Lawson, Grayling, Villiers, Longworth and Stuart: Five heroes of the Brexit campaign

Lawson, Grayling, Villiers, Longworth and Stuart: Five heroes of the Brexit campaign

I wrote for BrexitCentral yesterday on the work that went into winning the battle of expectations during David Cameron’s renegotiation.

But there was another battle under way during those months – to recruit the people who would be the faces and voices of the Leave campaign.

The most prominent of these, of course, were Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, who announced their support for Vote Leave a year ago today and tomorrow respectively. It’s not exactly controversial to argue that without either one of them, Brexit would never have happened. And all those of us who fought for Britain to leave the European Union owe them both a profound debt of gratitude for their courage, and for giving us the momentum to have a fighting chance of winning the referendum.

At the same time, the focus on Boris and Michael has overshadowed the contribution made by many other people. So today I want to pay tribute to five other people who played a crucial role in the campaign, and deserve recognition on this anniversary.


Throughout the summer and autumn of 2015, I had a series of coded conversations that all proceeded along much the same lines: I would meet up with a minister for a private word, somewhere off the beaten track. We would agree that Britain’s relationship with Europe wasn’t working. We would agree that the Prime Minister’s Bloomberg speech in January 2013 had set out an admirable vision for how it could be changed. The minister would say that they had every hope that his renegotiation would be a triumphant success, and every confidence in his leadership. But of course, if it didn’t work out, then they’d have to think very hard about what happened next.

On an issue like our membership of the European Union, voters had an instinctive feeling about their position. But they also wanted to know where other people they respected stood. For example, when I need guidance on an economic issue, I will often call Allister Heath, the brilliant business and economics commentator at the Daily Telegraph and an old university friend. I know that Allister’s views largely chime with my own, so I use him as a shortcut on economic questions.

Similarly, a lot of voters’ decision-making is based on looking at which politicians are on each side of a debate – which is why it was so important to get the respected messengers who swing voters to come out in support of Vote Leave.

Having Cabinet members and other ministers on side also gave us people with the stature to go toe to toe with the Remainers. When you had Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, making the case that a European Single Army wasn’t on the cards, it was extremely useful to have Penny Mordaunt, the Armed Forces Minister, to give voters the real facts.

But for most ministers, coming out for Leave was a colossal gamble. For one thing, it wasn’t clear until quite late in the day whether they’d have to resign in order to do so. In June 2015, David Cameron had made it explicit that members of the Government would be obliged to support the Government’s position on Brexit.

Even for MPs, only a handful were – to begin with – outright Leavers. Most felt they at least owed it to David Cameron to see how his renegotiation went, and genuinely hoped for a good result. They also knew that going against the party was career suicide. There was the cautionary example of Philip Davies, the MP for Shipley in West Yorkshire, who was told – very publicly – that his early support for the ‘Better Off Out’ group meant he’d never get a job under Cameron.

So we were asking people to jeopardise their careers to join our campaign – at precisely the time when the headlines were full of stories about eurosceptic infighting, and it was entirely possible that we at Vote Leave wouldn’t get the designation at all.

Given these circumstances, there are three people who deserve a great deal of credit.

The first is Lord Lawson. Many people will know that the former Chancellor played a vital role in steadying the Vote Leave ship by agreeing to become our temporary chairman in January 2016. But he had already made an equally significant contribution back in May 2013.

That was when, in an article in The Times, he became the first senior Tory to come out for Brexit. He argued (correctly) that the economic gains “would substantially outweigh the costs”, called the EU (correctly) a “bureaucratic monstrosity” and predicted (correctly) that Cameron’s renegotiation would be “inconsequential”.

It is hard to remember now, but at the time, this was a genuinely galvanising moment. Despite Cameron’s promise of a referendum, Brexit still felt in many ways like a fringe position.

For Lord Lawson, a man venerated by many Tories, to come out into the open on the issue made it intellectually and politically possible for others to do the same. To use a term from political science, he extended the Overton Window on what was acceptable to think and say in the European debate.

Within days of Lord Lawson’s article, Charles Moore revealed that Margaret Thatcher had come to the same conclusion before her death, but had kept it private after being told that it would enable her opponents to push her to “the fringes of public life”.

