Brexit reflections from Matthew Elliott

Brexit reflections from Matthew Elliott

Here is the latest in our series reflecting on the Brexit process with regular BrexitCentral authors and others who have played an important role in our journey out of the European Union. Here are the answers to our questions from Matthew Elliott, our Editor-at-Large, who was of course Chief Executive of the Vote Leave campaign.

BC: When did you first come to the view that the UK would be better off out of the EU? Did you ever think that the EU could be reformed from within to make membership tolerable for the UK? Tell us how your views developed over time on the issue.

At the risk of opening myself up to a great deal of mockery, my interest in Britain’s relationship with the EU goes all the way back to my school days, when I wrote an article for my school magazine on the case for and against the Euro. It deepened during my time studying at the London School of Economics, where I interned at the European Foundation, who were the main think tank battling to prevent further transfers of power to the EU and, in particular, to keep the pound. I then worked in the European Parliament for a number of years, before setting up the TaxPayers’ Alliance in 2004. At the TPA, we had a longstanding campaign against wasteful spending by the EU, which including me co-authoring ‘The Great EU Rip-Off’. So when the Eurozone crisis struck shortly after the AV referendum (which I had been involved in as Campaign Director of NOtoAV), and it became apparent that Britain’s relationship with the EU would once again come to the fore, my longstanding interest in the issue was reignited.

I acted on this interest after David Cameron’s Bloomberg Speech, in January 2013, when he outlined his policy of renegotiation followed by a referendum. I was struck by the reaction to his speech. Business leaders called upon to appear in the media gave the proposal for a referendum a universal thumbs down, whereas the entrepreneurs I knew were virtually all supportive. So I set up Business for Britain (BfB) in March 2013 to bring together business leaders who supported a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. BfB’s general stance could be summarised as ‘Change, or Go’. If the Prime Minister managed to make the changes he outlined in his speech, then we should Remain in the EU. But if his renegotiation failed, we should go – or Leave the EU, to use the referendum parlance.

When David Cameron won an overall majority in the 2015 General Election, it was game on for the referendum, and BfB ramped up fundraising and campaign planning. It was more likely than not I would support leave, but it wasn’t certain. The crucial moment for me was when David Cameron conceded at the June 2015 European Council meeting that his reform agenda did not require treaty change. It was clear then that the promises he had outlined in his Bloomberg Speech couldn’t be achieved, so I went full steam ahead to transition BfB into Vote Leave.

BC: What was your most memorable moment during the referendum campaign?

There are so many memories! Aside from referendum night (see below), a special moment was Vote Leave getting designation from the Electoral Commission. I knew from having run the NOtoAV campaign in the 2011 referendum on electoral reform that a successful campaign needed to appeal to the centre ground, to swing voters. Business for Britain was pitched as a non-partisan focal point for people who shared our ‘Change, or Go’ message, and Vote Leave continued to target mainstream voters who felt, on balance, it was better to Leave the EU. Thanks to this pragmatic stance, we formed a natural home for politicians such as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Gisela Stuart who, in turn, successfully expanded the Leave coalition from its core voters to the members of the public who had yet to make up their minds. The designation of Vote Leave as the official Leave campaign sealed the deal and gave us the strong foundation that delivered the victory. It had been a three-year effort, from the formation of Business for Britain to getting designation, but we had successfully built a credible, mainstream Leave campaign.

The photo at the top of this article, taken on the morning of 24th June, shows another memorable moment. It includes Peter Cruddas, a stalwart of both Business for Britain and Vote Leave. Not only did Peter back both campaigns financially, but he also gave invaluable organisational support and leadership.

BC: Who was the most unlikely ally you campaigned with or shared a platform with during the referendum? Did you strike up any unexpected new friendships across traditional political divides?

As a longstanding Labour MP, Gisela Stuart was probably the most unexpected friendship I struck up. I first came across Gisela when she sat on the ‘European Convention on the Future of Europe’ – the EU’s attempt to reconnect with its citizens after the resignation of the Santer Commission. I was working as a researcher for another member of the Convention, Timothy Kirkhope MEP. Our paths then crossed again in the AV referendum, where Gisela was a strong support of NOtoAV. Fast-forwarding to 2016, I recruited her to join Vote Leave as our Chairman, rather than setting up a separate campaign to represent centre left Leave supporters. She was a superb figurehead for the campaign alongside Boris Johnson, a deft chairman of the Board, and a reassuring voice to Labour, mainstream and swing voters to support Leave. Here’s a photograph of Gisela, Sarah and myself on referendum night. It was taken shortly after the Sunderland result, the first rumblings of the electoral earthquake that was about to unfold.

