Euroscepticism in the Tory Party, 1992-2014
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): Do you consider yourself, or have you always considered yourself, a Eurosceptic first and a Conservative second? Was Euroscepticism your driving purpose in politics?
Douglas Carswell (DC): Absolutely, yes, it’s the only reason I ever stood for election. I don’t particularly like politics.
UKICE: And you were always someone who wanted to leave rather than reform the European Union?
UKICE: I was in favour of reform until I met Daniel Hannan in, I think it was, 1992 at Bellamy’s restaurant in Westminster. I had a conversation with him about reform versus secession, and he convinced me that we needed to leave, and we couldn’t reason with a project that was essentially Habsburg in origin.
UKICE: In the earliest part of this century, you first sought selection as a Conservative candidate. Was Europe a live issue back then in the Conservative Party?
UKICE: Europe was a live issue among the grassroots of the party back then, even if it was not such a big deal the higher up the party hierarchy. I was speaking to a lot of grass roots Conservatives in order to try to get selected as a Parliamentary candidate. One had to tread very carefully, because the party hierarchy in London didn’t want people with views like mine to make it onto the candidate shortlist. But the activist base to whom one was talking to try to get selected were very receptive to the idea of leaving the European Union. Although, it was considered such a radical idea that often they were rather surprised to hear someone articulating it so openly.
UKICE: Would you have backed David Cameron for the leadership had he not pledged to leave the European People’s Party? Was that the thing that swung it for you?
DC: Yes, we put in the thumbscrews and we twisted, and he gave us that concession. It was the reason we voted for him. It was the deal we made with him.
UKICE: But at the same time, just after that, he made his comments about not ‘banging on about Europe’.
UKICE: It’s always better to deal with a malleable Remainer than a pretend Eurosceptic like Liam Fox or David Davis. Old school Eurosceptics had spent decades experiencing defeat and retreat because they put their faith in pretend sceptics who would always end up taking us closer into the European project. It’s much better to have an open Remainer who you can reason with than a bogus sceptic.
UKICE: And just in terms of the pre-history of the referendum, how crucial do you think the expenses scandal was in shifting attitudes about Westminster and contributing to that vote in 2016?
DC: It was enormously important. It’s easy to forget this now, but Euroscepticism, as it had been nurtured by the men of Maastricht, was seen as an affliction of the elite and an obsession of a sectional interest in the Tory Party. Back in 2005, 2006 Daniel Hannan and I were talking about how to marry the idea of Euroscepticism to localism to make them different sides of the same coin, so that this appetite for devolving power away from political elites and from central government outward and downward became part of the Eurosceptic repertoire.
We wrote a book to try to achieve this called ‘The Plan’ and it was, essentially, a proposal to pass power outward and downward, of which Euroscepticism was a part. And we thought, if we could create and convert the Tory Party to localism as a coherent plan, they would have to embrace devolving power outward and downward from the greatest quango of the lot, the European Commission in Brussels.
We advocated for this idea about localism, and then along comes the expenses scandal, which suddenly makes people realise that power in the hands of unaccountable elites is absolutely toxic. It massively increased this populist appetite for political reform and for taking power away from them, the establishment. This massively fed into our narrative.
‘The Plan’ itself was regarded as a fairly obscure little publication published six months before the expenses scandal. The expense scandal then breaks, and it sells 20,000 copies, pretty good for a Tory Party political pamphlet. And it seems so obvious now, but it certainly wasn’t obvious at the time; the thought that Euroscepticism is on the side of the little guy, that Euroscepticism is on the side of the people against the political establishment, was popularised. This didn’t happen by accident. This narrative was preparation in the form of the localist agenda meeting opportunity, the expenses scandal.
And when those two came together, and we suddenly had a very, very powerful narrative. When we started to look at opinion polling, suddenly we could move beyond talking the language of sovereignty in the constitution when trying to appeal to people to create a Eurosceptic coalition. It was transformative.
UKICE: When it came to garnering support within Westminster, how crucial do you think the People’s Pledge campaign was in setting that ball rolling?
DC: It was extremely important. The People’s Pledge, again, people write the narrative now and make it look post-facto as though it was inevitable and obvious, but it certainly wasn’t. I remember being berated and harangued by a Member of Parliament, who subsequently defined themselves in terms of their Euroscepticism, at a private drinks party in David Cameron’s private flat in 10 Downing Street for having the temerity to run a People’s Pledge in their constituency.
They feared it. It was incredibly effective against Tories, but it was less effective against Labour MPs. But the ones that we won over as a result turned out to be far more important in the long term. When I was elected in 2005, there were seven Members of Parliament who were in favour of what today we would call ‘Brexit’. Seven out of 650. The People’s Pledge opened up a wedge and it shifted opportunistic politicians, of which there may be quite a few, towards the idea of having a referendum. And it allowed lots of people to say they weren’t in favour of leaving themselves, but they did think we should have an in-out referendum.
The most notable signatory in all of that was one Boris Johnson, who famously signed the People’s Pledge on a visit to Romford as Mayor of London. It was typical of the sort of politician we were targeting with the People’s Pledge; people who weren’t yet ready to commit to leaving, but who we could get to say, ‘We wanted an in-out referendum’. It was absolutely crucial.
In fact, in the House of Commons itself, I think it was in November 2011, we got 111 MPs, of which most were Tory, to vote in favour of an in-out referendum. We have to make it an ‘in, out, shake it all about’ motion on the ballot paper, because even then half of these cowards weren’t prepared to actually commit to full-blown in-out referendum, so we had to give a third option of ‘renegotiate’. But the People’s Pledge was an essential precursor to pushing those 111 MPs to support us in that. It was absolutely key in providing that external pressure to do that.
UKICE: Did you see those events in 2011, not least the amendment to the Queen’s speech that failed albeit with eighty-odd rebels, as being a tipping point inside the parliamentary party?
DC: Yes, it was. I was aware that we had reached the tipping point the night before the key Commons vote when I appeared on Newsnight and I was ambushed – as I recall – by Danny Finkelstein. As I recall the other side had lost the intellectual argument, they had lost the moral case. It felt as if the other side were collapsing.
