On Friday 10 June, five men charged with keeping Britain in the European Union gathered in a tiny, windowless office and stared into the abyss.
Just moments before, they had received an email from Andrew Cooper, a former Downing Street strategist and pollster for the official remain campaign, containing the daily “tracker” – the barometer of support among target segments of the electorate. It had dropped into the defeat zone. The cause was not mysterious. “Immigration was snuffing out our opportunity to talk about the economy,” Will Straw, the executive director of Britain Stronger In Europe, recalled.
Earlier that week, the top Tories fronting the leave campaign – Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – had dominated the news with promises to control the nation’s borders. The remain side’s message, that Brexit entailed deadly economic risk, was being drowned out, particularly in areas that traditionally supported Labour. Polls showed that many voters were unaware that a remain vote was the party’s official position, a confusion exacerbated by Jeremy Corbyn’s manifest ambivalence about the entire European project.
The vote was less than two weeks away, and the team of former political enemies needed to jump-start the stalled campaign machine. Straw was a former Labour parliamentary candidate. Stronger In’s head of strategy, Ryan Coetzee, had run the Liberal Democrat 2015 election campaign. They were joined by three Conservatives: Ameet Gill, director of strategy at No 10 Downing Street, Stephen Gilbert, a former deputy chairman of the Conservative party, and Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s communications chief.
The immediate priority was to cut through the media’s obsessive focus on internal Conservative squabbles – “endless blue-on-blue” as Straw put it – which was turning supporters of other parties off the referendum and threatening to suppress the remain vote. The team discussed the possibility of launching a whole new campaign. It would be called “Progressives for In”, complete with its own branding and battle bus – a way to jolt the media into reporting the views of Lib Dems, Greens, and Scottish Nationalists, as well as Labour figures. But the logistics were too difficult. Instead a plan was hatched to tone down Tory voices and amplify the opposition. Staff from Stronger In branded it a “Labour fightback”.
Straw mobilised his Labour contacts. The campaign had scheduled a speech by David Cameron in Leicester for the following Monday – and now it made a last-minute switch. Gordon Brown, who had long wanted to be more involved in the campaign, stepped in to replace the man who had, six years earlier, succeeded him as prime minister. Ed Miliband, the man Cameron had beaten in the general election of 2015, helped to persuade Corbyn to lend his voice to a trade union event already planned for the following week.
Stronger In’s head of press, James McGrory, a Liberal Democrat, briefed journalists that Labour was riding to the rescue. With non-partisan zeal that impressed their colleagues, the Tories on the team agreed to a script aimed at core Labour voters, which included the threat that Brexit would “turn industrial heartlands into wastelands” and “finish the job that Thatcher started”.
Old party rivalries were largely banished from the campaign “war room” at Stronger In’s Cannon Street headquarters. Researchers and press officers who had been savaging each other’s work for years now collaborated amicably. Residual tensions stayed below the surface. Former Labour staffers, moderate refugees fleeing the hard-left takeover under Corbyn, sometimes bristled at what they saw as unmerited swagger in the step of the Downing Street contingent, who expected to easily replicate their victory in the previous May’s general election. “They arrived like an occupying force,” recalls one former Labour staffer. “They came in with a sense of, ‘Step aside and we’ll tell you how it’s done.’”
But over the course of the campaign, the most senior remainers found collegiate sympathy in a shared world view. As one put it: “We were the pluralist, liberal, centrist force in British politics.” Pro-Europeanism became a proxy for the fusion of economic and social liberalism that had been a dominant philosophy of the political mainstream for a generation, although its proponents were scattered across partisan boundaries. These centrists were the ruling class of an unrecognised state – call it Remainia – whose people were divided between the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems; like a tribe whose homeland has been partitioned by some insouciant Victorian cartographer.
In the days when the politics of the fringe did not threaten their intellectual security, adherents of New Labour, the Lib Dems and “Cameroon” Conservatives had never seen themselves as a fellowship of moderation. Before Corbynite radicalism seized the left and Ukip’s vinegary nationalism suffused the right, debate was conducted in shades of difference within a broad consensus. But as the referendum approached, Stronger In became the informal party of defensive liberalism – the unpopulists – although that had never been the intention.