BC: Where were you on referendum night? How did it feel?

As Vote Leave’s CEO, I had to be up in Manchester Town Hall for referendum night, where all the results from around the country were being collated. I was up there with Gisela Stuart, who chaired Vote Leave, Alan Halsall, Chairman of Business for Britain, and MPs including Steve Baker, Graham Brady and Nigel Evans. It was a remarkable evening. When polls closed, the news bulletins indicated that Remain had won. But I remember Gisela telling me as the news came through, “They haven’t even begun counting the vote yet. I’ve been involved in many election counts, and I know it’s way too soon to write this one off.” And she was right. We had been receiving reports on the turnout levels throughout the day, and the very high number of people turning out to vote indicated that something significant was happening. People who didn’t usually vote in elections were turning out to vote, and the data showed that they were likely than not to support Leave.

At dawn the following morning, once Gisela had spoken to the assembled media, we hotfooted it back to London to join the team at Vote Leave’s HQ overlooking Parliament. Arriving back at the office and greeting Dominic was a special moment, captured below. It had been tough few years growing Business for Britain and then building Vote Leave with Dom, but it had been worth it. The hard work had paid off.

BC: Did you think then that it would take as long as it has for Brexit to actually happen?

No, I didn’t. The post-referendum period has taken up more time than the period from David Cameron’s Bloomberg Speech to winning the referendum – a total of 1,317 days to be precise. The silver lining is that the foot-dragging by Parliamentarians riled the public so much that they rewarded Boris Johnson with his thumping majority in December. This has given us the strong, focused government that we need to capitalise on all the opportunities that Brexit presents us with, so things worked out in the end.

BC: Were there any moments in these last few years since the referendum when you thought the prize could yet be snatched from us?

Absolutely. There was a moment when I thought the Labour Party might get behind the Chequers Agreement, giving Theresa May the numbers she needed to get a Brexit in Name Only through Parliament, splitting the Conservative Party, and handing over the keys of No10 to Jeremy Corbyn. We came close to the nightmare scenario of BRINO (Brexit in name only) plus a Marxist, anti-Semitic government.

BC: Do you think the British electoral landscape will return to type once Brexit has been delivered? Or will Brexit have caused a lasting change to the political map of Britain?

I do think Brexit will cause a lasting change. The lifelong Labour voters who switched their support to Boris Johnson won’t forget how Labour MPs sought to reverse the EU referendum. When Labour lost its Scottish MPs in 2015, following the 2014 Independence referendum, they assumed they would come back at the following election. They didn’t in Scotland, and the same fate could well happen in England and Wales. But – crucially – only if the Government keeps the promises they made at the general election – which I’m confident they will.

One thing which I think isn’t appreciated enough is how Britain as a country is emerging from the Brexit process enhanced. Boris Johnson has already become a significant world leader, and he might possibly become leader of the free world over the coming years. With Donald Trump not trusted, Justin Trudeau wounded by losing the popular vote in his re-election campaign, Angela Merkel exiting the world stage and Emmanuel Macron facing political difficulties at home, Boris Johnson – buoyed by his electoral triumph in December – really has emerged as a key world leader. Far from losing our world standing as we exit the European Union, the UK is emerging from the process a stronger, more confident country. And as our economy pulls ahead of other EU members states – as all the leading forecasts suggest it will – the humiliation we faced with our Brexit difficulties last year is fast turning into admiration for us having had the guts as a country to leave a club which no longer suited our needs. It has been an epic struggle to get this far, but absolutely worth it. 

BC: What changes do you want/hope to see made now that the UK has taken back control? Can you summarise your vision for Brexit Britain?

My vision for Brexit Britain is as a liberal, internationalist country, working closely with nations across the world, trading freely to boost prosperity, and using our soft power to improve the lives of people around the globe. The whole point of Taking Back Control is that a future government might choose to follow a different agenda, but I believe that the common sense of voters will keep the country on this track. We have a great future ahead of us, and I predict that under this Government, we will be the most prosperous country in Europe.

BC: Do you have any special plans for 1st February, our first day outside the EU?

Sarah and I are looking forward to welcoming our second daughter into the world in April, and we are currently in the middle or redecorating our flat, so Saturday will be spent paintbrush in hand, working on the nursery. And then, in April, I’ll have the enjoyment of applying for her first British passport.

BC: Do you have a favourite photo of yourself from the Brexit process? If so, please share it and give us the context for it.

My favourite photograph has to be the one below of me and Sarah, shortly after 4.40am on Friday June 24th, when David Dimbleby declared on the BBC that Leave had won the referendum. We were ecstatic. I could not have got through that year without her belief in me, love, support and encouragement.