Debunking the EU Referendum Myths

Several major misconceptions about how Brexit came about have taken hold. Here is why they are wrong — and what really happened

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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.


Myth No. 2: Project Fear worked in Scotland and so would work in the EU referendum

“Project Fear” began life as a joke in the offices of the Scottish Referendum’s No campaign. According to Rob Shorthouse, the campaign’s director of communications who coined the now ubiquitous phrase, it “was all about poking fun at the Nats and their constant dismissal of every legitimate point raised by anyone and everyone as scaremongering”. But an inside joke soon became a powerful political concept. After Scotland voted No, it quickly became received wisdom that it was Project Fear that won it for the Unionists. The lesson, then, was that the way to win referendums was to heap nightmarish forecasts onto the electorate and scare them into voting for the status quo.

Clearly such an approach went wrong in the EU referendum. That is because Remain’s strategy was built on the myth that it worked in Scotland. In plumping for a Project Fear-led approach, Cameron’s team, led by his trusted pollster and Conservative peer Andrew Cooper, sowed the seeds of their defeat. The Tory MP Bernard Jenkin, a Vote Leave director, told us he “jumped for joy” when he heard that was the approach Downing Street would take.

Downing Street’s analysis of the Scottish vote seems to have gone no deeper than assuming the winning side’s strategy must have worked. The first problem with that theory is that Scottish public opinion moved towards independence once the campaign got going; in other words, while Project Fear was in full swing, Scots became keener on leaving the Union than they had been before. Virtually no polls have ever given Scottish independence a lead, except for two conducted in the midst of Unionist doomsaying. (By contrast, at least 32 public polls gave Leave a lead during the EU referendum campaign.)

Secondly, if opinion did move back to No, the last-minute promise of Devo-max, rather than Project Fear, appears to have been instrumental — not Project Fear.
Let us, however, go along with the idea that Project Fear worked in Scotland. Even if that were the case, obvious questions surrounded its applicability to the EU referendum. Cameron’s team appears to have misunderstood the nature of the economic debate in Scotland. Alex Salmond presented a fully fleshed-out fiscal plan for an independent Scotland, underpinned by the high price of oil, something which Unionists could easily poke holes in. Leave campaigners, by contrast, deliberately did not propose a specific plan for Brexit, knowing that doing so would expose them to such scrutiny.

It is also worth remembering that much of the economic debate in the Scottish referendum was not about unconvincingly specific forecasts about the consequences of upsetting the status quo, as with the Treasury’s report ahead of the EU vote. Instead, it was a question of control: if Scots were uneasy about their economic future as an independent state, it was because nationalists failed to convince voters that Scotland would be in command of its own destiny, in the form of control of its currency. Perhaps then, the lesson from Project Fear was that the idea of control has electoral potency. It seems that only one side of the EU referendum was paying attention. 

Myth No. 3: Infighting nearly cost Leave the referendum

In a short film made for the BBC after the referendum, Vote Leave’s Matthew Elliott said that one of his challenges during the campaign was “fighting UKIP”. It may have struck viewers as odd that the man behind the campaign to take the UK out of the EU saw UKIP, the only serious political party committed to leaving the EU, as somehow not on his side. And yet, to the despair of many long-time Brexiteers, much of the year that separated the general election and the referendum was dominated by Leave disunity. At the heart of the feud was a colossal personality clash between, on the one hand, Matthew Elliott and Dominic Cummings, the latter notoriously difficult to work with, who together ran Vote Leave, and Arron Banks, a hot-headed Bristol-based businessman and UKIP backer who co-founded with Richard Tice Leave.EU, a second Brexit campaign.

We have seen hundreds of confidential emails sent between key Brexiteers in the build up to the referendum campaign. The revealing exchanges demonstrate the stunning deterioration in relations between the Elliott and Cummings camp, and Arron Banks. In June 2015 they were politely arranging an informal lunch at Shepherd’s, a politicos’ haunt in Westminster, to discuss how they might work together on the vote. Within a few months, accusations of briefing against one another and lying began to fly back and forth. (“Either pack it in or we will properly go at it,” Banks tells Elliott at one stage.) Last October, when Vote Leave’s website went live, Banks emailed Elliott: “If this is your best shot, you should be shot . . . for goodness sake get a grip.” High-profile Leave donors, who worried that petty rows might cost them their once-in-a-generation opportunity to leave the EU, had to intervene, soothing egos and appealing for calm.

