Tag Archives: Dan Hannan

My referendum day memories from inside the campaign

I am today pondering two very powerful words. They are ‘what’ and ‘if’. What if, on this day one year ago, the British electorate had voted for their country to remain within the European Union? What if we had been on the losing end of a gruelling and hard-fought referendum campaign? What if the tides that had hardened British public opinion against EU membership been whisked away, only to be replaced by many more years of ever closer political union?

For somebody like me, it is a frightening thought. As I type I can recall the restlessness and agitation that characterised June 23rd 2016. I am reminded of the uncomfortable train journey I took to work (at Vote Leave HQ), at 5am a year ago, in which I sat slumped in the carriage, nerve-stricken and tired, trying simultaneously to envisage victory and suppress any useless over-confidence.

It was an overcast morning, I seem to recall, which grew cloudier and very windy as the day progressed, and was marred by incessant rail disruption, which started (luckily) after I got to work. Any London commuters on that day will remember the disaster of trying to get home. A quick Google reminded me that flooding and storms were the cause. One memory I have of June 23rd, that has remained etched into my mind, is of the packed concourse at Waterloo station, which at the time pleased me as I thought it possible that many Remain-supporting Londoners would not be able to get home in time to vote.

As I arrived at work on polling day, the office was typically quiet. Part of my job was to monitor all Vote Leave and referendum press coverage; hence the early starts and long shifts. This was the case every morning until about 7, when Press and Research would arrive. But on June 23rd, things were a little different. The morning beforehand, most of the team had taken the coach down to Dover, where a final campaign push had been planned.

I was asked to stay in the office on the final day and so did not get to go, but that I did not mind. Much of the day, until colleagues returned around 10pm, remained eerily quiet. It provided me with quite a lot of time to think about the campaign; to mull over my personal contribution, fret about the result and keep a beady eye on voter activity through social media channels.

I spent a good part of the morning examining the major newspapers, and was particularly happy with the Sun’s beautiful splash, which I’ll never forget for as long as I live. It read: ‘Independence Day’, with an image of sunrise over the United Kingdom, with the stars on the European Union flag retreating back towards the continent. One of the great reliefs of the campaign was the support we aroused amongst the country’s most-read newspapers. They may not carry the political weight that they used to, but they certainly help to influence public opinion.

As the day wore on, in surprisingly uneventful fashion, my emotions started to get the better of me a little bit. I suppose I was in part frustrated at the long waiting game ahead and in part angered by statuses written by friends on Facebook, with whom I should not have bothered to engage in argument. That day, I amassed three fallings out, which disappointed me as I am not usually the type to let political beliefs jeopardise personal relationships.

I spoke about this on BBC London News about two weeks after the referendum. The scale of the issue, I think, provided exactly the sort of fertile soil for arguments and family splits. In the video package presented by the BBC, my section was contrasted with a focus on three ethnic minority voters who had experienced racism post-result (which of course had everything to do with voting to Leave and nothing whatsoever to do with pre-existing personal bigotry). It was a characteristically Remain-heavy segment, but I was not so bothered.

I spent much of June 23rd clearing out my desk, tidying up my work and making final preparations for my last work duties, which made me a little emotional. I hated 12 hour shifts, but the immense privilege of being a part of it all is something I will always treasure. One of the many valuable things I learned at the job was the importance of teamwork and making everybody aware that we are all in something together, working towards the same goal.

Some colleagues also stayed in Westminster that day and did not follow the team down to Dover. I believe that Matthew Elliott and Gisela Stewart had journeyed to Manchester, though for reasons I was unaware of. The feeling amongst those who were in the office was quiet enthusiasm. We had been monitoring polling trends carefully and had produced rigorous data that gave us a reasonable impression of how different sorts of people and different constituencies would vote.

I chatted with colleagues and took part in some ‘thanks for everything’ campaign photos and videos, which were released a couple of weeks later. I spent much of the day reflecting on what it was I had been involved in, especially given I was just 20 years old and our youngest employee. I thanked our politicians who dropped by, like Douglas Carswell and Michael Gove, who were both very pleasant to me when we spoke and always gave up their time to thank those less senior in the campaign for their efforts.