Cameron gambled everything on the European referendum because he thought the centre was secure. He and George Osborne believed, as one of their cabinet allies told me: “It will be about jobs and the economy and it won’t even be close.”
Cameron and Osborne had reason to be confident. They had defied pundits and opinion polls to win a narrow Tory majority in May. But victory meant Cameron now had to fulfil his manifesto commitment to an EU referendum, following a renegotiation of membership terms. Promises minted as virtual currency for buying loyalty from rebellious Tory MPs now had to be converted into real policy.
Cameron’s inner circle was driven by two instincts. First, its members wanted to get the pesky referendum out of the way in order to crack on with a legacy-building second term of domestic reform. Delay would increase the risk of a mid-term anti-government backlash. No 10 was also advised, through diplomatic channels, that the French and German governments would be less and less receptive to British renegotiation demands as their own general elections, which are due to be held in 2017, drew closer. “When we came back in May 2015, there was a sense that we had to get on with it,” one Downing Street strategist recalled. “The furthest you could look safely ahead was 2016.”
Second, they were convinced that the referendum campaign could be won with tactics learned from Cameron’s ruthless Australian strategist Lynton Crosby in the 2015 election. The No 10 team had imbibed from Crosby a belief in the virtues of a relentless, narrow focus on economic security and the risks of gambling on the unknown. Ed Miliband’s hopes of becoming prime minister had been shredded by that approach.
But Cameron was committed to a public position of agnosticism until the renegotiation was complete. He claimed that he would only support membership of the European Union if he could wring the right concessions from other continental leaders. This posture of neutrality was thought necessary to keep a Europhobic Tory insurrection at bay and to avoid compromising Britain’s negotiating position in Brussels. Cameron’s view, expressed to friends in the summer of 2015, was: “I cannot create the impression that we will say ‘Yes’ under any circumstances.”
Meanwhile, the leave side was gearing up for a campaign. Some kind of defence had to be organised, but Downing Street could not be seen to be involved. Shortly after Cameron’s “Bloomberg speech” in 2013, when he committed to a plebiscite, an organisation named British Influence was launched to start making the case to remain in the EU. Intended as a cross-party initiative, it was funded by David Sainsbury, a businessman, philanthropist and Labour peer, and fronted, to begin with, by Peter Mandelson, the Lib Dem Danny Alexander and Tory grandee Ken Clarke.
Over the next two years, a successor organisation, Britain Stronger in Europe, began to take shape. Sainsbury was still closely involved. Political leadership came from a triumvirate of Mandelson, Alexander and Damian Green, one of a few ardently pro-European Tory MPs.
By July 2015, Andrew Cooper, the Conservative peer and chair of the opinion polling company Populus, had been recruited to research public sentiment, with a view to developing a strategy. Cooper had advised Cameron in the coalition period and had been instrumental in Better Together, the cross-party umbrella organisation that had opposed Scottish independence. Although that campaign had succeeded, its unwieldy federal model of multi-party cooperation was judged dysfunctional. (“Everyone involved in Better Together seemed to be suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress,” notes one senior member of the team.) The lesson was that a pro-EU campaign needed a centralised, non-partisan command.
The Stronger In founders hired Straw as director and, at Nick Clegg’s recommendation, Coetzee was taken on as strategist. The Stronger In branding was then developed with Greg Nugent, a marketing executive who had worked for London’s 2012 Olympic agency, and Lucy Thomas, a pro-European business advocate who became Straw’s deputy. Mandelson, Alexander and Green mined their contacts to recruit a board with no single party allegiance, which would include representatives from the business and voluntary sectors.
They knew they needed a chairman from the liberal right of the political spectrum. After some disagreement over candidates, they settled on the stolid former Marks & Spencer executive Stuart Rose. The chairman was only meant to hold the ring until Cameron could emerge as the remain camp’s main message carrier, and Rose was unwilling at first to take such a role. A phone call from Osborne finally persuaded him with barely a week to go before the official Stronger In launch. (Some clumsy media appearances later vindicated Rose’s initial reluctance, and he quickly stepped back from public advocacy. “Rose was like a world-class rugby player who was handed cricket pads and expected to bat,” said one senior source campaign source.)
Officially, Cameron and Osborne were not yet involved. Downing Street had been watching the emergence of Stronger In warily. Osborne worried about Straw’s inexperience and Labour pedigree, although he joked that he was not about to complain if Mandelson could recreate and put at his disposal the formidable machine that had carried Tony Blair to three consecutive election victories.