When it became clear that the Banks camp would compete (ultimately unsuccessfully) with Vote Leave for designation, the animosity spilled into the public domain, with Banks baiting his rival as “Lord Elliott of Loserville” on social media. In May, Banks sent the mobile telephone numbers of Elliott, Cummings, Douglas Carswell MP and others to his supporters, urging them to pressure the “backstairs crawlers behind the creaking Vote Leave operation” to include Nigel Farage in the BBC’s Wembley Arena debate. It was no surprise that stories of the Leave leaders behaving like ferrets in a bag, squandering the referendum they had called for, became a theme of the campaign.

There was undoubtedly a tremendous amount of bad blood between the camps. But, as counterintuitive as it sounds, the divisions that exasperated so many on the Leave side in the end worked to their advantage. The pressure being applied by Leave.EU — and the threat of humiliation if they did not win designation — appears to have focused Vote Leave minds early on. If competition meant sleepless nights for Elliott and Cummings, it also meant a better Leave campaign. Over at Leave.EU, Banks’s determination to beat Vote Leave meant he spent heavily in late 2015 and early 2016, only amplifying arguments against EU membership.

Division also created important distance between what were very distinctive Leave tribes. Take, for example, the reaction to Farage’s controversial “Breaking Point” poster, showing a line of migrants crossing the Croatia-Slovenia border during the height of the migrant crisis of 2015. Had there been a unified Leave operation, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson would not have been able to convincingly express their disapproval of the message. Having two distinct sets of Brexiteers  allowed mainstream politicians to reassure voters that voting Leave was not an endorsement of xenophobic politics. All the while, Farage’s more full-throated case for Leave was heard by those who wanted to listen.

Finally, consider an alternative scenario in which every corner of the Leave movement came together under one umbrella. Is it likely that a campaign as ideologically diverse and involving as many egos would have had the agility and ruthlessness needed to fight an effective national campaign?

Myth No. 4: Vote Leave should not have painted £350 million on the side of their bus

Emblazoned on the side of the Vote Leave battle bus, taking Boris Johnson and Vote Leave chair and Labour MP Gisela Stuart, around the country, was the slogan, “We send the EU £350 million. Let’s fund our NHS instead.” The claim also played a starring role in Vote Leave leaflets and broadcasts. It was the single most repeated — and controversial — assertion made by the campaign. 

The figure of £350 million was derived by taking the UK’s gross contribution to the EU in 2014 — £18,777 million — and dividing it by 52, giving £361 million, which was then rounded down for neatness. The figure takes no account of the £4.4 billion rebate negotiated by Margaret Thatcher and in place since 1985, which is deducted at source (i.e. never sent to Brussels). In 2014 there was also nearly £4.5 billion the UK received back in various EU grants, the vast bulk for agricultural support and regional development aid, much of which will continue — paid for by British taxpayers — after the UK leaves. The figure of £350 million is, at best, debatable. What cannot be argued with is that there will not be £350 million which can simply be given to the NHS on leaving the EU.

The use of the figure was extremely controversial with many Vote Leave supporters. It prompted Ruth Lea, a leading pro-Brexit economist, to resign and campaign for Brexit independently. Farage believes it was a big mistake — perhaps not surprising because of his rivalry with the official campaign — but so did politicians who took part in Vote Leave’s regular Thursday campaign meeting. When asked about the figure, one senior politician replied: “Well, I never went on the bus. Draw your own conclusions.” Another at the very top of the campaign said: “I can still put together an argument to justify its use.” Hardly a ringing endorsement.

We have spoken to most of Vote Leave’s largest donors. Only one of them was happy with the use of the £350 million figure. Many felt it was dishonest and reduced their noble cause to the same level as the Remain camp’s Project Fear. The message of giving the money to the NHS also did not sit well with donors who believed in reducing the size of the state and reforming public services.

Why was the figure used? One explanation put to us by a director of Vote Leave is that it was a mistake, and simply the result of shoddy research — the campaign had a very small and inexperienced research team and it came up with the wrong figure. Cummings and Elliott started to use it in their literature and were too proud to back down. When challenged about the figure the response would come: “That train has left the station.”

Another explanation — unsurprisingly preferred by Elliott and Cummings — is that the figure was deliberately picked by them because it was defendable but less than robust. By chucking a dodgy number into the mix, the figure was endlessly debated. It would lead news bulletins and be repeated ad nauseam. The figure would stick in the public’s minds. The Remainers would have to come out with their own figure, which would also sound very large to voters. Saying we only send £190 million per week to Brussels is not a good starting point if you are defending the UK’s EU membership.