As the evening drew in, the wind picked up, the clouds darkened and my nerves rattled with renewed vigour. My plan, initially, was to get the train home at 6pm and come back to headquarters at around midnight, either by train or the night bus. Rail disruption made this impossible, so I had dinner at a local pizza restaurant with a colleague and took a two-hour nap on the floor underneath my desk, taking advantage of the periodic silence.

By the time I had woken up, (which must have been around 9pm) other campaign figures had returned from their Dover escapades and were filing back into the office. I chose to make my way home, as something resembling normal train service had resumed, making sure to get a few winks as I knew that the early hours of the morning would be stressful and restless.

The night bus brought me back to Westminster at just gone 11pm, where I grabbed some food and headed straight for the office. I was happy to see it full and lively. Everybody associated with us was there, minus Gisela and Matthew Elliott, who were in Manchester, and Suzanne Evans, who arrived a little later on. I took my usual seat, next to Penny Mordaunt, whose phone charger I asked to borrow as I had killed my battery on the way keeping my eyes fixed on BBC News and the ‘Britain Elects’ Twitter feed (which has proved a life saver on the night of major political events).

Everybody sat facing the three large televisions as results continued to leak through. Then, something extraordinary happened: Sunderland declared. Before arriving at the office, the Newcastle result had come through, and we had lost there, but by a shockingly small margin, which had given me real hope. Sunderland, though, had opted to leave the European Union. Enormous cheers thundered around the seventh floor of Westminster Tower, perhaps slightly prematurely.

This particular result had suggested two things: that our polling was accurate and that the rural Labour vote had turned out for Leave. At around half past 12 in the morning, the champagne glasses were out. We were very confident. I don’t usually drink, or particularly like, champagne, but Tom Harwood (a friend and leader of the Leave student component) was already on it and sitting the other side of me so I thought: ‘fuck it, why not?’

The good news kept coming. BBC, Sky and ITV pundits, one by one, began to call the referendum in our favour. Every time a major seat (such as, for instance, Cardiff) announced its result we’d sit in collective silence and anticipation. It was almost like we were watching a Cup Final penalty shootout. Though of course this was much, much bigger.

Then, at around 2pm, every major media organisation had officially called a Leave victory. I don’t recall ever feeling such impassioned and joyful relief in my entire life. We knew at this point that it was only a waiting game. Our messages had hit the country and our voters had turned out in droves. The office environment became more relaxed and those present began to discuss anecdotes and memories of the campaign. Things could still go wrong, but nothing could wipe the smiles off of our faces. We were within touching distance.

I began to guess what the confirmed result would be. My friend and Vote Leave Research Director Oliver Lewis had told me some weeks before that he suspected 52-48 in our favour, though his then-fiancé later informed me that at home he was not quite so confident. We discussed morale and the result a lot, and I took his thoughts seriously because he’s an extremely smart guy. One thing I knew was that it would not be a demolition job; the scale of the issue was far too big for an annhiliation either way.

As I think back now, I realise how quickly the time went that morning. 2pm, 3pm and 4pm all now seem like a blur. They seemed to congeal together in a haze of shock and glee. A part of me wishes I could go back and re-live those early hours. They were undoubtedly the most jubilant in my lifetime. I had personally devoted three months of twelve-hour shifts, amassing four days off, and many hundreds of miles travelling around the country beforehand in order to participate in localised activism.

But pass those hours did, and at 4pm, the result of the referendum was announced. I managed at this point to do something I had never done before: I cried genuine tears of joy. My head sank into my hands and I sobbed uncontrollably. I had, at one point, three female colleagues hovering around me, offering me hugs and kind words of congratulations. It certainly wasn’t my most masculine moment. But it was my happiest.

I weaved in and around the office, thanking every colleague I could hug, many of them multiple times. I regret the pictures of me from that day hugely; I had not washed or slept for almost two days and my hair was greasier than a large Doner, not that I had an ounce of care. Darren Grimes, who I had come to know reasonably well during the campaign, returned to the office from a television appearance he had made and joined the celebrations. Shockingly, he seemed to be able to hold it together better than I had.