They no longer seemed to be defending our membership of the EU on the basis of any sense of belief, they’re doing it on the basis of contempt for us. And we knew that, morally, we had had a breakthrough then. From that moment in November 2011 I felt the Remain establishment were a shower, they were morally and intellectually bankrupt from that moment on. They were beatable. It felt like it.
UKICE: Were you surprised when David Cameron made the Bloomberg speech?
DC: Not particularly, no, I knew he was going to make it before he made it.
UKICE: It kept getting delayed, didn’t it?
DC: Some of us had thought of making the move to UKIP ahead of then, and there were several of us lined up to go before then. I don’t think they knew that, they may have got wind, but we knew Bloomberg was coming. I would have left the Tory Party somewhat earlier if it hadn’t.
The danger, of course, was the rowback that followed immediately. Bloomberg was presented as us changing our relationship with the EU, and we knew this would happen, we saw it coming. Immediately as that was made, there was an attempt to row back from that so it’s not Britain changing its relationship with Europe, but (David) Cameron starting to talk about general reforms for Europe.
I think he was incredibly ill advised by people like Ed Llewellyn and others, who I think the moment Bloomberg was delivered, attempted to, as the establishment always does, row back on any significant reforms. The concession had been made, they couldn’t unmake it.
UKICE: Did some of the people that were in the Government try and explicitly use Bloomberg as a disciplining tool to stop you from rebelling further on Europe? Would they explicitly say, ‘This is a quid pro quo’ to get your silence until the next general election?
DC: There was a series of texts – this is pre-WhatsApp – saying, ‘You’re going to like this, you guys are really going to like what we’re going to say’, and all of that.
UKICE: But they didn’t consult you on what it said, it was just, ‘Watch this space’?
DC: I wasn’t personally consulted but I believe Dan Hannan was involved. I think he had a direct channel to the top via Kate Fall. Dan was the point person on that.
UKICE: I think I can probably guess the answer to this, but was there anything David Cameron could have achieved in a renegotiation that would have changed your mind?
DC: Yes, and I used to say so quite openly when I was invited to Anglo-German gatherings at Koenigswinter. I was invited as the pet Eurosceptic to be condescended and smirked at, and they would always say to me, ‘What can we do to appease you Eurosceptic loons?’. I would always have a couple of very clear and specific suggestions. Number one, we would have to be outside the jurisdiction of the European Court, and number two, we would have to have complete autonomy to determine our own trade policy. And they would then invariably come back and say, ‘You didn’t mention immigration, you fascist xenophobe, you forgot that!’, and chortle about their own cleverness.
If Cameron had managed to create a system of associate membership, and indeed I said this to Theresa May’s people when they were making a dog’s breakfast out of things, ‘If you guys could come up with an associate membership, call it what you like, but it means that the European Court does not have supremacy over our law and we can negotiate our own trade policy, I will happily give up and walk away’. I never actually believed they would be so stupid as to not eventually give us that, but they went for the ‘we’re not going to give you anything’ position. ‘Thanks guys, you played straight into our hands’, although it didn’t always seems so at the time.
Defecting to UKIP
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): When did you first start talking to UKIP about possibly defecting?
Douglas Carswell (DC): I keep a detailed diary and I’m sure I could tell you without consulting it, but off the top of my head from about 2012. I allowed them to think they were playing me from I think about 2012. I allowed them to buy me lunch and take me for walks around St. James’s. It was convenient to allow them to begin to think that they were running me.
UKICE: Presumably UKIP was useful in 2010 and 2011 as a tool for you internally within the Conservative Party. At what point did the Party start to become aware of that?
DC: Last night (6 May 2021), there was a series of elections across England which comprehensively demonstrated that a Eurosceptic Tory Party is a phenomenal electoral force, certainly in England and possibly throughout the United Kingdom. And it looks so obvious, because you look at the collapse of the UKIP vote in these seats and it’s largely collapsed into the Tory Party. We were trying to make this argument 15 years ago. We were trying to say to the Tory Party, if we were Eurosceptic, there is a large slice of blue-collar Britain that you can put into this new electoral coalition.
They simply weren’t having it. It took Farage and UKIP to try to scare the Tory party into moving in the right direction. The danger, of course, is that we created this scary monster that doesn’t just scare Tory MPs, but also alienates swing voters come the referendum, and this was our dilemma. We grappled with this strategic dilemma constantly – right up until the day of the referendum. This was the key to everything I tried to do in politics- how do you manage this ultra-Eurosceptic force so that, tactically, it’s useful to advance and prod the inert Tory machine, but at the same time it doesn’t define Euroscepticism so that you lose the swing voters?
It was incredibly difficult. I joined UKIP in 2014 in late August. Earlier that year, UKIP had done phenomenally well in a series of European elections, but we noticed in the polls the problem that I am talking about. The better UKIP did in a poll and the higher profile they got in the media, the more cautious people were of leaving the European Union. We saw with the financial crisis in Europe record levels of Euroscepticism, but it seemed that the electoral success of UKIP, particularly in the European elections of May 2014, was problematic.
I assumed that even (Andrew) Cooper in Downing Street, the pollster, must have spotted this. The assumption of people like Dan (Hannan), Matt Elliott, Mark Reckless and myself was that they would give us a referendum, but they would shoot our fox by making sure that the referendum, when it came, was defined as being a choice between (Nigel) Farage and business.
So, ‘Yes, Carswell, Hannan, you can have your referendum, but we’re going to win it because the people that you’ve been using to scare us into giving you the referendum are going to define it and shape it’. This was our problem.
UKICE: So, you joining UKIP was partly a way of trying to resolve this paradox?
DC: Totally. You’re going to be interviewing lots and lots of people who, as people do, reinvent their memories to rationalise what happened. So, don’t take my word for it now; at the time, Sunder Katwala wrote a blog on this very point. I kind of briefed him because, as a newly elected UKIP MP, I was being vilified by the commentariat, and so I thought I’d try and get at least one person on the left, someone who’s got some credibility outside the Tory Party circles, to at least understand what we’re trying to do.
