Wednesday, March 29th 2017, witnessed the triggering of Article 50, of the Lisbon Treaty, and began the process of the United Kingdom exiting the EU. Parts I & II suggested two groups of 20 individuals who have made significant contributions to this moment. Some have wished for it, others played a less willing role. The same can be said of our top 10.
10) Matthew Elliott. Elliott’s contribution to UK life is scarcely credible for a man under forty years old. From co-founding the Tax Payers Alliance, thus exposing governments and public bodies to the scrutiny of millions, he moved on to being chief exec of the No to AV referendum. That turnaround, from 2-1 in favour to a 2-1 against win, provided a template for later work, as well as keeping the UK electoral system in tact. Elliot’s Business for Britain then provided a skeleton framework for an EU referendum. Elliot then progressed to being appointed Chief Executive of Vote Leave for the 2016 referendum. His persuasion of Gisela Stuart, to co-chair the campaign, and recruitment of Dominic Cummings to run the operation were vital. His front of house manner and appearance also ensured a modern and positive impression was created.
9) Tony Blair. The Blair administration’s many flaws contributed, in a number of significant ways, to our present position. On the active side his actions, in failing to enforce restrictions on succession migration, together with an incompetent guess as to the numbers who would be attracted, highlighted an issue that the EU would prove incapable of resolving. Blair’s behaviour over Iraq and New Labour’s general behaviour played a large role in disenchanting millions of voters, including many in traditional Labour areas. Blair’s arrogance, in believing that his interventions, would be anything other than negative for Remain was foolish in the extreme.
8) Margaret Thatcher. The former Prime Minister’s “Bruges Speech” was a tipping point in 1988, and looks more like a prophecy than speech now. The fact that this totemic figure, in both the Conservative Party and the UK, was brought down by a mainly Europhile group of senior party members wrought havoc in the party which festered for decades. The influential Bruges Group was named after her speech and many leading Eurosceptic where and are broadly, or fundamentally, Thatcherism. David Cameron’s fear of what would happen to the party if he was not seen to act fairly, and relatively even-handedly, to those on the leave side can be easily traced to the turmoil that had gone before.
7) Gisela Stuart. The long serving Labour MP, for Birmingham Edgbaston, proved a wise and calming head throughout the campaign. Her experience in actually working within the EU had hardened her opposition. Her credentials as a left-wing, people focused and decent politician were impeccable. Her debate performances were excellent, especially as she was less experienced in this area, and the balance she provided within the triumvirate of Vote Leave figure heads proved crucial in watering down the “Tory campaign” idea. It was also highly symbolic that Gisela is a German born, long-standing, immigrant who calmly and rationally for practical reasons, including the control of immigration, wanted to Leave. The reaction to Lord Sugar’s foolish complaint, regarding her status, demonstrated how powerful an asset she was.
6) Danial Hannan. A strong claim can be made for Hannan being the author of what became the positive script for Vote Leave. Since the age of 19 he campaigned for the UK/EU relationship to be fundamentally different. By the time of the referendum he was well liked and viewed as one of the Eurosceptics more reasonable faces. His book, Why Vote Leave, became a best seller and yet barely mentions immigration, and he appeared and spoke at over 100 events during the campaign itself. It was at Hannan’s instigation the Elliott was placed to run Business for Britain, and then Vote Leave and yet, despite this huge contribution, Hannan’s ego was secure enough that he accepted a lesser role, particularlt on TV debates, on the empirically tested grounds that others would prove more successful with Vote Leave’s target audience. His work, together with others, on “The Plan” was devoured by Boris Johnson and formed a strong strand, running through most of the major arguments, of that “liberal, cosmopolitan” case that Johnson stated he was to make when he first declared.
Anyone in any doubt of Hannan’s contribution should simply read Why Vote Leave & Brexit What Next. From their current actions you can be sure Mrs May ‘s administration have.
5) David Cameron. Although it may not please him, our former Prime Minister must be subject to the Trueman Doctrine “The Buck Stops Here”. Cameron failed to stop his party from “Banging on about Europe”, he failed to shoot the UKIP fox and indeed had to concede the referendum in a last-ditch attempt to do so. His Bloomberg speech was accurate and impressive but raised the expectations of his negotiations and exposed the true failings of the EU. His appalling tragi-comedy of a renegotiation made up many minds , but in the opposite direction than he planned. His technical decisions, regarding the timing, question and date, of the referendum, together with his misjudgment of his cabinet and MP’s ensured that Leave would be competitive and that they appeared to have some early momentum.
