I think he was hamstrung by the negotiations.”
Lidington’s third factor that might have prompted a different outcome to the 2016 referendum regarded the Labour Party and its former leader, Jeremy Corbyn:
“[Another counterfactual is] had the Labour party got its act together and Corbyn made an argument for the EU. I was stood down one day because Corbyn was going to make a major speech – it never happened.”
I think, given that the margin was so close, it’s probably true to say that had Cameron started to campaign for Remain earlier, or had the referendum happened at a time when the discussion around immigration was less prominent, or had the Labour Party been more full-throated and consistent in making the argument for Remain, the outcome would have gone the other way. They are all plausible counterfactuals.
“Plausible”, however, isn’t quite the same thing as “possible”: it’s plausible that there is, somewhere in the multiverse, a world where I took up lifting weights in lockdown and now have an astonishing physique. I could certainly have afforded to buy some weights, and I certainly had sufficient time on my hands in the first lockdown. But the reality is that given everything we know about me, we can safely say there is a zero probability of that ever happening. “Swole Stephen Bush” is a plausible counterfactual, but not, actually, a possible one.
Of these three hypotheticals, only one of them is plausible and possible: there probably is a UK somewhere in the multiverse that is still a member of the EU as a result. I think the other two, however, are plausible but not possible.
To take the plausible and possible one: that the contest might have gone differently had the referendum been held after, rather than during, the refugee crisis.
The two biggest electoral problems facing the UK’s membership of the EU were the free movement of people and the more nebulous issue of “control”, which the Leave campaign dramatised well with the various claims about Turkey’s imminent membership of the EU (which were true, in the same sense that saying that the UK’s scientific research programme means that we are “on course” to put a man on the Moon), and that an extra £350m a week could be spent on the NHS.
Although the referendum result was, in part, a result of the success of the Leave campaign driving up the salience of immigration, the refugee crisis did mean that the “resting level” of concern about immigration was higher than it otherwise would have been. I don’t think it’s implausible that, had the referendum happened at a later point, then immigration might have been a little less salient.
Immigration would always have been a major issue in the referendum. However, because the result was relatively close, if would not have taken many people to go into the polling station on 23 June 2016 thinking about the economy, rather than about immigration, to change the result. Any serious analysis of British politics from the referendum of 1975, to the referendum of 2016, would conclude that the Leave campaign would have started the campaign best-placed to win. The refugee crisis fading into the background, however, might have been enough for the Remain campaign to eke out a narrow victory.
Lidington’s notion that if Cameron had started making the case for membership earlier then the result might have been different is plausible. Again, given the closeness of the result, you don’t need to switch all that many votes from one pile to the other to change the outcome. Hypothetical scenarios such as if Cameron had begun the Remain campaign earlier, or if George Osborne, the former chancellor, hadn’t delivered such an austere budget after the 2015 election and instead treated the pre-referendum fiscal events the same way he did the pre-election budget, are both situations that might have shifted enough votes.
However, there is a big problem with both these hypotheticals, which is that had Cameron or Osborne attempted to do either of them, the parliamentary Conservative party would have, to use a highly technical term, gone completely bananas. Cameron and Osborne had to use considerable reserves of persuasion and political capital to secure the public support of Conservative MPs whose hearts were with Leave but who had a personal allegiance to the Cameroon project. It would have been harder still to get sufficient buy-in to putting the whole government on a pre-election footing for the referendum ahead of the contest.
What about Labour? Nobody who knows Corbyn well would seriously dispute that, as one of his close allies put it to me repeatedly during the Brexit process, “in his heart” he was always a Brexiteer. And I’m not convinced it really mattered at all either way.
I think it’s fair to say that Corbyn’s efforts in the referendum campaign were largely based around doing just enough to retain the party leadership. Essentially, the Corbyn leadership’s position on Brexit was about as enthusiastic about a Remain vote as any Labour leader would have been, albeit for different reasons.
In Corbyn’s case, the limiting factor on his own efforts was his lacklustre commitment to the pro-European cause, while the motivating force behind his interventions in the campaign were the demands of party management. Had Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall been Labour leader, the limiting factor in their efforts would have been their anxieties about retaining pro-Brexit votes and seats in Labour-held constituencies, particularly in what Westminster now calls the “Red Wall”. Indeed, we can see this, in part, by looking at the interventions those politicians did make in the referendum, which were as preoccupied with reassuring their own voters on immigration as they were in winning over voters to Remain.
Taken together, all three hypotheticals point to the biggest reason why Brexit happened: many people in the UK wanted to leave the EU, long before being asked in the summer of 2016.