Cameron worried that the whole Stronger In approach reeked of a metropolitan europhilia that would not chime with the public mood. He believed that the country was Eurosceptic by nature and could only be cajoled to vote remain by a campaign that showed deference to this anti-EU feeling.
Andrew Cooper’s research appeared to support that view. Using a model similar to the one that had been applied in Scotland, the pollsters analysed and segmented the public along a spectrum of receptiveness to pro-Europe messages. On one side were the “ardent internationalists”, “comfortable Europhiles” and “engaged metropolitans”, while “strong sceptics” and “EU hostiles” occupied the other pole. In between were the “disengaged middle” and “heart v head” groups. These were people who would never love the EU, but could be persuaded to stick with it for safety’s sake. Coetzee then developed the strategic concepts and message scripts, which were tested, refined and retested in focus groups throughout the campaign.
By September 2015, Coetzee had written the “war book” containing the campaign’s core message: “The choice in this referendum is economic security and global influence as part of the EU, or a leap in the dark. A vote to stay is a vote for certainty.” Brexit meant: “Jobs aren’t safe, prices will rise, mortgages will be at risk, and funding for your local school or hospital will fall. It is a risk not worth taking.”
Around the time of the Stronger In launch on 12 October, Cooper brokered a meeting in Mandelson’s Marylebone offices between the Stronger In team and emissaries from Downing Street – Craig Oliver and Stephen Gilbert. Cameron’s people were kicking the tyres to check that this unproven vehicle would give safe carriage to the fortunes of their government. Gilbert was warm, and Oliver more aloof. But their reports back to Downing Street were broadly positive.
A final Conservative worry was that the process of “docking” Downing Street’s operation with Stronger In would require sharing confidential Tory campaign methods with rival parties. Osborne wanted to use the services of Jim Messina, the former White House deputy chief of staff under Obama and specialist in state-of-the-art digital techniques for targeting individual voters. Messina had worked with the Tories in May but the chancellor was reluctant to see his powerful methods deployed outside the Conservative family.
Osborne visited Mandelson at home one late-autumn Sunday in 2015 and agreed that Stronger In would be Downing Street’s campaign, with Messina involved. But the relationship had to stay discreet for the time being. After all, Conservative headquarters was supposed to be neutral. So Gilbert would step aside from his job as deputy party chairman and join Populus as a consultant. By Christmas 2015, Cameron had a trusted ally with a seat at Stronger In headquarters. Everything was on course to secure the result he wanted yet dared not advocate in public.
One month later, Downing Street first realised that winning the referendum was going to be harder than anticipated. On 2 February, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, released a letter containing a provisional response to Cameron’s renegotiation proposals. Final terms were to be settled at a European summit meeting two weeks later.
The No 10 communications team thought that Tusk’s letter would be an opportunity for expectation management – “rolling the pitch” – and they planned their big effort to sell the final deal at the end of February. But the Eurosceptic press and Conservative backbenchers did not wait. “Who do EU think you are kidding, Mr Cameron?” asked the Sun on its front page, with the prime minister and his allies mocked up as a hapless Dad’s Army platoon. In parliament, the Tory MP Steve Baker described Europe minister David Liddington’s defence of the draft deal as “polishing a poo”.
This was the first time Cameron experienced what it would feel like to fight a campaign with most of Fleet Street lined up on the opposing side – to receive the kind of ferocious treatment usually reserved for Labour leaders. He had intended to emerge triumphant with a deal on 20 February, and then to pivot into a pro-remain stance. Tusk’s premature briefing ruined that plan. “The renegotiation blew up on the launchpad,” said one Conservative who followed its progress from mission control. “We should have killed that letter by hook or by crook.”
Compounding the shock, on 19 February, Michael Gove, an old friend of the prime minister and Osborne, declared for Brexit. Boris Johnson followed suit three days later. Cameron was stunned by both moves, but the former London mayor’s recruitment by the leave side was more obviously dangerous. He was well liked by many undecided voters. In one focus group, chosen from the “disengaged middle” segment in Croydon, clips were shown of different politicians delivering their messages. Cameron was seen as evasive and tetchy. When the Johnson clip ended, one woman sighed: “Oh, I could have listened to that for ages.”
