Deal or no deal? The weekend Brexit went from outside bet to even chance

Deal or no deal? The weekend Brexit went from outside bet to even chance

A year ago today, on Friday 19th February 2016, David Cameron stepped out of a conference room in Brussels to announce that he had successfully concluded his renegotiation with the European Union.

The team around him in Downing Street had written the script for what would happen next. The Prime Minister would emerge just after 10pm, in perfect time to commandeer the evening news.

The next day, he would hold a Cabinet meeting at which the vast majority of ministers would tell him, and each other, what a wonderful deal he had got. He would then step outside to say the same to the British people. And the Remain camp would get an instant 10-point bump in the polls – a lead which would only build as ‘Project Fear’ swung into gear.

In fact, as readers of BrexitCentral will be well aware, that late-night announcement was about the last point that things went according to plan for the Remainers.

The next day, Cameron shared the headlines with the news that Michael Gove had come out for us at Vote Leave. And on the editorial pages, the renegotiation got a kicking. The Times headlined its editorial “Thin Gruel” and pronounced that: “From the land of chocolate, David Cameron was always destined to bring back fudge”. Even the Financial Times admitted that the “fundamental, far-reaching” change Mr Cameron had promised “was never realistic”.

The referendum itself was, of course, won on 23rd June. But it was that weekend a year ago that made it possible for us to win it.

On the Saturday, the “Glorious Six” – Cabinet Ministers Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Priti Patel, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale – announced that they would be campaigning for Leave.

On the Sunday, Boris Johnson became number seven, when he announced that he was doing the same. And in the days that followed, the bump in the polls that Remain had expected – and were relying on – completely failed to materialise.

One of the keys to this was how we played the expectations game. And to mark the anniversary, I wanted to look back at why that happened – at one of the great successes of the Leave movement that has been relatively ignored, yet which was absolutely vital to our eventual victory.


After the Conservative Party’s surprise election victory, two things became crystal clear: first, that there would be an EU referendum; and second, that it would not be on the vision outlined in David Cameron’s famous Bloomberg speech in January 2013.

The kind of Europe he’d outlined there was one that even I might have voted for – one that offered a return of powers to the member states and a recognition of national parliaments as “the true source of real democratic legitimacy and accountability”.

Neither of these things were possible once the Prime Minister ruled out treaty change at the June 2015 European Council – which is why the Board of Business for Britain proceeded to set up Vote Leave. Our stance had always been ‘Change, or Go’. Once it became clear that ‘change’ was off the table, we had to prepare to fight for ‘go’.

But even if we were certain in our own minds that Cameron’s deal wasn’t enough, how would we make that clear to the voters?

At the end of 2011, when I was working out what to do after running the NOtoAV referendum campaign, I commissioned Lynton Crosby and Crosby Textor Fullbrook to examine how an EU referendum campaign could be fought and won. (To keep the work confidential, they referred to it as ‘Project Levi’ – a nod towards my role at the TaxPayers’ Alliance, Levi being another name for Matthew the Apostle, a tax collector who became an Evangelist.)

Lynton and his team found that in a straight In/Out referendum, Out stood a very decent chance. But if there were a meaningful renegotiation, Remain would walk it: the figures were 43 per cent for Leave come what may, 14 per cent for Remain even with the status quo, and 39 per cent for Remain with reform. CTF’s focus groups found the same: the public were overwhelmingly supportive of a renegotiation if one were on the table.

Subsequent polls over the following years found the same thing. If you asked people whether they wanted to leave the EU, you got one set of figures. But if you asked a follow-up question about how they would vote if David Cameron were standing there claiming to have secured a great new deal for Britain, In suddenly leapt ahead by 10 to 15 points.

This predicted bounce was the reason why so many of my polling and campaigning friends thought I was crazy for setting up Business for Britain and lining myself up for another referendum campaign.

I remember meeting a friend for brunch one Saturday in Brixton Market, who was certain that the Leave campaign would lose an EU referendum. “Matthew,” he told me patiently, “you don’t understand just how popular the PM is.”

It wasn’t only the public. Many Tory MPs, particularly the 2015 intake, were more Cameron’s children than Thatcher’s. He’d selected them, campaigned for them, won them their seats.

So if we were going to win the referendum, there were all kinds of things we needed to do.

We needed to make sure that the campaign rules in the EU Referendum Bill guaranteed a fair fight. We needed to make sure that the Conservative Party stayed neutral, so that the other side couldn’t get access to its money or its data.

We needed to recruit mainstream support from MPs, activists and business figures so that people could see that this wasn’t a repeat of the 1975 referendum – that there were sensible, normal people who thought leaving the EU was the right thing to do.

We also needed to recruit star names who thought the same – so that the face people saw on their screens calling for us to Leave was a Boris Johnson or Michael Gove, not a Nigel Farage or George Galloway.

And of course we needed to raise money and build a proper campaigning organisation.

But we also needed to raise the bar for Cameron’s negotiation as high as possible – to take the shine off his deal in the eyes of MPs and the public by making it absolutely clear how far the negotiations had fallen short. And the best way to do that was to hold him to his own standards.


At the heart of this game of expectation management was Business for Britain, which I’d founded in 2013.

I wrote about BfB’s role in more detail here back in September, but for me it always had three purposes.

First, to act as the precursor to a full-on Leave campaign (unless, of course, Cameron delivered on the pledges in his Bloomberg speech).

Second, to win support within the business community – it was always very clear that if it came out against us, we’d lose. Rodney Leach and Business for Sterling had stopped Britain’s entry into the euro by showing that the business community was divided on the issue. So we needed to demonstrate that business leaders were also split on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union.