Cameron’s final two mistakes were enormous and should be permanently attached to him. His deliberate running of a purely negative, spiteful campaign that corrupted the British constitutional system, e.g. the use of the civil service to block ministers access to information, and consistently rubbished our nation both to our own people and our friends and rivals elsewhere. Finally his act of gross negligence by failing to plan, in any meaningful way, for one of only two outcomes in a referendum he himself knew was “on a knife-edge”, this act can be described as one of the worst derelictions of duty in the history of his office.
4) Micheal Gove. Sadly, Gove’s contribution to his nation’s future will be thought of in terms of his post referendum behaviour and his “…people have had enough of experts…” line. This spectacularly underestimates his contribution. His courage in defying his Prime Minister and long-term friend and risking any future career on a principle should be uppermost. His progression from a well-respected, on his own side, policy politician, often thought of as over intellectual, geeky or just a bit odd, to front of house figurehead of a national campaign, on generational importance, who became popular and trusted by millions within the space of about six weeks.
The famed interview with Faisal Islam, that produced his “experts” line, is a case in point. For the opening five minutes, or so, Gove was in struggling. However he first managed to neutralise Islam, by pointing out the interviewer’s reversal of argument, and slowly built a rapport with the audience both in the studio and on TV. His personal story regarding the EU and his father’s business ensured a connection with voters and his positive, upbeat and thoughtful case was better and better received as the time went on. It should not be forgotten that Gove was very new to these types of events, and confessed to being very nervous, yet his performance was an improvement upon that of a serving Prime Minister, with huge experience, had managed on the same show the night before. Many people both in the campaign and outside now believed that Leave were capable of winning. The momentum had shifted and Vote Leave gained huge confidence.
3 Nigel Farage. No if’s No buts, without Farage there would have been no referendum. Prime ministers and others across Europe avoided referenda like the plague and when they had to hold them they usually lost. The UKIP Leader’s 25 year campaign progressed from what would be regularly described as the “Lunatic Fringe” through to winning a nationwide UK election. He led the only party in around one hundred years to defeat both Labour & Conservatives in a national poll. Yet still he was underestimated and dismissed, his tactic of using a blunt speaking, anti elitist style built a coalition of disenchanted voters, and non voters, that included sections from both sides of the old political divide. When Cameron promised a referendum many assumed UKIP would be neutralised, they simply were not. This should have demonstrated the strength of Eurosceptic views across the spectrum, but many did not want to see. Finally, Farage also contributed to the winning of the referendum in another way. Many supporters of his brand of anti-EU politics proved to be those who had not voted for a long time, or indeed ever, as an anti establishment politician Farage ensured that they did vote on the day and turnout was high enough to offset the Remain bias of London & Scotland.
2) Boris Johnson. The idea of a former mayor, recently elected to parliament, part celebrity, part politician and part P.G. Woodhouse character, would fundamentally change the destiny of his country, over the course of six weeks, should be the stuff of fiction or comedy. Give that individual’s name as Boris and things completely change. Prior to the campaign some estimated that the difference Johnson would make to either side was around 4%, 52-48 was the end result. The fact that the government could not decide to attack him fully gives some idea of the influence. Whenever they did try to discredit or smear him the response from Johnson was superbly indifferent. The attempt to swamp him with an all female panel, who would attack him personally, simply failed. Cameron and Osborne seemed to forget that he had managed to twice be elected Mayor of London, a Labour stronghold, under the guidance of Lynton Crosby. This experience provided him with a sense of calm and a studied determination.
Boris did not start as strongly as many would have liked. It took him a little while to get back into battle mode, once up to full speed he was virtually unstoppable. It is often forgotten that Johnson individual election record in virtually 100% wins even when the political tide is running against him. The battlebus tour travelled across the country attracting attention everywhere it went, Johnson appeared virtually every day and proved entertaining, accessible and persuasive. The combination between Boris’s star power, Gove’s intellect and studiousness, together with Gisela Stuart, balancing the ticket, proved perfect.
