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How People’s Vote destroyed itself

The campaign for a second referendum, led by the PR guru Roland Rudd and former Labour and Lib Dem spin doctors, was the great hope for Remainers – until it collapsed in a chaos of clashing egos, smears and boardroom coups.

When the history of the 2019 general election is written, of how Boris Johnson managed to win a mandate for a catastrophic hard Brexit, a whole chapter should be reserved for the shameful story of the People’s Vote campaign. It will record how the country’s leading pro-European force collapsed on the eve of that momentous vote, betraying the millions of ordinary citizens who had supported, financed and placed great hope in it over the past three years.

It will tell a tawdry tale of political shenanigans and clashing egos; of leaks, smears, charges and countercharges; of startlingly vicious infighting that spiralled so hopelessly out of control that 40 energetic, experienced and deeply committed young campaign staffers found themselves sitting in a Thames-side pub in Pimlico as the general election gathered pace, trading legal threats with the multi-millionaire head of one of Britain’s top public relations companies, instead of battling for the nation’s votes.

There is plenty of blame to go round, but much of the opprobrium should be directed at Roland Rudd, the smooth, self-styled chair of the campaign who triggered its meltdown by firing its two senior executives, James McGrory and Tom Baldwin, just two days before parliament approved the election. For a supposed PR guru, it was a presentational, as well political, disaster. Liam Fox, the Tory Brexiteer, subsequently bumped into Baldwin in that Pimlico pub, the Grosvenor, where in happier times the campaign staff would repair from their Millbank offices on Friday evenings to relax. “Can you pass on my personal thanks to Roland Rudd for destroying the People’s Vote campaign at this very opportune time for Brexit?” Fox quipped.

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Rudd, 58, was educated at Millfield and Oxford, where he was president of the Oxford Union. Thereafter he worked for David Owen and the Social Democratic Party, became a Financial Times journalist, then founded Finsbury, a City PR company he sold to WPP in 2001 (in a deal that netted him £40m) but still chairs.

His success funds a handsome house in Holland Park, a Georgian mansion in Somerset, and lavish parties for the great and good. He also happens to be the brother of Amber Rudd, the former Conservative minister who resigned from Boris Johnson’s cabinet over his hard-line Brexit strategy, and was a leading member of Britain Stronger in Europe (BSIE), the official Remain organisation in the 2016 EU referendum.

Following its referendum defeat BSIE morphed into an organisation called Open Britain, and Rudd became its chair. Initially it championed a soft Brexit, but adopted the idea of giving the people a final say as the government’s negotiations with Brussels foundered and it became clear that the Brexiteers could not keep their referendum promises. In time Open Britain became the leading member of the People’s Vote campaign – a coalition of nine pro-European groups that it effectively controlled by dint of its superior size and database.

McGrory, spokesman for Nick Clegg during the 2010-15 coalition government and subsequently for BSIE, was installed as campaign director, and Baldwin, Ed Miliband’s combative former spokesman, as communications director. The campaign had an awkward and unwieldy structure, but against all odds it prospered.

Rudd gave some invaluable early support, but of late it has been entirely self-funding, routinely raising around £80,000 a week. It has built up a list of more than 500,000 supporter email addresses, plus 600,000 Facebook and 150,000 Twitter followers. It has mobilised an army of grass-roots activists across the country, and organised three huge marches through central London, two of them attracting around a million participants each. Despite Britain’s rabidly Europhobic press it has helped transform the idea of giving the people the final say on any Brexit deal from a hare-brained dream into a very real possibility that won the support of 280 MPs in a series of indicative votes last April – more than any other option.

In short, it has created the biggest pro-European movement in the continent just as Britain is seeking to leave the EU. “It’s an incredibly powerful tool that we’ve built,” said Baldwin. “It was never intended to be a political party, but it has much more reach and capacity to mobilise than most of them.”

Behind the scenes, however, the campaign has been riven by an increasingly bitter enmity between Rudd and his allies on one side and, on the other, the likes of Baldwin, McGrory, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, the former New Labour cabinet minister who until recently sat on Open Britain’s board.

The root cause of that enmity is hard to determine, especially as each side boasts some of Britain’s leading exponents of spin, but there was certainly a difference of opinion over strategy. Rudd’s camp wanted the campaign to become much more overtly pro-Remain, but his opponents said that would drive away the Labour and moderate Tory MPs required to build a parliamentary majority for a people’s vote.

During last May’s European Parliament elections the two sides clashed over whether the campaign should endorse Labour despite the party leadership’s refusal unequivocally to oppose Brexit and support a second vote. They clashed again after the campaign decided not to back an explicitly anti-Brexit, anti-Johnson “March for Change” in London last July.