Johnson’s well-known ambition to become prime minister also guaranteed that political journalists, addicted to Westminster gossip, would crowd the news with items about the Tory leadership instead of arguments about the merits of EU membership. The leave side exploited this dynamic, making provocative statements about the prime minister and the chancellor, trashing their economic record, for example, goading them into retaliation in the knowledge that stories damaging to Cameron – and, by extension, to the remain cause – would fill the headlines. The personality contest between Tory big beasts also obscured what Downing Street felt was the culmination of a long-nurtured plan by backbenchers to destroy Cameron. “[The media] were obsessed with blue-on-blue and they weren’t even getting that right,” said one No 10 strategist. “It wasn’t really Dave v Boris. It was a well organised rightwing coup.”
One remedial course of action was to bring the media operations of Stronger In and No 10 closer together. At the end of February, Craig Oliver was given a more formal role, combining his Downing Street communications directorship with an equivalent title at Stronger In. He would then spend more time in Cannon Street, coordinating the remain media strategy.
But the blue-on-blue issue was not exclusively a problem of external media management. Throughout March, Cameron and Osborne were torn between campaigning for remain and fear of provoking an irreparable split in the Tory party. They envisaged a “reconciliation reshuffle” to be held after their inevitable victory, which would bring prominent pro-leave Conservatives back into the fold. It was a peculiar feeling, too, for many of the Conservative junior staffers, scattered across the remain and leave camps, to find themselves in battle with people who had been their comrades in arms during the general election. Even as the schism widened, Tory advisers on both sides maintained an old WhatsApp group, making bets over the referendum outcome that would become increasingly extravagant on boozy Friday evenings. (They settled in the end on a plan for the losers to buy dinner.)
Cameron was reluctant to sanction aggressive attacks on Gove and Johnson. A poster featuring the latter as a captive pet in Nigel Farage’s pocket was shared with the media and then retracted at the last minute. Attack lines targeting public perceptions that “Boris” was unreliable and motivated by ambition more than principle were drafted inside No 10, tested in focus groups and then shelved. It was Stephen Gilbert, the former Tory deputy chairman, who impressed upon his colleagues that squeamishness over Tory unity was blunting the campaign, that they were “in a prize fight” and they needed a knockout; that there wasn’t going to be any reconciliation if they lost. “There was a sense that we were bringing knives to a gun battle,” said one Downing Street source.
In the early stages of the campaign, potential weaknesses in the operation were masked by the remain side’s ability to deploy the sheer force of the Whitehall machine. A series of interventions in the weeks after the renegotiation stumble gave every impression that leave were outgunned. On 6 April, a pro-EU information booklet was dispatched to every home. On 18 April, the Treasury published a report warning that Brexit would leave every UK household £4,300 worse off. The report also trashed the practical alternatives to EU membership – an intervention that was meant to flatten the leave side’s economic arguments, as one source involved in the drafting put it, “like a nuclear bomb”. On 21 April, Barack Obama administered a statesmanlike spanking to the leave campaign, which had claimed that transatlantic privileges would easily survive Brexit. Britain would be “at the back of the queue” said the US president.
Polls at this stage still mostly showed remain ahead, by varying margins, but the big interventions had not shifted the dial quite as much as had been hoped. Focus groups reflected simmering resentment of foreign interference in the case of Obama and ingrained unwillingness to believe any statistical argument presented by the government. “Things weren’t landing properly,” said one senior campaign figure. “Even Obama didn’t land properly.”
Still, a Westminster consensus formed around the idea that the leave side had been routed on the economy. It had been pressed to define its model for post-EU trade partnership. Was Britain to be more like Norway, Switzerland, Canada, Albania? Leave had no answer. “It was whack-a-mole,” one Downing Street strategist told me. “They cleared the pitch.” On Friday 27 May, the official period of campaign “purdah” kicked in – the civil service, which was now bound to neutrality, could no longer be used by the remain camp. That weekend, someone in the remain campaign texted me: “We’ve got them where we want them on the economy. Now we have to press the advantage.”
The advantage went the other way. The following week, Johnson and Gove launched a set of policies, including an “Australian-style” points-based immigration system, in a bid to project the impression of a Brexit-ready government-in-waiting. The leave campaign had never looked more like a coup.