He wrote a very good blog on this about ‘The Farage Paradox’. It’s not something I am simply saying now with the benefit of hindsight five years after the referendum. I was making these points about the Farage paradox to Sunder at the time. It was incredibly difficult. You have strategy and you have tactics, and we found ourselves in a situation where the tactics we needed to deploy to get what we wanted were going to destroy our strategy to win the referendum.
I dealt with that the only way I knew, which was to try to at least put people in UKIP’s trenches, myself leading, and then to make jolly sure that we used what leverage we had to make absolutely certain that it was a Matt Elliott-Dan Hannan referendum campaign. I deliberately talk about those two people because let’s remember it was they who hired Dominic Cummings. Dominic (Cummings) did not run the campaign, Matt and Dan ran the campaign and hired Dominic. It was a Dan-Hannan-Matthew- Elliot-run campaign, as opposed to a UKIP-run campaign; UKIP couldn’t even win an election in Thanet, for heaven’s sake.
UKICE: Did you expect more of your colleagues to follow? Did you have conversations with more of your conservative colleagues around this time?
DC: We had more lined up and if Cameron hadn’t made the key concession in October 2014, which is that he would pass the legislation to hold a referendum within his first 100 days as Prime Minister with a majority, there would have been more.
UKICE: Did you face a lot of antipathy from your former Conservative colleagues in Parliament after you had switched to UKIP?
UKICE: None at all. Even people like Nicholas Soames, who was a staunch Remainer, said nice things. I think, and I don’t want to blow my own trumpet, people were decent because I had acted honourably. I think I slightly surprised people when I called that press conference to announce I was leaving the Conservative party – and then at the end of it declared that I would be seeking a by-election to ask permission from the people I represented in Parliament.
I did not have to call a by election but I felt honour bound to do so. It seemed the only sensible thing to do: you’ve got to get permission from your boss if you want to change your job description, it’s kind of obvious.
But also, secondly, if I couldn’t win that by-election, we weren’t going to win the referendum, so I might as well leave politics then and there. Because I did that, no one could argue with me. I remember that even fierce opponents of ours in the Tory Party, people like Nicholas Soames, came up to me afterwards and said, ‘I don’t agree with you but fair enough on you for doing it’. And that was pretty much the attitude I got.
UKICE: Did you have any qualms at all about UKIP, particularly what you were saying about Euroscepticism being, if you like, tarred with this brush of xenophobia, anti-immigration, some of which people might associate with UKIP?
UKICE: Of course. Look at the acceptance speech I gave in Clacton, I talked about how, ‘UKIP must be a force for all Britain and all Britons, first and second generation as much as every other’. Why did I choose my time on prime time national television to say that? As people pointed out, it infuriated one or two people within UKIP, but by then, this wasn’t about UKIP, it was about who controls the referendum, who defines Euroscepticism. Who shapes the cause.
If I could reduce to the realms of soap opera the tensions within UKIP, that in itself was a good, because if people see it through the prism of soap opera, it may be very unpleasant for me but soap opera is better. UKIP could have very easily cost Euroscepticism the prize.
Look at the SNP, which is regarded, rightly or wrongly, as a much more grown-up and serious outfit than UKIP ever was. By making support for Scottish independence synonymous with support for the SNP, they’ve lost one referendum and may, I suspect, lose a second, like the Québécois perennially lose. The only way we could win the referendum is to make sure that voting to leave or voting for ‘Out’ was not synonymous with support for UKIP, precisely for the reasons that you explained.
I happen to think that a lot of the vilification of UKIP was precisely that – it was vilification, it was unfair, it was caricature. It was an attempt by establishment politicians, pundits and opinion formers to de-legitimise a legitimate point of view and it was incredibly nasty. And I’ll say this on the record, for a period of six months I was unable to travel on public transport in London with my family, given the level of animus that the establishment had stirred up. The attempts by the media and the BBC and The Guardian and others on the centre-left commentariat to stir up that animosity had direct consequences, personal consequences, for me.
There was incredibly nasty, systematic vilification of UKIP by mainstream political pundits in the UK, and we must never forget that. But perception is everything in politics and if you create the idea, the exaggerated view, that UKIP is somehow toxic, whether it’s unfair or not, for the purposes of winning a referendum you have to deal with perceptions as they are, not as you wish them to be. So, whether UKIP was unfairly characterised in that way or not, we couldn’t allow them to be leading the referendum.
UKICE: What did you make of the way that UKIP approached the 2015 general election? Were you involved in the Party’s planning for that at all?
DC: It’s a bit of a cliche, but I think the first lesson in politics is learning how to count, and I hoped that by winning a landslide in Clacton I had taught UKIP how to count. I hoped in Clacton that I had taught them how to do data management and to appeal to people who are not as passionate about politics as our activist base. I’m afraid I didn’t succeed in that. I made a series of suggestions as to how the campaign should be run and how messaging should be done and how things should be done in a way that appeal beyond the base, and I didn’t make any headway.
I’ll give you an example, I used to run a series of fish-and-chip suppers as the local MP where I would hire a communal space, a church hall or a community hall, and I would get an outside speaker to come and talk about something that wasn’t really political. It might be a GP to come and talk about improving local surgeries, or I once had Jeremy Hunt coming to talk about the Olympics when he was the Olympics Minister. And we would get people in, with a fish-and-chip supper, and it was a community thing, and we would talk about these issues.
Invariably, politics would come up, but it was open to everyone and at the end of that, I would ask people if they would be kind enough to help me deliver some leaflets if they wanted to support me and give them a form to put their name, address and email. Through that I built up this incredibly powerful army of activists, not party members, just activists who would deliver all my leaflets, and I mobilised them to win the Clacton by-election. It’s how I did it. I tried to explain this to UKIP to apply in places like Thanet and they took the idea and they would invite people using purple-and-orange-coloured literature, ie. UKIP colours, to get people to come and talk about very UKIP-y things like immigration and Europe.
