Trying to write the first draft of history on the EU referendum and the leader-ship mess that followed had both its dramatic and its comic elements. My phone never stopped ringing with Eurosceptics keen to tell me why their contribution to a meeting that had previously escaped my notice was the decisive factor in securing victory. But when a vote is so close — 52 per cent to 48 per cent — then it would not have taken much to push the result the other way.
Donald Trump’s victory adds some credence to the idea that Brexit was pre–ordained, part of a wave of history. But the campaign turned on several events that were the result of accident, farce or both. If a relatively small number of those who backed Brexit had voted the other way, Remain would have triumphed. Here are a few of the things that might have swung it for Remain.
1. A proper ‘deal’ with Brussels. After promising ‘fundamental reform’, Cameron’s deal came down to an arrangement on cutting migrant benefits — not even he boasted about his deal. His final negotiations unfolded like an episode of The Thick of It. He planned, in secret, to demand a cap — or an ‘emergency brake’ — on migrant numbers. Once it leaked and Angela Merkel said she would not support the plan, it was dropped. Cameron then stole an idea from the thinktank Open Europe to limit migrant benefits instead. Theresa May and Philip Hammond said he should not defy the Germans, and would lose if he tried. Cameron called them ‘lily-livered’ but too readily accepted the advice of civil servants like Sir Ivan Rogers and Tom Scholar that he could not defy EU law. In the end, it was Cameron who was lily-livered. The ‘deal’ reflected that. Rogers and Scholar are now advising Theresa May to rein in her demands.
2. A Yes/No referendum, not a Leave/Remain. The original referendum Bill proposed a Yes/No question. Conservative MPs, led by Steve Baker, complained to the Electoral Commission that this was loaded, as a ‘yes’ campaign inherently looks more positive. They won their argument, and the vote was changed to Leave/Remain. Polls showed that might have been worth four percentage points to the Leave campaign — the final margin of victory. Cameron also rejected an attempt by the Lib Dems and Labour to let 16- and 17-year-olds vote; he feared it would hurt the Tories in future general elections. Remainers later calculated that the decision cost them 650,000 votes.
3. Losing Dominic Cummings as head of Vote Leave. In the final week of January, the board of Vote Leave — egged on by Bernard Jenkin — sought to sideline the campaign director Dominic Cummings, who had been rude to MPs and was refusing to merge operations with Nigel Farage and Arron Banks’s rival campaign Leave EU. Cummings got wind of the plot and, in what was Vote Leave’s Spartacus moment, other senior staff said they would walk out as well if he was ousted. Vote Leave went on to deploy Boris Johnson and Michael Gove effectively and Cummings stuck resolutely to simple messages like ‘Vote leave, take control’ which delivered victory. As Steve Baker observed: ‘Dominic Cummings is like political special forces. If you don’t care about what collateral damage you sustain, he’s the weapon of choice. But he will not let himself be held to account by anybody. And that is basically what that attempt to sack him was about.’ Had the coup succeeded, the result might well have been different.
4. Michael Gove backing Cameron — and Remain. Cameron always assumed that Gove would support him. Sarah Vine, aka Mrs Gove, saw the Camerons at New Year and assured them that his personal loyalty would overcome his principles. Friends say Gove felt Cameron’s loyalty to him had been undermined when he fired him as education secretary, making it easier for him to have the courage of his convictions. Without Gove, Boris Johnson might not have felt compelled to have backed Leave. And without both of them, the Brexit campaign would have been easy to dismiss as a collection of extremists and oddballs. Cameron would have got the referendum campaign that he was after: one where his principal opponent was Nigel Farage.
5. Vote Leave not being recognised as the official Out campaign. Richard Howell, known as Ricardo to his colleagues, was helping to draw up Vote Leave’s application to be the official Out campaign when he noticed a problem. At 10.30 p.m. on the day before the deadline Howell read the criteria the Electoral Commission would use to decide the designation. He told colleagues: ‘We haven’t answered any of them, and all our material in this section’s irrelevant, and it’s worth 12 out of 50 points.’ Howell and Victoria Woodcock stayed up until 3.30 a.m. rewriting. They got the final document in at 11.40 p.m. the following night, 20 minutes before the deadline. But for that, Arron Banks would have been running the Leave campaign and Nigel Farage would have been the central figure in the televised debates. Even Farage admits: ‘Quite what we would have done if we had got it I’m not really sure!’ Vote Leave went on to successfully woo Tory voters while Farage, freed from the responsibility of running the official campaign, was able to push immigration hard and win over working-class Labour voters. Without both Out campaigns, Remain might have won.
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6. Accurate opinion polls. Throughout the campaign, Stronger In’s pollster Andrew Cooper told Cameron and Osborne that they would win the referendum and that economic risk would trump immigration with the key swing voters. Cooper’s surveys — indeed, those of most pollsters — dramatically underestimated the number of traditional non–voters who would turn out for Leave (nearly three million of them). Cooper’s polls convinced Tory high command that they should stick to the gameplan which won them the Scottish referendum and the general election — of using warnings about economic risk. Had they known they were behind throughout the campaign, Cameron’s team would have felt compelled to change tack. As one campaign aide put it: ‘Frankly, we’d have been better off having no polling at all, or going out into the street and randomly stopping every fourth person and asking them what they thought.’
7. Cameron making a pre-referendum ‘vow’ on immigration. Non-Tories in the Remain campaign, including Will Straw and Peter Mandelson, repeatedly demanded that Cameron make a Scotland-style ‘vow’ telling the public he had listened to their concerns on immigration. Cameron’s aides wanted him to say he would veto Turkish entry into the EU. Cameron felt any public comment on migrants helped Leave.
In a meeting 11 days before the referendum, Cameron ruled out making a speech or a vow. The following day his communications chief Sir Craig Oliver emailed Cameron to say he should do something. Cameron went into work the next morning resolved to act, but was again talked out of it. In a call with Merkel, he made no requests. ‘If you ran the perfect campaign on immigration you still wouldn’t have made the fence on the issue. But you would have been competing,’ a Remain campaign staffer said. ‘And we just didn’t compete.’
If any, let alone all, had happened, the course of British history might have been very different.
Tim Shipman is political editor of the Sunday Times and the author of All Out War: How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class.