Massive Moment. The seven individuals whose decisions led to the UK leaving the EU tonight
It is finally here. A mere three years, seven months and eight days after the UK voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum, it will, at 11pm tonight, barring a meteorite strike or similar, formally in constitutional, political and legal terms depart from the European Union.
Some will celebrate with (English) champagne and others will drown their sorrows with continental alcoholic liquids. The world will not, admittedly, feel that different come Monday morning as the UK will have entered a transition period until at least December 31st of this year in which it is, in effect, still a member of the single market and the customs union, albeit with no voice or vote as to how either function.
This is still a massive moment and one that changes the terms of trade about the relationship between this country and the continent completely. The option of a second referendum has been killed stone dead. Any future plebiscite would have to be about (re-) joining the EU under Article 49 of the Treaty of Lisbon and like other applicants this would involve accepting, among other provisions, an eventual membership of the single currency. Those who want to opt-in to the EU do not win opt-outs as well.
So, it is worth reflecting on how this momentous decision came to pass and what it might imply as to the character of British politics and politicians. This FTI UK Political Analysis will make the case that seven individuals ultimately played the most decisive roles in what came to be known as “Brexit”, even if they did not believe that was what they were doing at the time that they acted as they did.
The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) was arguably the most destructive conflict in European history and left at least eight million fatalities in its aftermath. Compared with that, Brexit has been an admirably peaceful saga. There is, however, a strong case that its roots can be traced back for three decades.
It was Margaret Thatcher’s address at the College of Europe in Bruges on September 20th, 1988 that changed the British discourse on Europe. Mrs Thatcher had never been a wild enthusiast for what had originally been the EEC, had become the EC and was en route to being rechristened the EU, but she had campaigned to remain a member in 1975, was engaged with Brussels as Prime Minister (albeit in a stormy manner as she sought to secure her budget rebate) and was a critical player in the early stages of the single market, conceding the principle of qualified majority voting (QMV) over unanimity in some spheres in order to render it viable. By mid-1988, her mind was changing. Jacques Delors, President of the European Commission, had an ambitious agenda for further integration, the blueprint for eventual monetary union and a vision of a “Social Europe”. Mrs Thatcher had no time for any of this and her public rejection of his strategy and sentiment in Bruges was transformative.
In retrospect, 1988 was the year that the two major parties in the UK started to swap sides on the EU. Before then, the centre-right strongly favoured membership largely for economic reasons and the centre-left was badly divided on the matter but instinctively unsympathetic to Europe. Labour had pledged to leave the EEC if elected in 1983 but toned that down to a more neutral stance at the 1987 election. By 1988, Neil Kinnock had been converted to the EC cause. Just 12 days before Mrs Thatcher fired off her words in Bruges, Mr Delors had received a rapturous reception at the TUC Conference in Bournemouth after a speech that set out a notion of Europe to benefit workers. After September 1988, the divide between the centre-left and centre-right over the EU became a chasm.
Mrs Thatcher’s impact went beyond one speech in Belgium. The circumstances of her fall in 1990 were so intimately related to her disagreements with Cabinet colleagues on Europe that those who had supported her deemed Euroscepticism to be essential to keeping her flame alight. She was willing to split with her successor and openly opposed the Maastricht Treaty. She would conduct episodic interventions after that, but declining health limited her ability to lead the anti-EU camp. Despite this, in Conservative circles, Thatcherism became synonymous with hostility to the EU.
Tony Blair came to office in 1997 determined to recast the UK’s vexed relationship with the EU. In this aim, he was influenced by Roy Jenkins, the UK’s former President of the European Commission and founder of the SDP, who had become something of a personal mentor on a range of
matters. But it was a series of missteps by Mr Blair which would move Euroscepticism into the mainstream.
The first was his botched attempt to prepare the ground for the UK to enter the single currency. This would require a referendum and hence public opinion would need to be “softened up”. As Gordon Brown, his Chancellor (urged on by Ed Balls who had deep intellectual reservations about the whole notion of monetary union), was staunchly opposed to the entire endeavour, the Prime Minister attempted to find an independent route via his backing for various Britain in Europe organisations which would make the case for the euro. All this did was serve as the catalyst for the creation of a campaigning outfit on the other side – Business for Sterling – fronted by one Dominic Cummings. Business for Sterling ran rings around the pro-euro fraternity, the idea of a referendum on the euro was abandoned in 2003 and never revisited while Labour was in office. Eurosceptics tasted blood.