“We did not expect leading members of a Conservative government to turn up offering themselves as an alternative government,” a Downing Street aide said. The remain side struggled to regain the media initiative. It was frustrated by journalists who seemed to believe that the economic issue at the very core of their campaign had already been settled and was no longer worthy of discussion. The pro-Brexit newspapers eagerly exploited that mood. “Papers normally do so much of the work in a campaign, ripping policies apart,” noted a No 10 source. “There was nothing new about the [idea of introducing an] Australian-based points system, but the papers just gave it a free pass.”
More infuriating still was the amount of air time given to claims from the leave campaign that were either grotesque distortions or flagrant lies – the fiction that EU membership cost £350m per week; the pretence that Turkey was close to EU membership and the denial that the UK had a veto on that point. On the morning of 7 June, Oliver and Coetzee agreed that it was time to stamp some prime ministerial authority back on to the debate. “We had a whole range of things on the grid for that day that had been trumped by something from the other side that wasn’t news,” Coetzee recalled. “To get our point across we convened a Cameron press conference and because he’s the PM, and he hadn’t done one for about two years, everybody rushed across with their cameras.”
The theme was “Brexit lies”. Cameron accused the leave side of “resorting to total untruths to con people into taking a leap in the dark: it’s irresponsible and it’s wrong and it’s time that the leave campaign was called out on the nonsense that they are peddling.”
But instead of forcing the other side to defend its claims, Cameron’s attack fed an atmosphere of general detachment from rational argument and empirical evidence. The idea that both sides were engaged in equivalent hysteria became a theme of commentary. Stronger In’s strategy of highlighting economic risk was portrayed as a hysterical fear-mongering plot, no more anchored in reason than the leave side’s mobilisation of anti-immigration feeling.
In reality, the pro-EU arguments were supported by an overwhelming majority of economists, thinktanks, business leaders, diplomats and other professional bodies. This had been an instrumental part of the Stronger In strategy devised the previous summer. “The focus groups were telling us that people wanted the facts, but didn’t trust politicians to give them the facts,” said Straw. “But they did trust ‘experts’. So rather than smash facts over people’s heads, we thought it would be much better to use experts as conduits.”
In response, the leave side pursued a strategy of undermining the very idea of independent authority. Anyone who expressed a view on the hazards of leaving the EU was painted as the hostage of a corrupt Brussels-worshipping establishment. Gove encapsulated this ethos with his claim in a television interview on 3 June that “people in this country have had enough of experts”.
Again, the remain side was taken aback by the effectiveness of this scorched-earth approach to evidence-based argument and by the media’s complicity – deliberate in the case of many newspapers, unwitting on the part of the BBC which was bound by impartiality rules to present the claims of both sides as equally valid. As one Cameron aide puts it: “If anyone on the left had ever said the Bank of England was corrupt and shouldn’t have a view, they would be incinerated, but the BBC gave a free ride to the rubbishing of institutions.”
The leave side’s combination of anti-establishment nihilism and anti-immigration siren-wailing was working, as Cooper’s tracker started to show. The “Labour fightback” had a promising start, then went awry after a couple of days. An event with Corbyn, his shadow cabinet and trade union leaders on 14 June was overshadowed by an internal Labour row about whether free movement of workers – an axiom of EU membership – should be up for renegotiation. Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson told the BBC that the issue should be “looked at again”. The former shadow chancellor Ed Balls said that a future Labour government would “press Europe to restore proper borders”. Watching this unfold from their Cannon Street headquarters, the Stronger In architects of the fightback were appalled. One lamented: “We understand that Labour needs to sort out its immigration policy. But the time to do it is not a week before polling day on live fucking television.”
Having rewritten the schedule so Labour could ride to the rescue, they saw the very people who were supposed to be shoring up the remain message drawing attention to their biggest weakness. Corbyn, meanwhile, was retreating back into non-cooperation. Gordon Brown had devised an initiative to bring Labour leaders past and present together for an event – but Corbyn refused to share a platform with Tony Blair. Even when Blair’s involvement was downgraded to a statement read by someone else, Corbyn would not budge.