Then Suzanne Evans made an appearance, which pleased me greatly as I had grown to like her as a person and thought of her as a great tower of strength and reliability throughout the referendum (I wish her well in her battle with cancer). We spoke about a number of things for a good twenty minutes and she offered me a little advice ahead of a potential career in politics. ‘Do something else before you hold office’, she told me. ‘You’ll be more respected that way’. I suspect she is correct.

Minutes later, emotions bubbled to the surface once more as a couple of very heartfelt speeches were made, first by Dan Hannan (who unfollowed me on Twitter the next day), and then, more importantly, by Dominic Cummings, who had directed the campaign beautifully. I have a good video of the post-result speech that Dom made, but have sought to keep it private as I believe he would prefer that. Indeed, many of these memories are extremely powerful and private.

But the morning wasn’t crowned off until I left the office, starving and exhausted, at around 6am. I had planned to stick around until McDonalds had begun serving breakfast, as there is no better way to spend a morning than with a double sausage and egg Mcmuffin in your mouth. I left McDonalds with two (‘you deserve it, I told myself’) and walked back to Albert Embankment, taking a seat on one of the benches next to the Thames.

I watched as the sun rose gloriously, and appropriately, over the Palace of Westminster. All was well.

 

 

 

 

 


Confession: I think the EU referendum was a mistake

I now think that holding a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union was a mistake. I have, I fear, reached this conclusion far too slowly.

I suspect it was the glamour of it all; the honour of working at the heart of a history-making political campaign that clouded my judgement.

I was in the midst of it all a 20-year old that had been given a fantastic first job I was arguably too immature for. That is not to say that it wasn’t anything other than a modest role, but to me it meant the world.

This, combined with occasional television appearances after the result, got to my head a little too much. I should have realised sooner that simply taking part in the referendum would not be enough.

It is a matter of head versus heart. The heart looks back with fondness at the privilege of campaigning and the many friends and contacts made.

But the head is nagging me about our constitutional difficulties, ambiguous Brexit options and unstable, incompetent leadership during such a sensitive period.

I always try my utmost to allow my head to win these battles. And so in this case I must concede that referendums are not the way to exercise ground-breaking political reform.

It has been quietly obvious for a while now that the real winner of the referendum was in fact David Cameron, who was able to use the result to slip out of government in time and avoid the mess we are now in.

He and his advisors probably saw all of this coming. I predicted as the results were coming through on June 23rd that he would step down as Prime Minister, but, rather naively, did not foresee the obstacles that acting on the result has since faced.

The main problem with last year’s plebiscite was that it did not provide clarity for those like Richard North who supported both Brexit and membership of the single market.

I wish I had taken notice of researchers like him (and indeed his blog eureferendum.com) much earlier than I did. He and his son Pete, bizarrely inept at social interaction, have yielded answers to complex questions for longer than our media has been able to keep up.

Referenda are binary, usually offered to appease the electorate and are and deliberately oversimplified. The options given lack nuance, ensuring they provide exactly the fertile soil for disruption and chaos. This is why governments tend to support the status quo option. 

Our EU referendum created the inevitable problem that, in the event of a Leave vote, which became predictable weeks before polling day, ambiguity over what kind of Brexit its voters would prefer caused poisonous hostility. 

Now, a simple way of getting round this would have been to alter ballots in New Zealand-style fashion and ask those voting for Brexit a second question: “Do you think the UK should remain a member of the single market?”

Of course, we know what the answer would be if folk were well-informed. Since immigration was the largest single issue aroused by our camp, most would have opted for a single market exit too.

But that is not the point. My point is that a referendum over such a huge issue created a mandate for a policy without a policy. We were left directionless in an uphill battle.

And what made it worse was the fact that we had a government responsible for addressing the policy that did not agree with its premise in the first place. 

Despite being an exercise in direct democracy, our referendum exposed a sharp disconnect between public opinion and the preferences of those in the Westminster bubble. 

