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Leave leaders Boris Johnson and Gisela Stuart: Did the £350 million a week savings claim bolster their campaign — or discredit it? (© Stefan Rousseau / PA Wire/Press Association Images)


Barely two months have passed since the biggest democratic jolt to Britain’s political system in living memory. How the UK came to make such a seismic decision about its future is the story of a once-fringe idea capturing the imagination of the British people. We tell this story in Brexit Revolt: How the UK Voted to Leave the EU, published later this month. While reporting and writing this book in the immediate aftermath of the vote, it became clear that a series of myths about how the result came about have begun to take hold. Here are seven such misconceptions.


Myth No. 1: David Cameron’s renegotiation was a sideshow

Do you remember the renegotiation? Given the scant mention of David Cameron’s new settlement with the EU during the campaign, you’d be forgiven for forgetting it. While Cameron was fond of telling voters that Britain was better off in a reformed Europe, detailed discussion of specific terms of our renegotiated relationship with Brussels was hard to come by in the run-up to polling day. Why? The short answer is because Cameron failed to win meaningful concessions from Brussels.

But do not fall into the trap of thinking that the renegotiation’s limited role in the campaign means it did not contribute to the outcome of the vote. The disappointing concessions won by Cameron were crucial to Britain voting Leave. Outlining his renegotiation demands in a speech at Chatham House last November, Cameron made a robustly Eurosceptic case for reform when he said: “Those who say Britain should stay in the EU at all costs need to explain why Britain should accept the status quo. I am clear that there are real problems for Britain with the status quo.”

Most voters agreed with Cameron. In early 2016, roughly two-thirds of voters wanted to see a transfer of powers from Brussels to Westminster. When voters learned that, after a Haribo-fuelled night of negotiation with European leaders, Cameron would bring back something that looked awfully similar to the status quo, they saw the reform-shaped hole in the Prime Minister’s case for Remain.

Not only did the renegotiation flop undermine the logic of Cameron’s pragmatic argument for a Remain vote, badly hurting his credibility during the campaign, it also meant many more Conservative MPs came out for Leave than was thought would be the case. Cameron’s renegotiation-then-referendum approach meant most Tory MPs had spent much of 2015 and early 2016 urging patience, telling voters and reporters to wait and see how the Prime Minister would get on in Brussels. When the disappointing package of changes was announced, many more Conservative MPs came out for Leave than Downing Street had anticipated. Many expected fewer than 50 Conservative MPs to take the opposing side to the Prime Minister, whereas the final figure was 128. Had Cameron not pinned so much on renegotiation, it seems unlikely he would have found himself on the other side of the argument to so many members of his own party.

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Lawrence JamesAnonymousL
August 29th, 2016
11:08 AM
Why no reference to the tales of the swarms of libidinous, scimitar brandishing Turks poised to sweep towards Britain ? Perhaps the Bashi-Bazouks were deterred by the rumour of the European army mustering and, in some versions, ready to crush anti-Eu dissidents here and on the continent. Uhlans did not appear in Upminster, but the possibility added to the rumours.

Alan Cochrane
August 26th, 2016
1:08 PM
In this otherwise illuminating debunking of what they call the EU referendum myths, I am very much afraid that their conclusion that Project Fear didn’t work in the Scottish referendum and so shouldn’t have been tried in the EU version, shows that Michael Mosbacher and Oliver Wiseman have misread the lessons from north of the border. The plain fact is that the rubbishing of the nationalists’ economic plans, which given the subsequent collapse in the oil price and the concomitant £15 billion ‘black hole’ in the Scottish economy now looks extremely mild. The over optimistic miscalculation of Scotland’s future was reckless in the extreme and could not have been left unchallenged by the No camp. The fact that it was stupidly dubbed ‘Project Fear’ by an apparatchik in the Unionist camp detracts from its efficacy only in respect of the bad press it subsequently attracted. Complaints about it stemmed both from émigré Scots in London who wanted more passion – and in one case more music – in the anti-Nat battle and from English Tory politicians who didn’t understand what was going on in Scotland but thought they knew better anyway. But the plain fact is that the constant attacks on the nationalists’ pie-in-the-sky, back of a fag packet projections, orchestrated in the main by Alistair, now Lord, Darling, worked and worked extremely well. The nationalists’ main gripe as regards the entire operation mounted against them appears to centre on the fact that Darling, Chancellor Osborne and Governor Carney, as well as the leaders and finance spokesmen for all the Unionist parties said in words of one syllable that an independent Scotland could not retain the pound. ‘But it’s as much Scotland’s pound as anyone else’s’ complained Alex Salmond, ‘ so why can’t we use it?’ Unfortunately for his cause, the political leaders in Wales and Northern Ireland, whose peoples also share sterling, were stern in their lack of support for their fellow Celt. Thus was this and every claim of the Nats – Project Fib as some came to call their promises of an economic nirvana – ruthlessly denounced and dismissed, yet Mosbacher and Wiseman suggest that Project Fear was actually responsible for increasing the pro-independence as the campaign progressed. It is true that the opinion polls narrowed but Darling, for one, always insisted that the final result would be closer than the early opinion polls suggested. If we are looking for myths to debunk, may I suggest that the biggest of all in relation to the Scottish referendum is that the result hinged on the extra powers promised for the Scottish Parliament by all the Unionist politicians. This massive extension of Holyrood’s responsibilities, rushed through in what can only be described as hopelessly indecent haste, by Lord Smith’s Commission was a panic measure, pure and simple. And a panic measure that wasn’t needed. Opinion poll evidence suggests pretty conclusively that it was Alex Salmond’s lack of a credible economic policy that did for him, not promises of extra powers: or in other words - It was Project Fear wot won it. Still, I digress. Living in Scotland and voting for Remain, like the bulk of my compatriots, my knowledge of the how Brexit won in England is sketchy. However, whilst the Brexiteers shamelessly tried to terrify the horses with their ludicrous ‘£350 million for the NHS’ claim, I think Mosbacher and Wiseman got it right when they said that by keeping shtum about their economic plans the Leavers didn’t allow the kind of detailed examination to which Project Fear subjected poor old Alex Salmond’s. Why the Remain camp did not concentrate on exposing that glaring omission in the Brexit case is something only its leaders can explain. Alan Cochrane Edinburgh

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