They would have the same 200 people appear at every one of these events and they would think they were doing really well because they had 200 passionate people. Both of my approach and their approach result in public meetings in public spaces, but one of them is about creating a network of people who will support you despite party politics, and the other is creating a small clique of people who supposedly will support you because of party politics. One approach was better suited to winning broad local support and elections. The other less so.
There was a complete unwillingness to learn, and I found that disappointing because I was trying to not just rebrand UKIP, but I wanted UKIP to change. Any political movement that is outside the political mainstream is going to attract a few oddbods, because oddbods tend to be outside the political mainstream. So, if you can domesticate a political movement and civilise a political movement by making it broader, you dilute that tendency, and I hoped that we would do that.
And when it became clear that one couldn’t do that, one had to focus on the second thing, which is making sure that the Party was not central to the referendum.
UKICE: Did your relationship with Nigel Farage start to deteriorate from the point of the 2015 election?
DC: I don’t want to be unkind, I’ve got a huge amount of time for Nigel (Farage). I think he’s a very brave and principled individual who’s achieved a lot. I just happen to think that a lot of people in politics, particularly if they’ve been in front-line politics for a long time, can’t always see themselves as others perceive them. And you’ve got to have self-doubt to see yourself the way other people see you, and I think part of Nigel’s strength is he doesn’t have much self-doubt.
I found it difficult to reconcile what I was trying to do, which is to make UKIP a broader, more respectable movement. I’ll give you an example; on the morning of the Clacton by-election result I was quite chuffed because we had won with a storming majority. All the key messages I was putting out there seemed to be going well, about ‘A Party for all Britain and all Britons’. I had been trying to broaden our appeal, all our literature was talking about GP services and public health issues and we noticed the NHS, for example, was a more important issue in people’s minds than immigration, something that perhaps featured in Vote Leave campaign repertoire.
But then on the morning after the Clacton by-election win, for reasons I don’t understand, Nigel went on a programme to, if I recall correctly, talk about HIV and immigration. And I was stunned by this because literally, in the bubble I had been fighting in the Clacton by-election, not one person had ever mentioned this issue to me. I thought at the time, ‘Is this a dead-cat approach of putting an issue on the table to draw attention to himself?’.
It just seemed so illogical. Then, a few days later, if I recall correctly, there was an interview with LBC where Nigel happened to get into a conversation about whether or not women should or shouldn’t breastfeed in a restaurant. And I thought, ‘What on earth are we doing talking about this? If anything, we’re supposed to be free marketeers, what individuals do in restaurants is none of our business. But even if it was, why aware talking about it?’.
UKICE: Do you think he saw you as a rival?
DC: I’m not going to say anything unkind about Nigel, he deserves admiration and respect. Most people I met in politics have not achieved a fraction of what he had done. I’ll let others judge if that was an issue.
The build-up to the referendum campaign
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): Can you remember what your assumption was about what would happen in the 2015 election, and did you think there was a possibility that Cameron would try and negotiate away that referendum pledge, or try to move away from it post election?
Douglas Carswell (DC): The key to the 2015 election was not really how many seats UKIP won. I was hoping there would be four or five of us, and I was hoping that (Mark) Reckless would definitely be one of them. I was pretty sure I would hold my seat, I hoped Reckless would hold his and I hoped we would be joined by a couple more, but that wasn’t really what it was about.
The single-most overlooked factor of the 2015 election was that Cameron had pledged an in-out referendum, and the Miliband brother (Ed Miliband) hadn’t pledged a referendum, and so he got hammered. What we saw happening in the North of England yesterday started to happen on his watch. A “Party of the Working Man” treated the view of the working man with contempt, working women too, by not allowing them a referendum, and I think that was reflected in the outcome of the election. So, for me the really exciting news of the 2015 referendum was whether UKIP could deny Miliband a majority, and could help Cameron get a majority.
Given what Cameron had pledged under pressure from the Clacton by election and they Mark Reckless’ decision to follow me in late 2014, Cameron winning a majority would be absolutely key to there being a referendum. I don’t want to make out that we alone had agency, there were millions of people in that election, but it was wonderful to wake up the next day and realise that, actually, Cameron had that majority and he had given that pledge, and he couldn’t get out of it. We were having a referendum. It was game on.
UKICE: Absent that majority, do you think he would have negotiated the referendum away in a coalition discussion with Nick Clegg?
DC: Of course. He even used the weasel words when he gave the commitment in October 2014. He was saying, ‘If I have a majority I’ll do it in the first 100 days’, and everyone assumed, quite correctly, that the continuity of the Clegg and Cameron show would mean that day one after the election Cameron would say, ‘I’d love to, chaps, but Nick won’t let me, ha ha’. But we were laughing after that, ‘Ha ha, you’ve got to do it now’.
And all those smirks from all those smug Cameroons over the years. After Cameron won his majority I thought we’ve got you where we want you, ‘You cocky little so-and-sos. You’ve been treating this issue as all about positioning within the Tory party. Its all a case of courtier politics to you. But no, this is about the future of our country and it’s bigger than you are’. I imagine they now know that.
UKICE: Talking of the Tory Party, how important do you think the actions of people like Steve Baker on issues like purdah before the referendum were?
DC: Very, very important. A lot of that housekeeping in Parliament by Bernard Jenkin and Steve Baker. I wasn’t in a position to deliver anything because I had moved to UKIP and it was best that I was shtum. Dan had approached Steve (Baker) to be the point man on those issues.
And Baker and (Bernard) Jenkin and Bill Cash, I think, to be fair, did a sterling job in making sure that the government machine couldn’t fit it the referendum the way they might have wanted to.
UKICE: What’s your concrete example of the fitting up?
DC: The rules on purdah. I was one step away from it, but there were a whole bunch of these things where Baker and Jenkin and Cash had to say to the Government, ‘No, your referendum legislation actually needs to be fair on this’. It was things like funding. Even then they rigged it, because they used public money to send out an HM Government leaflet.