Mr Blair would make matters worse by his second miscalculation. He decided, in part in fairness on estimates that proved woefully mistaken, that the UK would not exercise its right to limit the free movement of citizens from the various central and eastern European nations that had acceded to the EU in 2004. Almost every other member state did so for an interim period. The result was a wave of migration over which the UK Government now had no effective control. Immigration had been a potentially explosive subject in UK politics before but one which was deemed separate from that of the EU (as most of those who had entered the UK were from “New Commonwealth” countries). After 2004, EU membership and high immigration levels were capable of being combined together.
Mr Blair’s final contribution to the Brexit cause came through the Treaty of Lisbon. In a doomed drive to make it more appealing to the local electorate (particularly when at one stage the whole effort was being packaged as an “EU Constitution” for which a referendum might be needed), it was the UK which insisted on the insertion of what would become the fabled Article 50 exit clause as until that moment it was not clear if and how any state could detach itself from the EU. This was supposed to be a campaigning point (for a campaign that never happened). It was an own goal.
At one stage during his successful drive to become Conservative Party leader in 2005, David Cameron described himself at a private function as the “heir to Blair”. As said event was a lunch with a national newspaper, his words leaked faster than the Mary Rose. In an ironic sense, when it came to inadvertently undermining the UK’s membership of the EU, Mr Cameron was entirely accurate.
The Cameron component in this script comes in several instalments. Although he had said in 2005 that the Conservatives had to stop “banging on about Europe”, he himself had done so in the early months of the leadership election when he decided to outflank David Davis, the front-runner, by declaring that the Conservatives would withdraw from the European People’s Party (the forum for almost every other centre-right party in the EU) if he were to become Leader of the Opposition. To say that he did not appreciate the challenges and complexities this would cause is putting it mildly.
This pales in comparison with the circumstances and considerations which led to his speech at the Bloomberg London offices in January 2013 in which he pledged that a majority Conservative Party government would hold an “in-out” referendum on EU membership if it acquired office in 2015.
The backdrop to this verge on the farcical. In late 2012, the mood in 10 Downing Street was dark. The economy, a recovery in which was pencilled in as the springboard for re-election, was flat. The Conservative Party in Parliament was in a restless mood on Europe with 81 backbench MPs defying the Prime Minister by endorsing a referendum on EU membership. UKIP was increasing its support. If the economy was not to be a trump card for the Conservatives in 2015 something else had to be.
This triggered a spectacular U-Turn by Mr Cameron. He decided to promise a referendum but on the determination that it would shut down dissent on Europe inside the Conservative Party, shoot the UKIP fox and yet probably never need to be conducted as an outright Conservative majority did not appear very likely and the Liberal Democrats would not stand for such a plebiscite if they were to remain in any post-election coalition with the Conservatives. As matters developed, though, the referendum gambit did not end public disagreement on Europe inside the Conservative Party, it did not shoot the UKIP fox in that it obtained 12.8% of the vote in 2015 and it did have to be delivered.
When the referendum actually arrived, Mr Cameron completed his collection of unforced errors by overpromising what his semi re-negotiation could achieve, assuming that personal loyalty to him from the likes of Michael Gove would minimise Cabinet support for Leave and then presiding over a Remain campaign that largely replicated the “No” formula in Scotland in September 2014 but in a very different set of conditions. He was thus politically eviscerated once the UK voted to quit the EU.
For a man who has stood for election to the House of Commons seven times and lost at each ballot, Nigel Farage has been an astonishingly important figure in British politics. His impact has been felt in several ways. As UKIP leader from 2006-2009 and 2010-2016 he provided the anti-EU cause with a “face” and, crucially, one outside of the Conservative Party who could appeal to those who disliked UK membership of the EU but historically had been Labour loyalists. He was also the first politician to understand how the EU and the emerging controversy surrounding post-2004 immigration might be fused as one. This was part of a bigger strategic shift in which he edged UKIP away from being a single-issue force which focused on elections to the European Parliament every five years to that of a multi-purpose populist entity. That switch made it far more of a menace to the Conservative Party.
Mr Farage made that move in large part because he had also spotted something which others were slow to notice. The 2010 election had led to both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats entering government while the Labour Party, still battered and bruised by its association with the recession induced by the global financial crisis, comprised the opposition. In such conditions, there was a huge gap in the market for the “protest vote” that was almost certain to occur in mid-term. North of the border it would be Alex Salmond and the SNP who would make the most of this. In England, and to some degree Wales, it was UKIP and Mr Farage who seized upon the opportunity.