The Labour leader’s semi-detachment was, in any case, a secondary problem compared to the stories that were coming in from MPs of leave sentiment spreading like wildfire in their constituencies. Cooper’s early polling had shown that around two-thirds of Labour voters were likely to support EU membership. That did not match reports from the field, so Straw commissioned a subsequent analysis, dated April 2016, which showed a discrepancy between the party’s metropolitan, university-educated, middle-class voters and its lower-income, working-class supporters, who were far more sceptical about the case for remaining. It was this undefended flank that the leave side was targeting with promises to control immigration and divert EU subscription payments to the NHS. The remainers’ warning not to gamble with economic security was failing to resonate. “Emotional fear wasn’t credible because they felt their lives were already shit,” as one senior campaign source told me.
There was an official Stronger In line on immigration that was barely aired. A script, circulated for use by remainers appearing in the media, highlighted concessions on migrant access to benefits that Cameron had won in his renegotiation, pitched free movement as a price worth paying for access to the single market, and struck a positive tone on labour movement: “Over 100,000 EU citizens work for the health and social care sector … EU citizens have contributed £20bn more in taxes than they have taken out in benefits. The facts are clear: the overwhelming majority of EU citizens in Britain are contributors, not freeloaders.”
But that was not the official position of any of the parties involved, so it went mostly unsaid. Downing Street was saddled with the promise Cameron had made in 2010 to limit annual migration to “tens of thousands” – a failed proposal that could not apply to EU nationals.
“The Conservatives were hamstrung by their ludicrous migration cap and the inability to talk positively,” said Straw. “Labour grandees felt the need to defend the ‘open door’ politics of the 2000s, and the Corbynistas wanted to say there was no problem at all.”
Only in the final televised debate did the Stronger In team feel that the more positive messages they had wanted to project were broadcast. Sadiq Khan and Ruth Davidson, who represented remain, both made passionate cases for a more open, tolerant Britain. “But that was two days before the vote, and by then it was too late,” Straw told me.
As the final weekend of the campaign approached, Straw, Coetzee, Gill, Gilbert, Oliver and Cooper wrestled with their central dilemma: either they find a solution to voters’ concerns about immigration, which realistically meant some drastic offer to limit free movement, or they double down on the economic message in the hope that, ultimately, their target audience’s cautious nature would prevail. They all agreed that there was no point raising questions about immigration without credible answers. As a No 10 source put it: “Every day spent arguing about Turkey and borders was a day leave was winning.”
Straw was keen to deliver something akin to “the Vow” – the 11th-hour promise of new devolution powers that had been thrown into the final week of the Scottish referendum campaign when the pro-independence side appeared to take the lead. Cooper and Coetzee were supportive. Gill, the director of strategy for No 10, was more sceptical. It was not clear what realistically could be delivered on free movement without European endorsement, and vague talk of re-engaging with continental leaders was a non-starter. There was no way of renegotiating the renegotiation at this late stage.
Domestic policy ideas – new resources to deal with the pressure of migration on public services; a cross-party commission; stronger enforcement of the minimum wage – were knocked back by Downing Street on the grounds that they would not resolve the problem that EU membership involved surrender of border control, and might instead just highlight that fact. It was settled: the strategy could not be changed. Either they persuaded enough people to believe their arguments on the economy, or they were going to lose.
On Thursday 16 June, Cameron was flying to a remain rally in Gibraltar. But when the plane landed, he turned around and came straight back to the UK. A message had reached him in the air that Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen in Yorkshire, had been shot dead.
The killing stunned the political world. Referendum campaign activity was suspended. The following day there was a sombre meeting between Coetzee, Gilbert and Tara Corrigan, representing Jim Messina’s team, to talk through the grim practicalities of steering a campaign into its final week in the shadow of a horrifying crime. The weekend schedule had included another round of dramatic warnings about economic calamity in the event of Brexit, including a poster with an image of a grenade and the caption: “Once the pin is out you can’t put it back in.” That was scrapped. Bellicose images felt wrong.
Through the final week, the remain side became cautiously optimistic that the new mood of sobriety and reflection might be checking leave’s momentum. The Brexiters’ strategy of ramping up fears about incoming swarms of foreigners – exemplified in a poster launched by Nigel Farage, featuring the slogan “Breaking Point”, just hours before Cox’s killing – seemed, to liberal eyes, morally bankrupt. There was anecdotal evidence, hard to substantiate, that this was mobilising pro-European voters. Cooper’s tracker poll showed a swing to remain, but the team expected some recoil back to the status quo, as is common in referendums.
