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Brexit vote five years on: ‘The sheer disbelief’

·4-min read
 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

Two weeks before the Brexit referendum, on June 23, 2016, elections guru Lord Hayward stunned the establishment when he predicted Britain would vote to leave the EU.

The Conservative peer declared the polls had “got it wrong” because working-class Labour supporters across the North and the Midlands were backing Brexit.

“My biggest memory of the whole process is the sheer disbelief, or misunderstanding, of where the nation was,” the election expert told the Standard.

“Throughout that period I was being told by people that I was wrong – and it was all the Metropolitan elite who kept saying I was wrong.

“They’d lost touch with the nation. Whether they ever had touch with the nation is another matter, but they certainly didn’t have it at that point. Being a Remainer it didn’t give me any pleasure saying that it was going to be Leave.”

To say he was in a minority with his forecast is an understatement.

Even stony-faced Ukip leader Nigel Farage initially appeared to think he had lost the referendum on the night.

Conservative Party co-chair Amanda Milling added: “I remember being at the count and you could see the Leave team being really quite buoyed that night because they could see what was happening around the country.

“It was a massive moment in our politics in recent years.”

Tumultuous years follow

The country was plunged into political chaos that scalped two Tory Prime Ministers before producing a remarkable election victory under former Mayor of London Boris Johnson.

Ms Milling added: “When you look at some of the key events of the last five years – there’s been a heck of a lot happen and it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster.

“There was a point where everyone just got so frustrated, they’d had enough. I think what happened with that 2019 election was the country going: ‘Look, this drama that you’ve got going – I should call it a political soap opera called Westenders because it really was like that at the time – they said we’ve had enough of this. We’ve spoken once, we spoke in the referendum, now just get on with it.”

Years of bitter political fighting, a Supreme Court battle and defections played out against a backdrop of heightened tensions as MPs reported threats and abuse like never before.

Memorable moments included David Cameron walking out of Downing Street, holding the hands of his children, and Theresa May’s snap General Election that ended in humiliation.

Mrs May’s Chequers deal sparked big Cabinet resignations, Brexiteer attempts to oust her and was repeatedly rejected by MPs. Her failure to deliver Brexit ended in a tearful resignation outside Downing Street.


New Prime Minister Mr Johnson entered the ring, tough on EU negotiations and tough on Parliamentarians. He was even accused of dragging the Queen into the Brexit row by proroguing Parliament.

The height of political drama came in September 2019 when Mr Johnson expelled 21 MPs from the parliamentary Conservative Party – including Winston Churchill’s grandson - after they rebelled in a bid to prevent a no-deal Brexit.

Jeremy Corbyn agreed to a snap General Election which the Evening Standard ran on its front page with the headline: “Turkeys vote for Christmas”.

Mr Johnson secured a whopping 80-seat majority, including swathes of Labour’s “Red Wall” heartlands, which enabled his Brexit deal to soar through the Commons.

Ms Milling added: “I do sense that when we had the exit poll at 10 o’clock, in December 2019 that there was a giant sigh of relief, not just amongst parliamentarians, candidates and the Conservative Party, but also the country as a whole.”

The period was also marked by a raft of jargon phrases and technical terms including flextensions, withdrawal agreements, backstops, Article 50 and meaningful votes.

Not to mention Speaker John Bercow’s interventions, the founding of a new political party called Change UK and the campaign for a second referendum.

The only staple throughout the period was the man known as Steve “Stop Brexit” Bray who irked broadcasters with his relentless yelling of “stop Brexit” outside the Houses of Parliament.

At 11pm on January 31, 2020, the UK left the EU ending 47 years of membership.

A special Cabinet meeting outside London, a clock counting down the moments until Brexit on the walls of Downing Street, and the Union flag flying in Parliament Square all heralded the UK’s departure from the EU.

Much of the immediate impact was overshadowed by the global pandemic.

With ensuing rows over meat, fish, Northern Ireland and trade deals, we’ve not heard the last of Brexit.

Read more: Brexit, a timeline

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