“Roland’s view was always that we should just say we’re campaigning for Remain because the idea that in a second referendum we should campaign for Brexit is absurd,” said a source close to Rudd (Rudd declined to talk to the New Statesman). Rudd’s opponents argued that the only way to win over wavering MPs was to present a people’s vote as a democratic way to resolve the Brexit impasse, not a Remainer ruse to overturn the 2016 referendum.

“Labour MPs wouldn’t be able to do anything from one of our platforms if the People’s Vote campaign said ‘Don’t vote Labour’. It just kills us in parliament and we don’t get a people’s vote unless we get a majority in parliament,” Baldwin said of the Euro-elections dispute. “Gathering the most Remainy people in Britain under an explicitly Remainy banner at a time when we were trying to show Conservative MPs and reluctant Labour MPs that a people’s vote was a solution wherever you come from seemed to me strategic nonsense,” he said of the March for Change.

The divide over strategy grew ever more personal and poisonous, even though Mandelson was once a close friend of Rudd’s and is godfather to one of his children. The source near to Rudd described his opponents as a bunch of Blairites “wrestling publicly with their own souls”. He told me the campaign was a “complete and utter shambles” and “a jolly for a load of former New Labour people”, who were alienating Liberal Democrats. It lacked substance and “had no chance of winning the official designation of the Remain campaign” if there was a second referendum, and Baldwin and McGrory had presided over a “toxic” culture where it was “OK to slag off Roland in the office”.

Rudd’s opponents accuse him of mounting a hostile takeover of a very successful political campaign, and suggested he was more interested in using its database to create a new pro-European, Lib Dem-centred political force after Brexit – a sort of mirror image of the Brexit Party capable of realigning British politics – than he was in securing a second vote and preventing Brexit.

They told me he had latterly contributed nothing to the campaign. They said he rarely appeared in the Millbank offices, barely knew the staff, and had such a political tin ear that he once gave an interview to Radio 4’s Today programme “live from Davos” – thereby cementing the image of Remainers as the “metropolitan elite”. They suggested he was motivated by a desire for status, for titles, for a knighthood or peerage even, and mocked him for unilaterally declaring himself chair of the People’s Vote campaign. That was like Idi Amin pinning a Victoria Cross on his own chest, they said.

As time passed Rudd steadily consolidated his control over the board of Open Britain, and thus over the People’s Vote campaign, its database and finances. In the summer of 2017 he appointed a Finsbury employee, Daniel Gieve, and a client, the businessman Mike Rake, to Open Britain’s ten-strong board without any consultation. In December last year, again without consultation, he appointed three more board members who owed their position to him.

In August Rudd’s opponents proposed a new governing structure for the People’s Vote campaign with an independent “governance committee” chaired by Michael Heseltine and a campaign board co-chaired by the MPs Dominic Grieve and Margaret Beckett. On 19 August, scarcely an hour before an Open Britain board meeting that was supposed to consider the plan, Rudd produced a counterproposal to set up a new company, Baybridge 2019, which would effectively supersede Open Britain’s board as the campaign’s decision-making body.

He used his majority to ram his plan through despite fierce opposition from Mandelson, McGrory and three other members of the Open Britain board, and appointed three loyalists to the Baybridge board. “Roland is the chairman, and despite the fact McGrory and Baldwin pretend he isn’t… he has the numbers and authority to make decisions as he sees fit,” the Rudd ally said.

A more neutral source described the atmosphere on the board at that time as “completely horrendous”.


Remain of the day: the Britain Stronger in Europe launch, October 2015, with Roland Rudd centre

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The power struggle erupted publicly the day after a million people joined a People’s Vote march through London on 19 October. E-mails erroneously forwarded to Rudd were leaked to the Mail on Sunday. In one, Campbell advocated a “fast and brutal” battle against Rudd. In another Mandelson spoke of the need to “pin down Roland’s slipperiness”.

The following Sunday, 27 October, Rudd struck back. At 7.42pm he emailed Open Britain’s board to say he was sacking Baldwin and McGrory to “bring clarity to the campaign” and “avoid any further pointless rows”, and appointing Patrick Heneghan, the campaign’s head of field operations, acting chief executive. Mandelson replied: “You have gone off your trolley, Roland, if you think this is a good moment to fire people without reason or due process.” Another board member, Will Straw, the former executive director of BSIE and son of the former Labour foreign secretary Jack Straw, warned Rudd he would demoralise and destabilise the campaign at a crucial moment.

Rudd went ahead anyway. Within another hour he had fired Baldwin and McGrory by email, demanding that “you do not come back into Millbank or communicate with any staff without our prior approval”. At 9.33pm he emailed the campaign’s 60-odd staff with the news. He acknowledged the campaign had made “huge strides”, but added: “You will all understand the ongoing internal issues in the campaign have been allowed to carry on for too long. We now need a much clearer structure as we move forward.”