Elliott had pulled off the same trick in 2011 when he ran the successful No to AV campaign. He attached a rather dubious figure to the cost of changing the electoral system and asked voters if they wouldn’t rather spend the money on nurses. The figure was challenged and debated. Even though extremely trivial in terms of government expenditure, it stuck in people’s minds. Whether a cock-up or a stroke of genius, £350 million certainly worked on the ground. Campaigners have told us it was frequently repeated back to them on the doorstep and at street stalls, unprompted. One Vote Leave insider told us he found the use of £350 million, and its effectiveness, deeply unsettling. The lesson, he said, is that in politics it pays to lie.

Myth No. 5: Vote Leave ran the most sophisticated data-led campaign in British electoral history

“The Vote Leave campaign, led by Matthew Elliott and Dominic Cummings was, with its 17,410,742 votes, the most successful political campaign in British history.”

Or so argued Tim Montgomerie in The Times. In one sense this is true — more people voted for Brexit than have ever voted for anything else in the UK. In another sense it is the purest piffle. By Montgomerie’s logic, Stronger In was the second most successful campaign in British history.

With some justice, the referendum was described as the most important vote that the electorate would cast in their lifetimes; it was much more significant than the result of any single general election. Yet the ground war on both sides was woeful compared to even the worst-run general election campaign for a major party.

In the ground war of a general election, parties canvass voters not to persuade them to change their minds (obviously if someone does so, it’s a bonus) but to find out who their supporters are, and then to make sure they vote, be it by arranging postal ballots or by encouraging them to turn out on the day. Canvassing enables the major parties to build up a picture of their supporters over a number of elections.

The trouble for Vote Leave was that they did not have access to past Labour or Tory canvass returns nor to party workers. The exception to this was in seats where the sitting Tory MP was a Brexiteer. Outside London, most local parties supported their MP and a traditional type of campaign could be fought. The few Labour pro-Brexit MPs were specifically not allowed to campaign in their own seats or to use the resources of their local party.

Vote Leave did have enthusiastic UKIP members who were eager to help, but UKIP — as its few party apparatchiks will readily admit — has a terrible record at canvassing on its own behalf, with its activists not knowing the basics of the art. UKIP campaigners are much happier manning street stalls than knocking on doors. Vote Leave adopted the street stall approach — with an added brainwave of Cummings, who had no experience of ground campaigning at all. He suggested that, in order to pay for the stalls, those working on them should pay the campaign for the privilege. He was soon persuaded that this was a non-starter.

Cummings — an Oxford history graduate — has a passionate enthusiasm for science writing, especially on matters of human diversity and astrophysics. The solution that he came up with to fill the gap for their campaign’s lack of intelligence on the ground was to a hire a company employing astrophysicists who could use demographic data to predict where Leave voters would be found. The more data was fed into the system, the more reliable the results would be and the more precisely Leave voters could be targeted. This was obviously better than nothing — campaign insiders say it had a success rate of about 60 per cent. But it was a poor tool for getting the vote out — four in ten of those approached would either be non-voters or support the other side.

Vote Leave came up with another wheeze with which to identify potential supporters. The referendum coincided with the Euro 2016 football tournament in France. To highlight the cost of EU membership they decided to offer £50 million (the amount, according to Vote Leave’s dubious maths, the UK sends to the EU every day) to whoever managed correctly to predict the outcome of every game in the tournament. Given that the chances of getting it right were staggeringly slim, Vote Leave were able to cover the potential payout by taking out insurance against anyone winning, a policy which reportedly cost £9,000. They spent roughly £200,000 developing the competition and its website and offered £50,000 to whoever correctly guessed the most consecutive results. Taking part cost voters nothing except their personal details and voting preferences. The Vote Leave campaigners who came up with this eccentric — and expensive — plan had high hopes, with some expecting as many as a million participants. Instead, the scheme was an unmitigated flop, with no more than 40,000 people registering. The sophistication of the messaging to those who did sign up appears to have been limited. One Leave-voting Islington resident received a text on polling day telling him “nearly everyone” in the neighbourhood was “with us”. In reality just one in four Islington voters was on his side.

The Vote Leave board, presented with the football competition as a “fait accompli”, according to one member, were unimpressed, with a senior politician on the board calling Dominic Cummings a “dangerous lunatic”. Such a scheme hardly chimes with the post-victory claims of running the most sophisticated political campaign the country has seen.

Myth No. 6: Had it not been for Jo Cox’s murder, Leave would have won by a bigger margin

On June 16, one week before polling day, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen, Jo Cox, was shot and killed in her constituency. That morning Nigel Farage had unveiled UKIP’s now infamous “Breaking Point” poster. It appalled Vote Leave — it was just the kind of incendiary message which they believed would be toxic to swing voters.