The thing they couldn’t touch was the defining decision on who speaks for ‘Leave’, and that was something they couldn’t touch. We thought the Electoral Commission wouldn’t quite dare to put the other organisation in charge of the referendum, and we couldn’t think of a way that the Cameroons would be able to fit that up. Having said that, there were people in Downing Street who tried to liaise with people like Robert Peston to try to ensure the debates during the campaign were UKIP-ers against Remainers. There was some absolutely disgraceful behaviour by people in 10 Downing Street and indeed, at the BBC and ITV.
UKICE: Were you ever concerned that Leave.EU would get the designation?
DC: I was very worried about it. It was a small possibility, but the consequences would be so cataclysmic, that it dominated my life for many months to make sure they didn’t. Nothing disappointed me more than to see Eurosceptic Tory MPs who ought to know better lending credibility to those organisations. And full respect to Dominic Cummings and Matt Elliott and Dan Hannan; I was a minion and a tiny player in this whole thing. Those three guys were the people who held that campaign together and made sure that we got designation, and made sure that we defined Euroscepticism in the campaign.
You’ll hear lots of people saying Boris (Johnson) did it and Michael (Gove) did it. Boris joined the campaign, I think, eight weeks before the referendum, which is wonderful, fantastic. ‘The cavalry arrived’, someone said, when Boris joined us. But there was an army for him to lead that had been assembled by Matt and Dominic and Dan. There were constant attempts to get our organisation to merge with the other, which people saying, ‘Oh, you Eurosceptics have to work together’. If we had tried to do that, it would have been a disaster. The lowest common denominator would have always prevailed in any coalition like that.
UKICE: How much of a turning point was the failed attempt to remove Dominic Cummings?
DC: To be absolutely clear, I got wind of what was afoot the weekend before and I spent much of the weekend on the phone doing everything I could to make sure that Dominic had the support and space he needed to carry on doing what he was doing. And I think Matt and Dan, who had hired him, were behind him, and I think that was decisive. To be sure, we were concerned by some of what he was doing; I don’t think it wise in a referendum campaign for the CEO to have a Twitter account, or for the CEO to sometimes give some of the interviews that he gave. As I recall he sometimes made enemies unnecessarily.
Dom had to give reassurances he would cease and desist, and he did cease and desist. But I was always certain that Dom was the right person to have the role he had.
There were some Tory Eurosceptics, the men of Maastricht, who didn’t know any better. To understand Vote Leave, you’ve got to understand that key graph we produced. Think of a bell curve, on the one extremity you’ve got a minority of people who were passionately pro-EU, and on the other extremity you’ve got a larger minority, but still a minority, who are in favour of Britain leaving. In the middle, it’s a bell curve, are the key undecideds.
We had that graph and the polling that produced that graph before we incorporated Vote Leave. Dominic, Matt and Dan, the three of us, but mainly those two, had commissioned Dominic to start doing some polling before the Clacton by-election. We had got this graph in our mind of committed Europeans, committed Outers, the undecided in the middle.
Dominic got the job because, having done that focus group polling, he then came up with suggestions as to how you target the undecideds in the middle, the arguments and the messages and the messengers. We had tried numerous times to explain the logic of this strategy to the men of Maastricht, and it was like trying to explain something to me in Ancient Greek. They just couldn’t get it.
Don’t believe that it was always Dominic against everyone else. Some of those Dom hired were effective press operators who were adept at explaining how Dominic called the board’s bluff. In reality most of the board was determined to keep Dom. He would not have survived otherwise.
UKICE: Were you a useful go-between in that sense, given you were more inclined towards that political strategy, but you were maybe seen as a former member of the Conservative Parliamentary Party, who was respected by some of these older Eurosceptic MPs?
DC: We tried to explain this strategy before I joined UKIP, but the Maastricht generation had framed the debate about sovereignty in the constitution. Bill (Cash), there was no one better than him in understanding how to do that, and for framing legal arguments. But we needed arguments in addition to that, that appealed to swing voters in the North East of England who work for the NHS, and are in their 30s.
People in Westminster are not always very good at understanding politics, which is odd because they earn their living in it. One of Dominic and Matthew’s great strengths is that both of them had run referendum campaigns before. Dominic in the North East against devolution, and Matt had done it a couple of times with NO2AV. They understood, you didn’t have to explain any of this to them, they got it. In fact, they got it better than I got it. They could see themselves as others saw them, they could see the arguments, they could understand this. And it was very difficult, to the point of impossible, to get some people to get this.
The referendum campaign
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): How confident were you at the start of the year about the outcome of the referendum? Did you become steadily more confident?
Douglas Carswell (DC): I’ve fought in enough elections to know that you irrationally go from thinking you’ve got it in the bag, to thinking you’re going to lose, and that’s normal. My underlying thought was, and my diary entries reflect this, that I was quietly confident. I was very nervous a few days before the referendum, because of the headline-grabbing antics of some Eurosceptics. And we saw a squeeze in the polls; I don’t know if it was because of that or I don’t know if it followed the murder of Jo Cox.
But I think we could have, and should have, won the referendum by a larger amount, and I think if Dominic and Matt had been less distracted – often by fellow Eurosceptics – we would have done so. Membership of the European Union was an aberration, a disastrous mistake made by the elites, corrected by the demos. And I think if you look at it in those terms, it’s actually quite sad that the demos only narrowly brought the elites to their senses. I suspect a process of opinion correction is happening now, and in a couple of years time, rather like membership of the euro, 70% plus of the population will think they voted to leave.
But it bothers me enormously that the political establishment jolly nearly got away with it. I think it should make us very angry.
UKICE: Does that suggest that you actually thought the Remain campaign was relatively good, or did you think that they basically made some missteps and could have won it?
DC: During the campaign, on a number of occasions – I would say ‘tear my hair out’ but I don’t have much hair – I would despair and I would say to people like Dan and Matt, ‘Oh my goodness, what have we done? This is terrible’. And I remember Dan at one time saying, ‘You think we’ve made mistakes, but the other side have made just as many mistakes if not more’. Because we won, everyone looks back and thinks that everything we did was brilliant and everything the other side did was rubbish. Actually, that’s just not true.