The staff did not understand. Most were furious. Rudd failed to meet them, as promised, at 9am the next morning, but gave TV interviews instead. The next day he summoned them to a conference room that was guarded by three bouncers in a nearby Hilton hotel. “The atmosphere was the most hostile I have ever been part of,” said one participant. The staff backed a no-confidence vote in Rudd and Heneghan by 40 to three, Heneghan being one of the three. Worse, three young women claimed that Heneghan, 48, had improperly invited them back to his flat to snort cocaine after evenings in the pub. Heneghan denied the charge and friends suggested he was the victim of a classic “New Labour smear campaign”.

Thereafter, most of the campaign’s employees downed tools, despite Heneghan’s demand that they return to the office at 10am the following day. Some received letters from Rudd’s lawyers, threatening criminal proceedings if they sought to access the campaign’s database or social media accounts. Lawyers employed by the staff responded by threatening class action suits against Rudd. The staff also wrote to the board of WPP, Finsbury’s parent company, and to Finsbury’s clients, complaining about his behaviour. Sixteen women complained to Open Britain’s board that “none of us feel safe returning to work whilst [Heneghan] is in a position of power and authority”, but 11 days passed before he stepped down, pending an investigation.

Undaunted, Rudd fired Mandelson, Straw and a third opponent, Joe Carberry, BSIE’s former research director, from Open Britain’s board on 12 November. “Frankly, they are no longer welcome in the campaign,” the Rudd source said.

The trio responded with a blistering statement accusing Rudd of sacking McGrory and Baldwin for no good reason, appointing Heneghan without any consultation, systematically neutering the Open Britain board, convening board meetings only to push through changes increasing his control, and giving Baybridge – a private company – control of millions of people’s personal data. “Your actions… have done Boris Johnson’s work for him. He could not have hoped for a more compliant advocate on the Remain side and owes you a debt of gratitude,” they concluded. “Whereas the People’s Vote campaign has been a movement of millions, for you it has simply been a vehicle for your ego.”

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Most recently, three days of talks to end the deadlock and get the People’s Vote staff back to work ended with yet more bitter recriminations. Rudd resigned as chair of both Baybridge and the Open Britain board, but his opponents dismissed the move as “PR guff” because he now controls both (with Baybridge renamed PV Campaign) through his supporters. The People’s Vote campaign began to disintegrate on 15 November as one of its two vibrant youth organisations, For Our Future’s Sake (FFS), and several staff of the other, Our Future Our Choice, left to run independent operations. “Boardroom plots by rich men like Roland Rudd cannot be allowed to jeopardise the future of this country,” said Amanda Chetwynd-Cowieson, co-founder of FFS.

Baldwin and McGrory have offered to sever all links with the campaign provided its staff could return to work without reporting directly to the Open Britain board. It was still conceivable the damage could be limited to three wasted weeks. But, as the NS went to press, nobody was hopeful of a breakthrough that would enable the staffers to do what they should be doing less than a month before the election: leading a tactical voting drive, mobilising hundreds of thousands of grass-roots activists, and giving voice to the millions who fear Brexit will be a catastrophe for Britain.

Instead they were sitting in the Grosvenor pub, angry and distraught, locked out of the Millbank office while a skeleton team operate what remains of the campaign. “It’s all driven by one man’s obsession with his own sense of importance,” one told me. “Roland Rudd has done fuck-all to achieve a people’s vote. In fact I can think of no one else in the country who’s done more to damage it.”

Baldwin told me: “It all comes back to one thing, which is whether a businessman who doesn’t really get politics and has been seen in the building perhaps four times can seize control of a political campaign, of its ideas and of the assets built up by millions of people across the country like it’s a corporate takeover. He didn’t run it. He didn’t own it. He didn’t pay for it. It’s a boardroom coup. The most shocking thing about this scandal is that the aggressive tactics he deploys for Finsbury in mergers and acquisitions could be used against a great popular movement.”

The source close to Rudd said he believed the tycoon regretted the timing of Baldwin’s and McGrory’s sackings, but not the sackings themselves. “A lot of what the Baldwin camp seem to be complaining about is that frankly they were outmanoeuvred by Roland. He did manage to take control of the organisation and was therefore able to change things in the way he saw fit. If Tom Baldwin had been as good at strategising perhaps things would have been better for him, but I’m afraid he’s not.”

He added: “I understand why Baldwin and Mandelson smear Roland and say he’s got political ambitions. He doesn’t. He just wants to see Britain remain in the EU. Everything he’s done, whether you like it or not, in his mind has been to further that, and the people who don’t like it have come out on the losing side. That’s politics.”

Martin Fletcher is a New Statesman contributing writer and a former foreign editor of the Times

This article appears in the 20 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, They think it’s all over