His final act, paradoxically, was to shore up the Brexit cause by resigning from and putting to the sword UKIP itself, which had become a fringe institution flirting with the very far right. The launch of The Brexit Party as Theresa May failed to legislate for an orderly withdrawal from the EU and had to seek an extension of Article 50 was a masterstroke of opportunism and timing. It led to his huge win and her vast defeat at the European Parliament elections, her subsequent resignation, the victory of Boris Johnson as her successor, an election in which his decision to stand down all candidates in the seats which the Conservatives held was seminal and the final parliamentary approval of withdrawal.
The devoted pro-European Nick Clegg also played his part in the end of the UK’s participation in the EU. It is a forgotten detail that in 2010, the Liberal Democrat manifesto had an in-out referendum in it to assist their candidates in the South West of England. Mr Clegg had inherited this policy from his predecessor, Sir Menzies Campbell, thought it was risible but did nothing about it. This made it much harder for him to object to Mr Cameron’s pivot on a referendum in 2013. He had also failed to take a stand on Europe earlier in the coalition administration when in December 2011 Mr Cameron cast his veto against an inter-governmental treaty designed to shore up the eurozone (this was a very largely symbolic deed as the other then 26 EU members found a different device to do the same thing). This meant that the Conservative leader felt confident that he could attempt to appease his right flank without the risk of the coalition collapsing over Europe. Finally, Mr Clegg never found a message to attract votes at the 2015 election. If citizens liked the coalition, they disproportionately rewarded the Conservatives. If they disliked it, they disproportionately blamed the Liberal Democrats for this.
Mr Corbyn (and by extension all those Labour MPs who nominated him in 2015 despite disagreeing with him) may not have become Prime Minister but he is a central figure in the Brexit process. He had a long record of solid animosity to the EU which he never recanted with any credibility. His inner circle either did not care about EU membership one way or the other or were privately against it. Mr Corbyn deliberately maintained a low profile during the referendum campaign in 2016 and when he made his most extensive speech in favour of the UK staying in the EU noted the efforts of Brussels to ensure cleaner beaches and to enhance the bee population. Citing what had happened to Labour in Scotland after the “Better Together” campaign in the 2014 independence referendum there, he also adamantly refused to be seen on any public platform with Mr Cameron or any leading Conservative. If he had done so, this might have sent a signal to undecided Labour adherents as to how to vote. In the absence of such a direction, around 40 per cent of those who had backed Labour in the election of 2015 either did not know where their party stood on EU membership or thought it wanted Brexit.
Last and (surprisingly) in many ways least is the present Prime Minister. His gift to the referendum campaign in 2016 was to provide it some charismatic leadership and to offer reassurance to those Conservatives inclined to desert Mr Cameron that it was legitimate for them to do so. Yet it was Mr Gove’s decision to abandon his old friend and follow his convictions first that was arguably the more significant moment, and which forced Boris Johnson’s hand. He did resign over Mrs May’s proposed “Chequers Plan” in July 2018 but only after David Davis had quit first which left him with little choice if he was to maintain his ambitions. He did, obviously, eventually obtain the leadership of his party, become the Prime Minister and triumph at the general election on December 12, but in all of this Mr Farage and The Brexit Party assisted him in spades and Mr Corbyn proved a useful opponent as well. It is, nevertheless, Mr Johnson, a man whose absolute allegiance to the Brexit cause in 2016 was not universally convincing who will be the Prime Minister who tonight takes the UK out of the EU.
This leads, briefly, to a short set of conclusions. The first is that accident matters more than design. Only one of the seven people here (Mr Farage) consistently made the case for abandoning the EU. Mrs Thatcher was probably with him in spirit but dead by 2016. Mr Blair, Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg all wanted to keep the UK in the EU. Mr Corbyn and Mr Johnson were enigmatic on the matter. The second is that (with 1988 as the start of the crossover) at no point in the entire history of the UK’s membership of the EEC/EC/EU would there be overwhelming elite support in both of the two major parties for the direction that the EU was taking. The absence of such a consensus would prove fatal. The third is the extent to which the supposedly “Rolls Royce” UK civil service provided flawed advice (over the impact of QMV, on likely immigration flows after 2004, on the economic outlook for 2013-2015) which led three Prime Ministers to make decisions that they later came to regret. The fourth is the extent to which entirely short-term and mostly tactical moves were undertaken in response to domestic politics and internal party management considerations that would come to undercut the longer-term and strategic stance that several Prime Ministers held about the UK and EU. The last is the element of luck in all of this of which Mr Johnson, a walking fortune cookie if ever there was one, would find himself as the political equivalent of a lottery winner thanks to a series of moves and mishaps by others across no less than five political parties (the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, UKIP and The Brexit Party). For those of us who are sad enough to be obsessed with the operation of government and politics in the UK, these conclusions and factors are extremely familiar.