The people who made Brexit happen

Looking back over 2016, there are a number of key individuals who can be said to have played a decisive role in seeing the UK leave the EU.  Here we consider some of those involved.


It’s clear that without the pressure the United Kingdom Independence Party put on the Conservative Party during the latter stages of the 2010-2015 Coalition Government, a referendum may never have been promised by David Cameron.  The then Prime Minister was facing a potential rebellion from hard line Eurosceptics in his own party, two of his MPs had defected to UKIP with threats of more to come, and it was far from clear the Tories were going to beat Ed Miliband’s Labour Party in the coming election.  The indefatigable Nigel Farage positioned UKIP in such a way as to force Cameron’s hand so that he could steady Conservative Party unity ahead of the 2015 General Election and turn his focus to beating Labour.


Without Cameron’s determination to defeat the issue that had split the Conservative Party since the late 80s – coupled with his confidence built on the recent Scottish independence referendum victory – a referendum may never have been promised.  That is was speaks to Cameron’s confidence that he could overcome decades of hostility and scepticism of the EU in the public and media without undertaking a long campaign to improve the EU’s image, and instead focused on warnings of economic Armageddon. 

Much has been written about the failures of the Remain campaign itself, but surely the most important moment of the whole effort to keep Britain in the EU was Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ earlier in 2016.  Cameron had spent a substantial amount of time attempting to get powers back from Brussels, and his final deal was pooh-poohed as weak and inconsequential by virtually everyone.  His subsequent decision to ignore that renegotiation during the campaign reinforced in the public’s mind the inability of the EU to change (remember that Cameron was campaigning for Britain to remain inside a ‘reformed EU’) and Britain’s inability to shape things for the better.  Some have since argued that the outcome was sealed from that moment.


Corbyn’s long-time Euroscepticism from his time on the backbenches is well documented, so his conversion to a pro-EU campaigner during 2016 left few in doubt of his real convictions, especially as a result of the lacklustre approach he took to supporting the Remain cause.  In a campaign which saw prominent Tories and Lib Dems take much of the air time for Remain – Corbyn refused to share a stage with Cameron – many of the Labour voting public saw nobody who reflected their views and chose to vote Leave.  Given that much of Labour’s heartlands voted Leave, that ambiguous position may turn out to be the right approach, since UKIP is now expected to turn its focus to northern working class towns. 


The popular former Mayor of London spent an agonising amount of time deciding which side to back, and Number 10 knew it would be important to have him onside.  Polls had shown that Johnson was one of the few household names whose backing could swing large numbers of voters.  Many suspect the now Foreign Secretary decided to join the Vote Leave campaign to position himself as a future leader of an increasingly Eurosceptic Tory Party, though the likely reality is he held conflicting views which could have sent him towards either camp.  Needless to say, with his decision to join Leave, he upset Number 10, caused a rift in his friendship with the Prime Minister, and gave momentum to the Vote Leave campaign.


Considered the brains behind Vote Leave, Cummings distrusted pollsters and spent a large proportion of his time withstanding efforts to include the divisive Nigel Farage in the Leave campaign.  Cummings has said that if Farage had retired when he said he would Vote Leave could’ve won with 60% of the vote. 

Alongside Matthew Elliott, the campaign had to build up data that could underpin focused outreach and convert undecideds to the Leave side.  As one campaign insider put it, whilst Britain Stronger In Europe spent much of the final few days handing out leaflets at London Underground stations in a scattergun approach, Vote Leave was targeting individuals it knew had to be persuaded of the case.  He also came up with the slogan ‘Vote Leave, Take Control’ which so vividly encapsulated views of the public in a way that ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ failed to do.

Michael Stott

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search