Making social science accessible

24 Jun 2023

UK-EU Relations

23 June 2016 will go down in history as the day the UK voted to end decades of membership of the European Union. But from a political viewpoint the day after the referendum – 24 June 2016 – was much more momentous as Jill Rutter discovers in our Brexit Witness Archive.

For the campaigners, 24 June 2016 was the culmination of months of frenetic activity. For some, it marked the realisation of a long-held wish.

Some respondents were quicker on the uptake than others. David Davis, who would go on to become Brexit secretary, had his own mathematical model to predict the result: “And, as the cameras went away, as they do in these things, he [David Dimbleby] said to me, ‘It looks like you guys might win.’ I said, ‘What do you mean we might win? We have won.’”

For some, like Conservative turned UKIP MP Douglas Carswell, it meant elation as they realised what the UK had chosen to leave: “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 three years in the political wilderness.”

Others, such as Amber Rudd, thought it was career ending: “I thought my political career was over. I’d backed the losing side.”

While the Remain campaign headed to a nearby pub to drown their sorrows, as campaign director Will Straw told us, the real action was going on in Downing Street.

David Cameron had committed to stay on even if the result went against him. One of his closest colleagues,  Oliver Letwin, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster counselled against resignation: “The first thing is David had decided – against my advice, though actually I think he was probably right and I was probably wrong – that he would resign.” Others thought Cameron’s position was untenable, and resignation was inevitable.

But ironically the people who seemed most disconcerted by his departure were not those who had campaigned alongside him for Remain but his opponents in Vote Leave.

Vote Leave communications director Paul Stephenson told us that neither Michael Gove nor Boris Johnson had anticipated Cameron’s resignation: “There were discussions between Michael and Boris about what would happen and we thought a deal was done and basically the Leave team would go on and run a leadership campaign. And then things fell apart. I think the thing that threw Michael and Boris was Cameron resigning…. I don’t think they were both prepared psychologically seeing their good friend resigning and feeling responsible for it”.

Dominic Grieve, then Attorney General, told us of his prediction of what would happen: “My concern was that this was going to turn into chaos and that, in fact, it was not an easily-managed process at all, but that it was going to cause massive difficulties. And I didn’t think anybody had paid the slightest attention to just what the complexities were going to be.”

On the Labour side, recriminations started immediately. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell told us that the survival of the Corbyn project was his priority: “I knew a coup was coming against us, our own Chief Whip had told us that…. I was focused solely on survival. We were phoning Hilary Benn at midnight on the Saturday…seeing whether he was launching a coup or not and whether he has resigned, or if anybody has resigned.”

Hilary Benn, then shadow foreign secretary, was clear he was sacked, but thought Jeremy Corbyn had to go. “I said that I thought he was a good and a decent man but he wasn’t a leader and there wasn’t confidence in the Parliamentary Labour Party that we could win an election under his leadership.… When I got sacked, I wasn’t entirely clear how many members of the Shadow Cabinet would then decide that they were going to leave.”

There was one leader whose job was done. UKIP Communications Director, Gawain Towler told us UKIP was “going to be a busted flush” but Nigel Farage “resigned as leader because he thought he’d done his job.”

Another saw an opportunity, as the SNP’s Joanna Cherry told us: “Eventually Nicola [Sturgeon] came to the door in jeans and bare feet and …and just said to me, ‘Oh my God.’ Her mouth was hanging open with shock. I think she was probably a bit more shocked than I was…. We went in and we immediately started talking about what we were going to say about another referendum.”

But as the politicians were reeling from the meteor that had just hit them, the civil servants had to fill the vacuum they left, knowing that ministers would be preoccupied with the Conservative leadership race and that, as ordered, minimal contingency planning for a Leave vote had been done.

There was a lot of explaining to do. UK Permanent Representative to the EU Ivan Rogers had identified the need to stay in Brussels “to be dealing with the key people…at the top of the Council, top of the Commission.” In Paris, UK Ambassador, Julian King, had to explain what was happening: “in the morning, I started receiving telephone calls from some of the journalists I’d seen from the previous evening and others across the French government and administration, saying, ‘What the hell happens now?” Both had to move quickly to reassure shell-shocked staff.

Back in London, Foreign Office permanent secretary, Simon McDonald, filled the political vacuum with meetings: “Nothing seemed to be going on after Cameron came out onto Downing Street and announced his resignation. So, I called a meeting…. It was supposed to be a Foreign Office meeting…[but] there were representatives from all over Whitehall…. I saw European ambassadors that day, and I had the mother and father of office meetings that afternoon, when we had the Locarno Suite absolutely packed and 1,100 lines open around the world.”

Final word to former head of the Government Legal Department, Jonathan Jones, who was summoned to the Cabinet Secretary’s office to start getting ready for what lay ahead: “In my hungover state, I went down to 70 Whitehall. Again, a small handful of us got together, just to work out what we were going to do that day.”

By Jill Rutter, Senior Research Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe.

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