Remain did some good things, they did some smart things and we did some good things and we did some dumb things. I just think on balance, we Eurosceptics in the broader sense got away with it, because we made fewer cock-ups than Remain did, or our cock-ups were limited enough in number to allow us to just pull it off.
UKICE: Given you believe in the principled case for Leave, were you worried that some of the claims that the Leave campaign was making – things like the £350m for the NHS and others like that – laid open the campaign to the claim that it was persuading people to vote Leave on a false prospectus?
DC: I think it was the right decision to raise that figure. I think it was absolutely the right call and the right decision to focus on £350 million. It was a completely fair point to make. When I talk about the amount of income tax I paid this year, I give a gross amount, I don’t deduct from that the things that the government provides for me to give a net amount.
So, I think it’s entirely legitimate and right and fair. In any election campaign I’ve ever fought in, people get passionate and partisan, and partisan, passionate people will make claims that perhaps are slightly exaggerated. But the public knows this, the public’s not dumb. I’m slightly flattered that the British political establishment and cultural and media establishment were so utterly stupid that they danced to our tune for so long, and they’re still aggrieved about what they see as a red bus.
It means they’ve missed the bigger picture, which is that they’re no longer as relevant to the lives of the country they purport to preside over as they thought they were. They’re behaving like the Romanovs. I just hope that what follows is not the Bolsheviks.
UKICE: What was the secret to getting those significant increases in turnout in places where people have stopped voting?
DC: I can’t remember the figures, but something like 70 per cent of our ad spend was made within the last three or four days on social media, and that was incredibly effective. I think there was a feeling that this was an election unlike any other election, because in most elections you’re choosing between two different variations of ‘them’. This was about ‘us’ versus ‘them’. I did a lot of work in Aston on the red bus, a very large ethnic minority community, a very working-class neighbourhood, and I was really stunned I didn’t need to explain anything to anyone.
People talked about ‘them’, meaning it was a vote against ‘them’. There’s a danger in politics that people who run campaigns think that voters vote because of the what campaign managers do. We assume we have more agency than we do. But the world doesn’t work like that. There were 42 million reasons why people decided to show up and vote, and I think it’s a cultural thing. Maybe it’s to do with technology, maybe technology means that even the poorest person in Britain has become used to the idea that they can choose the music they listen to and the films they watch, and if they’re young enough whom they date.
They just want control. Taking back control is not a return to the 1950s, it’s a cultural norm now, and this is why it resonated. Paul Gambaccini doesn’t decide what music I listen to so why should ‘they’ decide on the future of my country with another a bunch of ‘they’ in Brussels? I think people get that.
UKICE: Were you surprised that message didn’t resonate nearly as much in Northern Ireland and Scotland as it did in England and Wales? It seems a fairly universal message of control, rather than a contingent one on living in England.
DC: What makes you say that they didn’t? Have you seen evidence that specifically focuses on that message?
UKICE: I’m just looking at the figures of how many weren’t persuaded to vote Leave in those areas.
DC: My recollection of the actual focus group results doesn’t show any significant regional variation in the poignancy of the message about taking control. I think I’m pretty sure that, actually, that specific message, according to focus groups, resonates powerfully. You are right that we didn’t get as good a result in those areas.
I suspect there’s something involved in the local politics, particularly in Northern Ireland, which is to do with another layer of identity that is specific to that part of the world. I suspect it’s a combination of people living in Northern Ireland who identify as Irish, who are worried about what that might mean, and understandably, for people who live in Northern Ireland it depends on how you look at it – those who identify as Unionist who may be concerned about what change might mean, because they remember the bad old days and they didn’t want to return to that.
So, I understand that and I think those are views that need to be respected. I only wish that Theresa May had respected them when she made the decisions she did.
UKICE: In Scotland you just see it as an expression of Scottish nationalism, there’s no reason it should be less powerful there.
DC: I haven’t looked at any recent data that looks at a correlation between support for Scottish independence and Euroscepticism, although I suspect there may be one. But you’re asking me for my opinion rather than empirical knowledge. Everything I tried to do during the referendum campaign was based, as much as I could, on empirical results. One of the things I learnt from Dominic and Matt was put aside what you think people ought to think and look at what they actually think.
UKICE: Were you happy with the focus on immigration that was part of the last phase of the Vote Leave campaign?
DC: It was always the plan that there should be a leaflet that talked specifically about immigration and some of the consequences of remaining in the EU if other countries were to join the EU. That was always intended, although it was targeted at a specific demographic, and it was an important part of the message. Some other organisations other than Vote Leave had made that part of their repertoire, and they went on and on and on about it. Indeed, it seemed like that it was the entirety of those other groups repertoire.
So, when towards the end of the campaign Vote Leave started talking about immigration, a narrative among the commentariat emerged that somehow Vote Leave had pivoted or switched our tactics. That was never the case. We were building a coalition, and an important part of that was to talk about that issue. It was absolutely key to the campaign, but it wasn’t the whole campaign, and it’s important to understand that Dominic and Matt didn’t shift to that at the end of the campaign.
It was one of a series of targeted messages for the last couple of weeks of the campaign and it was extremely effective, but so were all the other strands of what we were doing. Modern messaging means you can deliver particular messages to particular audiences at particular times. Not everyone involved in the Eurosceptic cause – or indeed political pundits – understood that.
UKICE: Where were you on the night of the referendum and where were you when you heard the result?
DC: I was with Dan Hannan and Dominic Cummings and the Vote Leave crew at the Vote Leave office. I went to a BBC studio earlier in the evening, about 10:00PM, and Oliver Lewis had given me a piece of paper with the breakdown in the earlier results that we needed to have if we were in with a chance.
And I went on air with Amber Rudd, who used to be a cabinet minister, believe it or not. During a break in the broadcast we were told the results from one of the earlier counts. I wrote the numbers down on my piece of paper, and suddenly realised it was above what Ollie had given me in terms of the numbers we needed to have. We came back on air and I was asked by (David) Dimbleby, ‘What did you think about that?’
