How the Leave vote literally drowned those of us working inside Tory HQ during the referendum

How the Leave vote literally drowned those of us working inside Tory HQ during the referendum

It was Thursday 23rd June 2016 and the following email arrived in the inbox of all CCHQ staff:

From: Conservative Campaign Headquarters
To: All Staff
Subject: Access to Lower Ground Floor~There is no access to the lower ground floor at Matthew Parker Street due to flooding.

You couldn’t make it up. The headquarters of the Conservative Party were flooded on EU Referendum day.

Cue the obvious jokes about foreshadowing the state of the party – and country – being submerged, paddling furiously to stay afloat.

I was one of the few members of the press team who remained behind at CCHQ during the referendum campaign as my more experienced colleagues were snapped up and seconded to Vote Leave in Westminster Tower and Stronger In at Cannon Street. The Conservatives officially adopted a neutral position, although almost all of its MPs, members and employees would firmly support one of the two options.

The working assumption of many of us at CCHQ, whichever side of the debate we were on, was that Remain would win a close but clear victory by a margin of around 55% to 45%. However, as the campaign progressed there were several key moments which revealed that all was not going to plan in the Remain camp and that they were feeling the pressure from Vote Leave – perhaps in response to private polling showing them behind.

One of the most dramatic parts of the referendum was President Obama’s poor turn of phrase in April 2016 that an independent Britain would be “at the back of the queue” in any trade negotiations with the US. A significant moment because it came so early on in the campaign and left some of us at CCHQ wondering two things: one, how Remain could top this? – and, secondly, how they could sustain such high-profile, punchy interventions for the next two months?

I felt then that they’d overplayed one of their best cards, not as skillfully as they might have done, and far too early in the process. The instant reaction of the public indicated that it had backfired and not had the intended impact. The average voter generally respects and listens to what the American President has to say when they visit Britain, particularly one as popular and thoughtful as Obama – but this has its limits when they feel they’re being bossed around.

This domineering and we-know-best approach was a common theme throughout the referendum as the electorate increasingly heard from the great and the good in politics, economics, business and entertainment about how crucial it was for the country to preserve the status quo.

It is well-documented that it was a deliberate campaigning strategy by Vote Leave’s Dominic Cummings to choose the £350 million figure, and double down in the debate on its veracity. From inside CCHQ there was widespread bemusement and frustration, even from eurosceptics, that the Leave campaign were so strongly defending this figure and content to have a public row about it. Why did they not just concede the point and choose a slightly smaller, more accepted figure to use to close off this controversy?

In hindsight, Westminster observers realised that Vote Leave wanted the swing voter to listen to the message that the EU debits the UK roughly £19 billion per year and hear a Remain spokesperson stumbling to articulate a convoluted description of the rebate system – how we get some money back from the EU, but that it isn’t fully under our control.
Contrast this with the simple messaging that we should take back control of the money we pay for EU membership.

The joint intervention of Tony Blair and Sir John Major in Northern Ireland in the second week of June was another significant moment in the run-up to the historic vote. As a plastic Ulsterman, the symbolism of two Prime Ministers, former political foes who were closely involved in building the peace process, walking together over the Peace Bridge in Derry was incredibly powerful.

The week before the vote came the moment which fully underlined the panic which had gripped the Remain campaign about losing the vote, when George Osborne threatened to deliver a ‘punishment Budget’ after a Leave vote – including hiking Income Tax, alcohol and petrol duties and making cuts to the NHS, schools and defence.

For many this was a turning point, which sent into the arms of Leave wavering voters who were no longer able to believe the increasingly incredulous and hysterical tone of the Remain campaign.

I spent referendum evening at the Irish Embassy and then later with a very eurosceptic crowd close to Pall Mall – eternally grateful that my boss was, gladly, doing a double shift in Matthew Parker Street so I had the night off press duty.

Following the email updates on my phone of the results and commentariat’s analysis of the evening, I went on a rollercoaster journey from Nigel Farage’s effective concession before midnight, to the early results in Newcastle and Sunderland, the teetering and collapse of sterling, to the 4.39am announcement of a Leave victory by David Dimbleby on the BBC.

There were tears in CCHQ as David Cameron announced his resignation outside Number 10, as rumours circulated of a suspension of the stock market – before Mark Carney sought to reassure the country that stability mechanisms were in place to ensure bank liquidity.

In the evening news of 24th June, the development that the Prime Minister had resigned managed to make the number three news story – as stark a reminder as any of the gravity of the unfolding events.

I look back at the campaign relatively fondly on a personal basis – particularly the banter and camaraderie among and between my Brexiteer and Remain colleagues. None of us thought that leaving the EU would be enacted and resolved swiftly, but I don’t think any of us could have predicted the polarisation, fragmentation and division that has led to the current impasse.

Whatever happens, it’s been a truly fascinating and tumultuous time to be following British politics.