How the Leave campaign won the EU referendum

Remain believed that economic risk would deliver victory. But the Brexiters had a more potent weapon: immigration. 

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The evening began with Nigel Farage conceding defeat to the Remain campaign. It ended with him achieving the ambition that he had pursued for decades: a UK vote to leave the European Union.

It was the outcome that conventional wisdom bet against. And as so often in recent British political history, the conventional wisdom was wrong. A campaign that enjoyed the support of the Prime Minister, the Labour Party, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, the Treasury, the Bank of England, the CBI, the TUC and the US government was beaten. Never have so many established institutions been on the losing side.

The question that angst-ridden Remain supporters will repeatedly ask is “how did this happen?” Much of the blame will be laid at the door of Downing Street. It was David Cameron, in opposition to Labour, who announced that a referendum would be held. Under siege from his recalcitrant backbenchers and Ukip, he gambled - and he lost. The man who told his party in his first conference speech to “stop banging on about Europe” will now be remembered for little else.

It was Cameron’s EU renegotiation, like Harold Wilson’s in 1975, that was supposed to propel Remain to victory. But his failure to secure limits on the free movement of people, owing to the opposition of Germany and other member states, left him with little to show for his efforts. The potential for Leave to run an aggressive, immigration-centric campaign was born.

On the weekend that Cameron returned from Brussels, Boris Johnson, the country’s most popular politician, and Michael Gove, one of the Tories’ leading thinkers, backed Brexit. Their decision, along with that of nearly half of Conservative MPs (a higher number than Downing Street anticipated), immediately made the contest a competitive one.

From the outset, Remain sought a path to victory by emphasising the economic risks of Brexit. It drew inspiration from the success of the Scottish No campaign (“Project Fear”) in 2014 and the Conservatives in 2015. Almost every election and referendum in recent history had been won by the side most trusted to manage voters’ finances. But though polls gave Remain the economic advantage, the Brexiters had a more potent weapon: immigration. At the outset of the campaign, a Vote Leave strategist told me that his side would adopt a “full spectrum” approach. Theirs would be a liberal, cosmopolitan case for Brexit. But it proved to be one ever more focused on the political livewire of immigration.

For years, voters of all parties had grown ever more hostile to the free movement of people. Polls showed immigration rivalling or outstripping the economy as the public’s top concern. Cameron sought to appease voters by pledging to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands” a year - an ambition he repeatedly failed to meet. By the time of the referendum, the total stood at 333,000. Having encouraged aspirations he could not meet, Cameron was left with the worst of all worlds.

This failure leant weight to Vote Leave’s cry to “Take Back Control”. Remain never crafted a message to compete with this populist slogan. Its repeated and often technocratic warnings of economic chaos failed to move enough voters. George Osborne’s forecast that GDP would fall by the equivalent of £4,300 per household simply wasn’t believed. Nor were the legions of economists and academics, many of them charged with failing to anticipate the 2008 crash, regarded as credible. Remain’s repeated summoning of “experts” only advertised its distance from voters. To Cameron’s ever more doom-laden warnings (“a bomb under our economy”), there was an obvious rejoinder: why give voters the choice? His pre-referendum declaration that the UK could “survive” and “do okay” outside the EU was repeatedly invoked.  

Surveys showed that the messages the public most recalled were those of the Out side: the (false) claim that the UK contributed £350m a week to the EU and the no less misleading claim that Turkey was on the brink of joining the EU. By pledging to use the alleged savings from Brexit to fund higher NHS spending, the Leavers developed a potent offer to Labour voters. The repeated protestations by Remain against these falsehoods did little to dampen their effectiveness.

Leave’s decision to all but concede the economic argument and vow to leave the single market proved a strategic masterstroke. It enabled them to pledge to limit free movement and shifted the terms of debate in their favour. The market consensus that the UK would vote Remain meant that the financial turbulence that some regarded as necessary for an In victory was avoided in the final week.

Despite polls giving Leave commanding leads, Remain doubled-down on its signature theme. Proposals such as promising a referendum on Turkish EU membership were shunned. No new reform proposals emanated from Brussels or Downing Street.

Instead, “Project Fear” endured as George Osborne and Alistair Darling united to warn of an ultra-austere “Brexit Budget”. Remain believed that its warning of an “irreversible” choice would swing voters its way in the final week. It didn’t.  

Though Cameron will absorb much of the blame, a brutal inquest will now begin in Labour. Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong eurosceptic, who was agnostic about Brexit as recently as last summer, never disguised his lack of enthusiasm for the EU. Though this chimed with the public’s own reservations, his MPs blamed him for polls showing that half of Labour voters didn’t know where the party stood. Others cited the media’s fixation with “blue-on-blue” Tory warfare. With Labour absent, voters took the chance to register their opposition to Cameron and Osborne. It was only in the penultimate week, after a slide in Remain support, that Corbyn and Gordon Brown came to the fore. By this time, many in Labour believed it was already too late.

MPs were in no doubt about the supreme obstacle: immigration. Some refused to canvass local estates for fear of the abuse that they would attract. It was the revolt of Labour voters against free movement that enabled the stunning victories achieved by Leave in the party’s heartlands.

In the closing weeks of the campaign, figures including Tom Watson, Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls demanded restrictions on free movement. But Corbyn immediately rejected these calls and conceded the weekend before the vote that it was “impossible” to limit numbers.

A senior Labour MP told me: "The referendum simply shone a light on how utterly out of touch Corbyn and [John] McDonnell are with so many traditional Labour voters outside of London. Jeremy made the biggest issue of concern for traditional Labour voters thinking of voting Leave - the impact of freedom of movement - his main reason why Britain should remain. It was a sort of political suicide of genius proportions”. Corbyn may now finally face the leadership challenge that his opponents have threatened from the day he was elected.

Blame is also being pinned on the SNP, accused of having run a half-hearted campaign in the sneaking hope of Brexit. After Scotland voted Remain, the nationalists will now demand a second independence referendum. "Sturgeon had more to say about criticising the Remain camp than making the positive case for Europe and she was nowhere to be seen until the dying days of the campaign,” a Labour HQ source complained.

The Remain side draws consolation from the belief that was this may have been a vote it could never win. Its chances were never as strong as its frontrunner status implied. A strategist spoke of the malign effect of “25 years of right-wing propaganda, including from some on our side”. The UK had long been the EU’s most eurosceptic member and one ever more hostile to immigration. Remain could not hope to overturn these pro-Brexit currents in just four months.

To the warning that leaving would be an astonishing act of economic self-harm, the voters simply shrugged. They wanted to run the experiment for themselves.

George Eaton is deputy editor of the New Statesman.