And I said, ‘This is very encouraging, if we carry on like this I think we’re in with a good chance’. And then at the next ad break, Amber said something to me like, ‘Really, what makes you say that?’. And I said, ‘These are the numbers we need to get, I think we could do this’.
That’s when I first started to think, ‘Okay, this is looking okay’, and then I went back to the Vote Leave HQ. It was probably not until 4:00 in the morning, only when the BBC admitted defeat. Once the BBC presenter had said, ‘Britain has made this historic decision to vote out’, that’s when we finally relaxed.
We were sitting in the Vote Leave office on the edge of our chairs feeling really tense and then gradually the mood changed as we became elated with the results. We were still very nervous because of London. Once the BBC had declared that Remain couldn’t win, we were just ecstatic. For me, it wasn’t just the tiredness of the night, it was the tiredness of 3 years in the political wilderness, 10 years of being regarded as a maverick in Parliament and having to go through this incredibly draining process of elections, by-elections, and being public property.
I just felt this extraordinary sense of relief. I walked back across London early in the morning and I saw Lambeth Palace and I saw the BBC building and I saw the government offices and I saw the City, and I thought, ‘These elites were all against and we’ve beaten them. I can go to sleep’.
British politics after the referendum
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): What did you think would then happen? Did you expect David Cameron to go, and who did you expect to emerge as the Conservative leader?
Douglas Carswell (DC): I’ll be honest, I had been on the red bus with Michael and Boris, and I had expected that they would have had a ‘what happens next?’ conversation. During the campaign they had in a sense been handed a script by Dom and Matt and to some extent by Dan. I kind of assumed that once we had won this campaign, it would be, ‘Over to you guys’.
But instead they turned up to Vote Leave’s office the next day and delivered this appalling, tepid performance. They said they didn’t want to appear pleased or over satisfied.
That was the wrong call. They should have at least appeared confident, albeit respectful to the other side. They should have spoken to the people in Northern Ireland who were worried, the people in Scotland who were worried, to the patriotic decent Remainers who had voted the way they had, good, decent people.
And if after the Clacton by-election I could give a speech as a tin-pot, backbench MP that called for breadth and respect and conciliation, that’s the least they could have done, but they didn’t. And then they fell into squabbles led by their minion sidekicks within the Tory Party as to who should become foreign secretary, or goodness knows what, and fell out over it. Bizarre.
As a result of that bungling ineptness, they ended up putting in office the worst Prime Minister this country has ever produced, Theresa May, and she very nearly destroyed everything our campaign had achieved. We’re still dealing with the legacy of Theresa May and Gavin Barwell and these other inept individuals to this day in Northern Ireland. It’s unbelievable. Even when it was apparent that we were being governed by someone who was utterly out of her depth, who would probably be out of her depth in a puddle, they still didn’t mobilise to remove her. In fact, they supported her in a confidence motion in December 2018, I think it was. It was just unbelievable. So, no, I had no part, I’m proud to say I had no part in the ‘what happens next?’ conversations. Perhaps I ought to have.
UKICE: What did you think the solution was in Northern Ireland? I’m intrigued because the DUP never put forward their blueprint of what the solution was in Northern Ireland to do Brexit without inflaming tensions on the island of Ireland. What would you have done?
DC: It’s pretty clear that Barnier and co were using Northern Ireland, and the complications that arise from having the land border, as a device. And to their amazement, May conceded.
UKICE: So, just basically stare down Barnier and say, ‘Sorry, no, we leave together’.
DC: Totally. We should have then at the same time been incredibly generous to Ireland. By the way, I’m appalled by what’s happening in Jersey. I believe in property rights, I’m not an advocate for French fishermen, but they have property rights and those property rights should be respected.
If you’re strong you can be generous, and we should have been very robust in Northern Ireland but incredibly generous to the Republic. The two are not mutually exclusive. We ended up doing the worst, which is being weak and then mean-spirited. This is not how a proper country should behave.
UKICE: In the early phases of Theresa May’s premiership, when she made her initial statements at the party conference in 2016 at Lancaster House in 2017, were you reassured?
DC: You’ve only got to look at the people around her, no. Nothing about Mrs May ever reassured me.
UKICE: So, it was Nick Timothy at that stage rather than Gavin Barwell, wasn’t it. Nick Timothy wasn’t a reassuring figure?
DC: No further questions, Your Honour. No. I’m sorry, I don’t rate any of these people, I never have. I left the Tory Party for a reason.
UKICE: Did you ever think the referendum was in danger of being reversed?
DC: Yes. I quit politics because I assumed there was basic democratic decency in Britain. I’m in America at the moment and I was appalled at the extent to which different factions won’t accept legitimate election results, I didn’t think we behaved like that in Britain. I particularly didn’t believe that posh, educated people in positions of authority or Supreme Court judges should behave in that fashion, but they do. If they can get away with it, they will.
I grew up in Uganda, a country run by Idi Amin. I believed that in Britain that there was a basic decency and respect for democracy. I was utterly, utterly appalled by the behaviour of John Bercow and Oliver Letwin and others.
UKICE: What did you make of the Withdrawal Agreement that Boris Johnson signed?
DC: The best of a bad job. I was very relieved when he met with the Irish Taoiseach in The Wirral and there seemed to be that agreement, because I thought that’s really important. There’s not a street in Britain that doesn’t have kith and kin connections with people in Ireland, and there’s been enough bad decisions made by politicians in London regarding Ireland and vice versa.
And if that gets us over the line with generosity and goodwill on both sides, we can fix it, and I hope this is to be the spirit. Now that the European Parliament has passed the deal, I hope that we can be as generous to the Republic of Ireland as we possibly can be.
UKICE: Were you worried at all by the Internal Market Bill, when Brandon Lewis said the UK was prepared to renege on elements of an agreement it had freely entered into, if you like? Did you think that was damaging for our reputation and our relationship with Ireland, or did you think that was a legitimate negotiating tactic?
