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Five years ago, the UK voted to leave the EU – this is what I remember from that surreal Brexit results night

·4-min read
Five years ago, the UK voted to leave the EU – this is what I remember from that surreal Brexit results night

Where were you when Britain voted to leave the European Union? I was in the Southbank Centre, covering the Remain campaign’s official election night party for this newspaper. It didn’t turn out to be much of a party.

Two things characterised the get-together’s early stages: a curry buffet, and an air of unwavering confidence that they were probably going to win this thing.

The night was a real rollercoaster: the early signs looked quite good for those in attendance. Nigel Farage, whose appearance on a television was met with pantomime jeers, appeared at one point to practically concede defeat.

The most cautious person in the room that night was probably Ed Miliband, who had just a year earlier been taught a rough lesson about putting too much faith in polls.

As the results rolled in and the field of possible results narrowed, more and more people broke away from their conversations and gathered around TV screens, with increasingly sombre looks on their faces. Of those that stuck around to the end, some were shouting unprintable things at the screen.

After filing my piece I remember my news editor asking whether I could come into the office to help out, given this was the biggest news event that had happened for some time.

As the day’s dawn broke I walked over the Jubilee footbridge to Embankment to catch the Tube: the only other person crossing the Thames at that time of the morning was a woman wearing a StrongerIn T-shirt, crying loudly into a mobile phone.

Arriving on the other side of the river I found that the Tube was not yet running, so I walked to Westminster. In an otherwise deserted Parliament Square I was approached by a man with a large microphone doing interviews for, I believe, Danish public radio.

He looked glad to see me until I told him that I was a journalist too, so he’d better find someone else to talk to – he laughed, as if this was a recurring problem for him. I dived into the Tube station and went to work at the Indy’s Kensington HQ.

The following workday was a bit surreal. Every journalist will tell you that this was the day that the prime minister resigned, and it only made something like the third most important news item on their front page.

I remember clearly that the most widely-read story I wrote that day, with over a million readers, was a simple write-up of Nigel Farage saying it was a “mistake” for Vote Leave to promise £350m a week for the NHS.

Farage was technically part of a different campaign, but most people didn’t care for the distinction: he was the face of Leave and this was the Leave campaign’s central message, widely seen as swinging the whole contest. The angry reaction and claims the result was struck on a false prospectus would set the tone of people who rejected the result for years to come. To an extent it still does today.

Five years later people have mostly stopped asking where the extra £350m a week is (it isn’t coming and never really existed). Instead, the government trumpets trade deals with other countries as the most prominent benefit of Brexit.

These were barely mentioned during the referendum campaign, by Whitehall’s own admission have little economic benefit, and appear to be essentially a politicians’ backwards rationalisation for leaving the customs union.

Anyone who followed the withdrawal process closely knows that we left the customs union for the same reason we held a referendum in the first place: Tory MPs liked the sound of it, and the Tory leader of the day thought delivering for them would shore-up their position at the top. In neither case did it work, but in both cases we’ll have to live with the consequences of their actions for some time to come.

The result of the referendum changed a lot of things for a lot of people. Had it gone the other way, it’s unlikely I would have been sent to live in Brussels for three years to cover the negotiations for The Independent – a job I very much enjoyed.

But it’s harder to identify or catalogue what won’t happen because of the result, and especially the ensuing decision to end free movement. We don’t know how many chances will never be taken, friendships never struck, or babies never born as a result of the new “controls on immigration” with 27 more countries. There is plenty to criticise about the EU, but that is a shame.

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