Daniel Hannan, the Conservative MEP who played a leading role in Vote Leave, told us: “Just ask yourself, when you think about that Breaking Point poster, ‘who was ever going to be impressed by it?’ Can you imagine any voter who was on the fence saying to himself, there is a refugee crisis in Europe, I’d better vote Leave now?”

The juxtaposition of a young, female pro-Remain MP being killed with the Brexiteers coming over as nasty would deter voters from backing Leave, or so everyone assumed. It is far from clear that this is what happened. Campaigning in the referendum was suspended, and was somewhat more low-key when it resumed after a two-day hiatus. Opinion polls did move towards Remain, but this movement appears to have begun before the Cox shooting. Referendums tend to move towards the status quo in their final stretch, and the data suggests this had more to do with economic arguments. Cox’s death and the suspension that followed persuaded the Remain camp to back away from the last-minute alarmism they had been planning for the home stretch. In hindsight, it does seem there was a notable lack of Remain figures telling voters: “There is no going back if you vote Leave,” a message with some potency.

UKIP had been planning to run a whole series of very strong ads on migration. The poster that Farage unveiled that day was described to us by one of those responsible for it as “entry level . . . if that was level one, we had posters ready to go which were level three.” Cox’s death meant these never saw the light of day. If Hannan is right in his assessment, then the dumping of these posters will have boosted Leave.

A Brexit Tory MP with very different views on immigration to Hannan’s more liberal stance also believes that the shooting might have boosted Leave. It meant that voters were thinking about immigration rather than economics in the last few days of the campaign — and immigration was an issue that played strongly for the Brexit cause.

Myth No 7: Leave campaigners didn’t want to win

It is strange how many leading Leave players are convinced that others on their side were desperate to lose. Vote Leavers will argue that Farage and UKIP were hoping for a narrow defeat. They had seen what defeat in the Scottish referendum had done to support for the SNP and hoped that a Remain win would leave voters in northern Labour-held constituencies feeling cheated, creating the perfect storm for a UKIP breakthrough. 

Farage’s opponents inside and outside UKIP argue that he has pushed messages which speak very strongly to 20 or 30 per cent of the electorate, but are toxic to the majority. They cite the so-called Farage Paradox — as UKIP becomes more popular and the party gets more exposure, support for leaving the EU drops. The defection in 2014 of Conservative MP Douglas Carswell to UKIP was as much to do with detoxifying UKIP and making it less unacceptable to sections of the electorate as it was to do with putting pressure on Cameron — or so we have been told by someone well placed to understand the Clacton MP’s motives. But whether or not the “Farage paradox” is an observable phenomenon, Farage’s motives in the referendum were honest. His decision to step down as UKIP leader certainly implies that, for him, Brexit was the ultimate goal. When we asked him if a referendum defeat would have helped UKIP, Farage replied: “Massively. A narrow loss and the Leave side saying the Prime Minister cheated — that would help UKIP.  But that’s not the point. I was thrilled to win.”

Just as Farage wanted to win, so did Boris Johnson. Vote Leave’s opponents will try to tell you that Johnson hoped for a narrow loss and that the campaign was about who would take over from Cameron, not leaving the EU. If that were the case, it must go down as one of the least successful campaigns of all time. But conspiracy theories about the Vote Leave camp do not stop there. One director of the campaign even shared with us his theory that a senior politician was only involved in the campaign in order to actively undermine it.

What a story that would be, but unfortunately there is no meaningful evidence that anyone in the Brexit camp was trying to lose. Leading Brexiteers undoubtedly had half an eye on what the referendum meant for the leadership of the Conservatives and the country (and who can blame them?). Yet no one was deliberately undermining the campaign — rather, different parts of the Brexit coalition believed in radically different political strategies. Vote Leave and Leave.EU/UKIP were at loggerheads over messaging. Within Vote Leave there were strong disagreements about the balance to strike when attacking the Prime Minister. But — and we apologise to the conspiracy theorists for this discovery — everyone wanted to win.

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One final corrective. A line thoughtlessly trotted out by newsreaders and leader writers is that, after the Brexit vote, “Britain is a divided nation”. This is a platitude and the danger with platitudes is that they become empty vessels into which pundits can pour whatever meaning suits them. Roughly half the country voted to Leave, half to Remain. In that sense we are divided, just as a country is divided after any vote. And one can draw fair and meaningful demographic distinctions between Leave and Remain voters. But to rewrite the Brexit vote as a referendum on anything more fundamental than whether or not we should be a member of the EU is mistaken. To do so is to forget that Britain has for a long time been a Eurosceptic country, and that the EU has very little sentimental appeal to the British. Brexit means Brexit, as Theresa May memorably said. That works both ways. It means no less than Britain leaving the EU. It also means no more than that.