Indeed, a strong case could be made for placing Johnson at the top of this list. Imagine for a moment what would have happened had he slipped up in a major way. Many on the Remain side predicted and hoped for this. A Boris gaff could have done for the Leave campaign almost overnight. Yet it did not happen, the responsibility was enormous and yet he rose to the occasion. Two post referendum documentaries, Sky & BBC, bore witness to Boris’s unique ability, voters who could never have been thought of as Conservative, or likely to be persuaded by one, stated that he was the difference. ” We’re with Boris” said a group of older women in a northern constituency, whilst a Sunderland voter actually stated ” I’d trust Boris with my life”.
If other’s given credit for getting the referendum, and a large chunk of solid support, Boris can lay claim to providing all those who wanted to vote Leave, but could not support Farage, and others, vision, a positive, viable, energetic and liberal case to get behind. Those present or watching the final debate of the campaign, from Wembley arena, witnessed “The Full Johnson” His valedictory speech, for Vote Leave, lasted little more than 1 minute, yet completely rubbished the Remain campaign whilst presenting Vote Leave as a chance to defend democracy, speak for millions without voice and claim a bright new future for Britain. The reaction in the arena, and in homes, indicted what was to come on June 23rd.
1)Dominic Cummings. Unless you are a bit of a political anorak it is likely that you never heard of Dominic Cummings until the period surrounding the EU referendum. Despite a stint assisting Micheal Gove in the Education department, being labelled divisive and controversial, Cummings had not sought public attention in any marked way. However he had already played a major part in public life. His spell, as campaign director, with Business for Sterling had helped ensure that the UK would not join the Euro, when that was a very real danger. His efforts to reform education, as special adviser to Micheal Gove, may have a more profound long term effect.
Dominic, or Dom as he is known to those who worked on the campaign, was appointed to run the Vote Leave campaign in the autumn of 2015. It was he who built the majority of the backroom team and who is credited for the recruitment of a number of the leading supporters, including Micheal Gove. Cummings is also credited with the campaign slogan/logo/catchphrase Vote Leave, Take Back Control, this powerful, yet simple, phrase was used, to the point of exhaustion, by all connected with the campaign and proved highly memorable and effective. The loyalty shown to Cummings, by most Vote Leave staff, when an MP led coup was launched against his management style in early 2016, is an illustration of both inspirational leadership.
Cummings used evidence based models to build the winning strategy in the period before he was even appointed. This enabled a discreet, but highly effective, social and digital media campaign to be built operated in a short time. The effective deployment of resources just prior to the postal vote weekend and again in the final couple of campaigning weeks also appear to have been hugely effective. The postal vote is estimated at 55-45 in favour of Leave.
Regardless of opinions, as to their appropriateness, the most effective themes of the campaign were cost, immigration issues, future expansion of the EU. These were summarised by Cummings as like a baseball bat labelled £350million/Immigration/Turkey, which was saved for the later stages of the campaign, that just needed picking up. Cummings’ ruthless approach to sticking to what his focus groups and other data were telling him, as well as the groundbreaking data system he used, often made him less than popular, especially with those such as Farage who wanted more exposure for themselves or their case. Cummings method of dealing with the Farage Paradox was to recognise his role, minimise the risk of over exposing him & UKIP and ensure the case Vote Leave advocated appeared open and positive whilst hammering home the key messages he knew persuadable voters cared about.
Put simply, most available facts back up Cummings’ approach completely. Postal Votes split 55-45 for leave. On the day polling was closer to 50/50 but little or no swing to the status quo could be detected. The attempts of Remain to win the TV debates were neutralised by Cummings decisions of panel members, surrounding Boris with Stuart and Leadsom and sending Gove to the more question and answer interviews were especially astute. The two most remembered images/quotes of the referendum are £350 million a week and Take Back Control. Both of these were championed by Cummings at all times , even when others were scared, or wary of the personal consequences, of failure.
Although others in Vote Leave deserve credit, as acknowledged here, Cummings set the tone,enforced the message and managed to combine all the key elements of tech, data, presentation, tactics and personality together. Had the coup, against him, succeeded there are few involved who doubt that Vote Leave would have failed to win the nomination as official campaign and the field would have been left to Aaron Banks or others who would have run a haphazard, Farage centred, campaign and deterred as many voters as they encouraged. Remain would have won and by a good margin.
In final tribute it should also be noted that Cummings has not sought credit, and indeed has credited others, whilst others have basked in reflected glory from his work. Finally the post referendum actions, of many involved with Vote Leave, have ensured that the Remain rearguard action, whose attempts to water down, delay or defeat Brexit, have been vigorously opposed and mainly defeated. Onward……..