DC: I’ll be honest, by that time, once Boris won the election, I slightly took my eye off the ball. I haven’t heard the arguments for and against what Brandon Lewis said, but generally speaking, an independent self-governing country should be a good neighbour. The caveat is goodness knows what Theresa May signed us up to, but generally speaking, you should be decent and generous to your neighbours.
We have to make changes to do with fishing rights in the English Channel, but this should be done in a way that doesn’t ruin a legitimate private enterprise, just because that private enterprise happens to be owned by a guy who happens to be French. We should honour property rights.
UKICE: We started off talking about the fact that you had quite a clear vision of what Brexit would allow us to do, in the sense of localisation and in the sense of the sorts of policies it would allow us to pursue. Are you satisfied that’s the direction we’re going in?
DC: Short term, no. Medium to long term I am very optimistic. With Covid-19 and the response to it, we have seen a massive expansion in state power. Not only the State telling you whether you can sit on park benches, which sets a terrifying precedent, but financially, the state basically annexed people’s private bank accounts by putting subsidies into them. It’s going to want stuff back in return, higher taxes and probably real-time control of people’s bank accounts. But I think, long term, politics is all about putting out ideas that take on a force of their own, and localism will have to come.
Power can’t be left sitting in Westminster and Whitehall. I think there’s an expectation, which rather clumsily is articulated by people as ‘levelling up’. I hate that expression, because that implies the big man in Whitehall is going to do something for your poor, end-of-line community. I suspect that’s probably not a very successful strategy, but this idea that we are one nation and we need to devolve power outward and downwards, I think it will happen. You’ve got countries whether it’s small, Switzerland, or giant, the United States, that devolve power. Regardless of how this is done, it’ll have to be done.
UKICE: Do you take the view, as some Conservative members do, that if the price of Brexit is Scottish secession, that’s a price worth paying?
DC: No, I take a counterview. I take the view first articulated by Enoch Powell. Now, I know it’s dangerous to invoke him but I think it’s important to understand what he was talking about, not least because the first Eurosceptic speech he ever made was in Clacton Town Hall.
Enoch Powell talked about the European Union being divisive towards the nation state, because it did two things- it ground it down from above and from below, through encouraging centrifugal forces. Not only do we see this in the United Kingdom with centrifugal forces encouraged and often funded directly by the EU Committee of Regions, we see it in Spain and other parts of Europe. European integration is contingent upon fracturing the nation states into provinces.
Time will tell whether we were too late or not, but I think Brexit may have just arrived within the nick of time to make sure that the SNP goes the way of the Québécois bloc rather than anything more serious. I suspect that, actually, if the United Kingdom has confidence in itself, and if the United Kingdom is governed by people who have a belief in the United Kingdom rather than the European Union, those centrifugal forces will begin to abate.
But I do think that the Government needs to look at whether public money is still being used to encourage dissent and fracture. Are we still spending public money in university departments to create a cadre of academics who believe in and promote identities that are not conducive to cohesion?
UKICE: You were talking about how one of the big motivations for this was the right to run our own independent trade policy, and you’re now I think acting as an advisor to the Department for International Trade. How do you think that the UK is doing on trade policy, having had to develop that capacity over the last four or five years? How we should judge whether we’re doing it well, whether it’s delivering on what the expectations might be of it?
UKICE: So far, incredibly encouraging. We, as an independent country, have gone from having zero capacity to determine our own trade policy, because it’s something like muscles that had atrophied, to beefing up our capacity enormously under Liz Truss. We’ve got lots and lots of trade deals, which is wonderful, including with the European Union. I’m hoping there will be a free trade agreement with America. My one slight caveat of caution is it’s important that trade deals remove bureaucratic obstacles to trade, and don’t become a pretext for creating them where they didn’t exist.
We don’t have a specific trade agreement with the United States, yet we do an enormous amount of trans Atlantic trade. So, trade deals need to be based on the premise that you are removing official fiat rather than requiring official fiat. But so far, phenomenally successful. On India, I was really, really pleased. The future prosperity of Britons being born today is going to hinge on whether we as a country can produce things that tens of millions of middle-class Indians and Chinese and Indonesians and Americans want, and I think we are doing a phenomenal job of making sure that happens.
UKICE: There have been quite a lot of arguments about what Parliament’s role on trade policy should be, and whether Parliament should have any say in negotiating mandates. Some contrast has been made with the European Parliament on EU agreements, compared to the UK Parliament’s oversight of UK ones. Do you think we’ve got the oversight on trade right yet?
DC: We’ve not done this for 40 years. It’s right that Parliament has oversight, but I don’t think that oversight should become as it perhaps sometimes does in America, a pretext for imposing all kinds of mercantilist small print. You should have parliamentary oversight, but I think it should be approving or rejecting what the executive has done. I think the onus should be on the executive to negotiate and for Parliament to oversee and approve and ultimately veto if it doesn’t approve. And the executives should therefore negotiate on the basis of what they think Parliament will accept.
UKICE: We’re talking the day after these elections that have just further reinforced the realignment of British politics. How far do you reckon the Brexit realignment has left to run? Do you think this is going to be a permanent shift that’s going to continue to transform British politics?
DC: What started in Clacton is now going nationwide. I looked at the result in Hartlepool and it’s uncannily like Clacton, the only difference being that in the Clacton by-election the Conservative Brexit Party was opposed by the official Conservatives. And in Hartlepool they came together and the Conservative candidate was the official Conservative Brexiteer.
I actually think, I hope, it’s even bigger than that, I hope what we’re seeing is a reversal of the disaster of the 1920s and 1930s. The tragedy in British politics is in the 1920s and 1930s the proper Liberal Party, the force that had actually made Britain a force of global good in the 19th century, was destroyed by the advent of organised labour.
And if we can undo that, if we can destroy the party of organised labour in perpetuity forever, you could restore a proper liberal party so that you’ve got people who believe in free trade and human agency, who are able to take on the high Tory, patrician toffs. And politics becomes a contest between the high Tories and the genuine liberal party – no doubt as to which side of that debate I would be on. If we do that, that would be the ultimate restoration.