And third, we needed to be able to critique the Prime Minister’s renegotiation from a mainstream position. That’s why we deliberately pitched our tent to cover all shades of eurosceptic opinion – anyone who thought that the status quo wasn’t working. We even attracted the support of people like Stuart Rose, who ended up chairing the Remain campaign.

Our mission statement was ‘Change, or Go’. If the renegotiation worked, then we’d have helped to make sure it was a proper one. If it didn’t (as was always likely), then the only logical course of action was to leave the EU.

This was something that Arron Banks and his friends at Leave.EU never understood. I lost count of the number of times Richard Tice, a Business for Britain signatory who then became Co-Chairman of Leave.EU, urged me to take a stand.

What they couldn’t see was that if we looked like we rejected Cameron’s position out of hand, we’d lose. We had to show that we’d actually considered it – we had to make him the guy who was out of tune with the public, not us.

At the heart of this was a 1,000-page, five-part report called Change, or Go: How Britain would gain influence and prosper outside an unreformed EU, which was published in June 2015 and serialised in the Daily Telegraph.

We argued that, compared to the status quo, Britain was in a win-win position. We would be better off after a proper renegotiation, but if that didn’t happen, we would also be better off out of an unreformed EU.

I’m under no illusions about the number of people who actually read Change, or Go all the way through – although I will say that one of them was the Foreign Secretary. Anyone who thinks Boris Johnson was being opportunistic by coming on board with Vote Leave, or that he didn’t care about the issues, should have seen the well-thumbed copy in his office, covered in Post-it notes and folded-down corners.

But Change, or Go succeeded in doing exactly what it was meant to.

It reassured people that serious, sober, rigorous research had been done into what leaving the EU might look like – that it was not a leap in the dark.

It also acted as bait for MPs and ministers. We sent copies to everyone we could think of in Parliament, along with personal letters saying that I’d be only too happy to discuss the contents.

And above all, it raised the bar for Cameron’s renegotiation to the proper height. Not an arbitrary height picked by us, but the height promised in his Bloomberg speech.

One of our most popular videos at Business for Britain, subsequently remade and updated by Vote Leave, was a reel of video clips of Cameron saying extremely eurosceptic things, in order to heighten the contrast between promises and delivery.

Soon after the election, it became clear that the Prime Minister would fail his own exam. At a European Council meeting at the end of June 2015, he had conceded that he would not ask for treaty changes to deliver whatever his deal turned out to be. He would instead settle for guarantees that there would be treaty changes at some point in the future. To anyone who knew anything about the EU, this was a white flag.

It was at this point that we made our pivot. The board of Business for Britain agreed to come out for Leave; we sent letters to all our supporters telling them so; and we began the formal process of setting up Vote Leave.

At every stage, we kept Nigel Farage and Arron Banks fully informed of our plans – which is why it was so frustrating that journalists swallowed his line that his setting up “The Know” (as Leave.EU was originally called) had bounced us into launching early.

Many people were involved in this game of expectations management, and we can’t deny how events like the migrant crisis reinforced our message of Taking Back Control.

But by the time Donald Tusk put out a draft of the deal in early February, the scales had fallen from voters’ eyes. The draft got an absolute kicking in the press and on social media – one for which the Remainers, unlike us, were oddly unprepared.

In polls taken after the Tusk draft appeared, only 21 per cent of the public said they supported its terms. And by the time Cameron finally presented the results to the nation, everyone knew the deal was a dud. That’s why, during the campaign itself, it was barely even mentioned.

For months, many MPs and public figures had been hemming and hawing about which way to go. Many said that they needed to wait until the outlines of Cameron’s deal became clear, that they still had faith in him to deliver.

But once the deal came out, they couldn’t pretend any more. In the end we got 135 Tory MPs on board, far more than Downing Street ever imagined possible.

And instead of the PM making the deal look better, the deal made the PM look worse – especially since he suddenly switched from insisting that he “didn’t rule anything out” if he didn’t get a good deal to campaigning for it “with all my heart and soul”. From that point, his personal approval ratings dropped sharply. The more he raved about Europe, the less credible he looked.


When I look back on those months before the short campaign, I’m still baffled by how badly David Cameron played his hand.

In Europe, he went in talking tough, but what he effectively said to the other countries was: “Give me something I can sell.” The moment he ruled out treaty change, he effectively ruled out getting anything actually meaningful.

Similarly, there was no sustained attempt to speak to his eurosceptic backbenchers, to find out what the people who had been hammering away on these issues for years actually wanted or thought might be achievable.

It wasn’t a sham negotiation: clearly, they put a lot of effort into it. And you have to admire Cameron for actually fighting for the EU during the campaign, rather than stepping back as Harold Wilson had in 1975 in order to remain in power whatever happened. But the deal he was defending was never going to come close to what was needed – and both the public and his MPs came to realise it.

I think, ultimately, Cameron and those around him assumed throughout this process that whatever they came back with, they would win. They knew how to win elections. They had the most popular politician in the country.

As Iain Duncan Smith has said, it felt at that final Cabinet meeting after the deal was announced as if he and the others were being given a condescending pat on the head, being granted gracious permission to go off and do their usual eurosceptic nonsense to get it out of their systems.

I’m writing all this not to gloat, but because I think it’s important that people realise – a year later – the amount of planning that went into the referendum campaign and that pivotal weekend. We had to do so much groundwork, and take so much time, to get ourselves in shape for those three crucial days – to identify and neutralise Downing Street’s advantages.

But that weekend, this time last year, from Cameron coming back with his deal to Boris coming out for Vote Leave, feels in retrospect like the moment we went from underdogs to contenders with an even chance. The foundation had been built from which we would win four months later, on 23rd June.