Referenda are, as I now appreciate more fully, renowned moreso for the constitutional upheaval they generate. Crimea in 2014 is perhaps a more extreme example. 

Since signalling for EU departure is the most profound democratic decision made by the British electorate arguably in history, it is no surprise that our politicians can barely organise themselves to adhere to it. 

In hindsight, a much more durable alternative to a national poll would have been a clear manifesto commitment, from either of the two major parties, to leaving.

Both Labour and the Tories have more than their fair share of voters wanting out, and any party claiming to be government material must be able to embrace the possibilities that come with legislative repatriation.

Yes, upon election, there would still have been the grave difficulties of negotiation, but at least direction and mandates would be more clearly established.

The only reason why neither party dared to do this was because they were (and still largely are) afflicted by the lingering Blairism that for so long prevented them from carrying out policies supported by faithless voters.

David Cameron certainly wouldn’t accept such an inclusion in a Tory manifesto. He is as supportive of the European project as they come.

A mutual friend of Dan Hannan and I, and notable Flexcit supporter, once told me that during his years at university, Mr Cameron donned prized cufflinks sporting the EU flag.

And the party’s current stock of leadership contenders aren’t much different, I might add. A referendum may therefore seem like an escape from this problem, but in reality caused many new ones of its own.

Had there been no referendum, significant pressure from Tory party members would have spurned their politicians into action, I am sure of it. 

I sometimes wonder what the European Commission and fellow member states think of all this. They cannot possibly consider Mrs May to be tough negotiating material.

She made far too humiliating a mess of last week’s General Election to be considered so, and only remains in Number 10 thanks to a cynical, gentleman’s agreement from the DUP (who themselves favour what we call ‘soft’ Brexit).

I must also point out here that in no way do I regret my vote or campaigning last year. I am as fervent a supporter of our secession as one can be. I just think that our means of securing that exit were profoundly flawed.

And since elections are now heavily influenced by last year’s result, as was expected given how divided we are, it may as well have been a party decision to take us out after all.

 


Brexit: where the hell are we?

So much Brexit-related news has been whirring around in recent weeks that I’ve barely had the chance to take it all in, let alone write thoughtfully about it. Maybe this is a deliberate policy: confuse and mystify the population into lethargy so as to calm down the waves of anger which bubbled to the surface after last year’s referendum result. First we had the government’s initial and expected defeat at the Supreme Court concerning the extent to which parliament should be consulted before the Brexit process was fully underway. Then we had Theresa May’s outline in broad terms of what the government’s negotiating plan was upon the invoking of Article 50. I still think we shall miss the proposed deadline of March 31st.

Amongst all this we have a Labour Party trying to figure out what its policy will be on Britain’s access to the single market and a campaign of attrition being fought by senior Remain figures in an attempt to delay and frustrate the Brexit process. Earlier today, the government’s unsuccessful appeal in the Supreme Court was lauded by those who for 40 years simply ignored the diminished role of Westminster’s parliament as a victory for parliamentary sovereignty.

Their newfound insistence that parliament must be at the front and centre of decision making is a mere smokescreen; a fake designed to give off the impression that they are providing our EU withdrawal with ‘scrutiny’, while they conveniently ignore the fact that in 2015, parliament itself voted to sanction a national referendum, thus circumventing the decision and passing responsibility onto the electorate. Despite the constitutional problems we are currently weathering, the decision to hold a referendum was, I think, the best possible way to address the issue, given its magnitude and relevance to an increasing proportion of British public policy.

So here we are. Somewhere between a rock and a hard place, trying to figure out when and how best to orchestrate our way out of four decades of intricate political and economic integration. The distractions certainly aren’t helping anybody, but at least both the House of Commons and Peers look set to approve invoking Article 50, even if they can’t stand its implications. As for the public? Confusion and anger so effortlessly stirred up by the mass media have taken their toll on a country sitting in a uniquely perplexing situation. Nobody knows or understands anything; the perfect setting for a government about to embark upon a mission it doesn’t look remotely prepared for.