As had always been the plan, Stronger In tried to strike an upbeat tone for the final days, and true to its original strategy, used a non-political voice. David Beckham, at the campaign’s invitation, declared his support, saying that his experience of playing football in Europe taught him the importance of “facing the problems of the world together and not alone”. There were 48 hours to go. “We mobilised every living expert on the economy, on personal finance, on business, on a range of things up to and including taking free kicks at football matches. The public were not unaware of that in the end,” Coetzee said.
When the polls closed, Straw went to the Royal Festival Hall, where a party was planned for activists and other leading campaign supporters. Coetzee sat with the Messina team, ready to start feeding results into a computer model that would translate incoming data into a probable final result. Cameron was monitoring the same computer model with his closest aides and ministerial allies in Downing Street. By the early hours of Friday 24 June he knew his biggest gamble and his career had ended in failure.
The short-lived coalition of professional pro-Europeans was dissolved the morning after their defeat. If 600,000 more people had heeded their message, the centre would have held. That could be seen as a big enough number to suggest that their strategy was flawed from the start or small enough one to indicate that, with a more favourable media wind, the populist tide would have been held back.
There was surely little chance of reversing a generation of cultural suspicion of the EU in a four-month campaign, fronted by a prime minister who had indulged his party’s most Eurosceptic tendencies throughout his career. But the battle was not, in any case, marked by dispassionate evaluation of the benefits and costs of EU membership. Another impulse had been stirred.
“There were people turning up who had never voted before,” Straw said after the defeat. “They did it this time because they were very angry with what they felt had been done to them in their communities over decades – the decline of industry, the rapid increase in people coming to this country, the levels of austerity. In a general election they might think it doesn’t matter who you vote for because they’re all the same. In the referendum they recognised this could lead to something different. Maybe they didn’t anticipate all the consequences. But there was a sense that you could change things.”
People had many motives to vote leave, but the most potent elements were resentment of an elite political class, rage at decades of social alienation in large swaths of the country, and a determination to reverse a tide of mass migration. Those forces overwhelmed expert pleas for economic stability.
This was a revolution. But the political establishment has not actually been deposed: the Conservative party will continue governing, only with changed leadership. What was overthrown was a conception of where and how politics is conducted.
The starting premise of the remain campaign was that elections in Britain are settled in a centre-ground defined by aversion to economic risk and swung by a core of liberal middle-class voters who are allergic to radical lurches towards political uncertainty. They could be identified, profiled and targeted by the technical wizardry of professional pollsters. Their anxieties, hopes and priorities could be plotted on charts that would then be translated into simple messages. EU membership might thus be established in the minds of this audience as a proxy for security and continuity – the natural preference of the sensible majority, as reinforced by every institution that carried cultural authority; the experts would be heeded.
For Coetzee, the result reflected a debasement of Britain’s political culture: the traducing, with media complicity, of rational discourse by a leave campaign that targeted the very idea of factual argument. “We underestimated their willingness to be mendacious and xenophobic,” he said. “When a lot of people in a society feel that life has passed them by, they don’t much like their present and they don’t see a path to the future, offering them an enemy is not clever. It is easy. Nationalism triumphed over liberalism, populism triumphed over evidence and expertise; paranoia triumphed over trust.”
No one on the remain side fully anticipated an emotional groundswell of contempt for the very idea of political authority as dispensed from a liberal citadel in Westminster. The remain politicians found themselves besieged by an angry insurrection, channelling grievances that were well known. They stood for a cause that became emblematic of a system that was alien, arrogant and remote – and they had no answer.
Stronger In became the holding company for a liberal centrist political concept that had been transmitted in varying forms through the rise of New Labour and the ascent of Cameron. This had been the bastion of political orthodoxy for a generation, but its foundations had been corroded. Parliament’s status never recovered from the expenses scandal. The financial crisis led not to a redistribution of power and greater economic security but to austerity, coupled with apparent immunity for the elite from any consequences of their prior mismanagement. The unique opportunity of a referendum was to give voters the option of punishing a generation of politics, regardless of party allegiance. Those who chose a different path are now left without leadership, barely recognising their own country; the stateless tribe of Remainia.
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