I am no exception. I have more holes in my knowledge than I would care to admit, and like almost everybody I am susceptible to falling into the traps of fake news and misleading information. Where and when I can I try to consult experts – who, I notice, are always politically independent and left depressingly adrift from the mainstream narrative – like Pete North, whose blog (which can be read here) has proved a useful tool for strengthening my understanding of the current political climate. Likewise, the ‘Independent Britain’ and ‘EUReferendum’ blogs are invaluable if facts, and not tribal spin, are your cup of tea.

For the last year I tried to be an independent and reliable source of information, but there were a few obstacles that prevented me from being so. I was, of course, closely attached to Vote Leave, and so owing to the PR industry’s stronghold on political discourse, I too frequently confused what made for effective campaigning with what represented either a credible plan for a British EU withdrawal or with what was undisputable fact. On top of this, I need time to delve more extensively into the subject matter at hand. I do not have any real expertise in areas like European law or trade, so remain committed to following only those who do. If only more ‘professional Brexiteers’ owned up to the glaring craters in their knowledge, the public might more aptly be able to distinguish between those who know their content and those who do not.

If playing a privileged part in an historic referendum taught me one thing, it is that researchers are indeed the experts, and not those who pose as authoritative figures whilst away from the cameras lacking any real grasp of their subject matter – and yes, I’m looking at you, Dan Hannan. I have deliberately avoided writing about the kind of Brexit I’d want for Britain so as not to flood the information swamp with yet more swampland. I cite the aforementioned websites as a gesture of gratitude more so than an inauguration into the infamous Flexcit club; a group of people unfairly demonised by fellow Leavers, including myself in the past, for not adequately prioritising issues like sovereignty and immigration. If only I and others had known that it wasn’t as simple as this.

I would much rather go away and find out about the ins and outs of leaving the single market before I begin bellowing into the winds about trade, controlling immigration, leaving the ECJ and what a Customs Union exit would mean for imports. I say this not to belittle myself (I pride myself on my ability to learn quickly), but to ensure that I don’t become part of the circus of ill-informed puppeteers dominating the Brexit agenda and spreading unhelpful fantasies. If I am not well informed on an issue or have nothing fresh to contribute, I will avoid it.

We need clarity. Clarity that wasn’t provided by the Prime Minister’s vague, recycled speech last week. By far the most worrying part of her speech came, rather ironically, in the section concerning certainty. It said:

“And when it comes to Parliament, there is one other way in which I would like to provide certainty. I can confirm today that the Government will put the final deal that is agreed between the UK and the EU to a vote in both Houses of Parliament, before it comes into force.”[1]

It was at this point that the pound regained some of its lost value against major currencies. This is hardly surprising when one considers what it means for the process of leaving. Since common sense and the UK’s budgetary contributions to the European Union both suggest that EU leaders will try as hard as they can to make an example out of Britain so as to dissuade other member states (particularly France, as an election looms) from leaving, a deal reached by the UK and European Council is likely to be arched in favour of the latter, increasing the probability that parliament will vote to reject an agreement that the UK’s negotiating team come back with. Remember, May wants to take Britain out of the single market. This means that pursuing what is known as the EEA option (the blogs I provided links to above have great material on this theme) and thus arranging a simpler, more orderly exit is out of the question.

So when you read the following excerpt from the EU’s briefing on state withdrawal:

The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.”[2]

…you begin to see why that particular paragraph in the government’s plan creates exactly the kind of complication and uncertainty that we do not need. In trying to provide clarity, the Prime Minister played right into the hands of the European Union’s negotiating team. As a time limit of two years sits firmly in place (an agreed extension seems unlikely with other pressing issues on the EU’s plate), Britain’s chances of making a success of withdrawal get ever slimmer. And only an idiot would believe that leaving with no deal would be better than our current relationship.

So where the hell are we with Brexit? Will we ever get what more than 17 million of us voted for? I’m starting to think that Peter Hitchens was right about this whole thing: we may be able to check out, but we may never leave.

 

Footnotes

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-governments-negotiating-objectives-for-exiting-the-eu-pm-speech

[2] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2016/577971/EPRS_BRI(2016)577971_EN.pdf