Then Michael Portillo announced too, via another article in The Times, that he was for Brexit too (hat tip to Tim Montgomerie, who was then Comment Editor of the newspaper). By June 2016, almost all of Portillo’s tribe – the first generation of Tory modernisers – would reach the same conclusion.

There was something quite poignant about the fact that Lord Lawson’s article came just weeks after Lady Thatcher’s funeral; and quite unusual – it was one of those rare instances of a senior politician admitting a fundamental rethink of their position on a subject which had dominated the latter part of their career in frontline politics.

Without these interventions, I genuinely think things might have gone differently. At a crucial time, they made Brexit that bit more acceptable within the Tory Party – the snowballs that started the avalanche.

And throughout the months leading up to the completion of the renegotiation, Lord Lawson also worked tirelessly to lobby his fellow parliamentarians – MPs, peers and ministers – many of whom naturally looked to him as an elder statesman for advice and listened to him with respect.

The two other people who deserve particular recognition for the role they played in ensuring that so many ministers and MPs came out for Vote Leave are Chris Grayling and Theresa Villiers.

Everyone knew that Chris, who had become Leader of the House of Commons after the 2015 general election, was a staunch eurosceptic. We had received an early indication of where his sympathies would ultimately lie at the Conservative Party conference in 2015. Not only did Chris speak alongside me at a Business for Britain fringe meeting, he also attended the Conservatives for Britain drinks reception: a conspicuous signal to No 10.

Soon after the party conference, in November 2015, I arranged a quiet Saturday afternoon lunch at my flat so that Chris and Dom Cummings, Vote Leave’s Campaign Director, could meet.

It was a slightly nightmarish day: I’d been at a fundraising dinner near Nottingham the night before, and had to stand all the way back to London because the trains were playing up. I had visions of being hours late, and Chris deciding not to come out for Leave because if I couldn’t organise lunch, I certainly couldn’t organise a referendum campaign.

Luckily, Chris was delayed due to traffic – and then Dom’s Uber driver managed to run into someone, and he had to wait around for the police and ambulance service to arrive.

It was at that meeting, once Chris and Dom had got to know each other a bit, that we discussed the importance of Cabinet ministers being able to come out for Leave without resigning from the Government.

A month later, on 21st December, Chris and I met again, at a Wetherspoon’s in Balham. It was even clearer by that stage that we needed to force the PM’s hand. His goal was very clearly to muzzle the Cabinet – either to prevent them coming out to campaign for Leave, or at the very least to prevent them from doing so until as late as possible.

Over a pint at The Moon Under Water, Chris and I talked through the strategy, which was refined over Christmas and into the New Year. The final plan was that Chris and Theresa Villiers – who’d been brought on board by Dan Hannan – would each ask to see the Prime Minister after Cabinet. In those meetings, they would tell him that they wanted to campaign for Brexit when the deal was reached, and would resign from the Government immediately if they weren’t allowed to campaign while remaining a minister.

The fateful meeting took place on 4th January. I’m told Chris was grey with nerves, and with good reason. What he and Theresa were doing was genuinely, unambiguously brave: putting their principles before their career.

I texted him that morning wishing him good luck and calling it a “historic moment” – and I wasn’t wrong. If Downing Street backed down, we would have Cabinet members on our side. If it stood firm, our most high-profile supporter could have ended up being Nigel Farage.

As it turned out, Chris was told by the PM that there was no need for him to resign, because he had decided to allow ministers to campaign on either side in the referendum, providing they waited until the deal with the EU was secured.

Inside Downing Street, they apparently saw this as a great victory: ministers would have to stick to the Government line for almost another two months. But from our perspective, Chris and Theresa had forced the PM to openly admit that he would let Leavers remain as ministers, rather than having to resign in order to campaign. That meant that others would be able to sign up without worrying about what it would do for their careers.

It was also the first step in the chain. Having ministers who were as reputable and experienced as Grayling and Villiers made us look like a proper campaign. And it made it that bit more likely that the other ministers would agree to come over.

The next person I need to single out is John Longworth.

John, then director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, was someone I’d been cultivating for a very long time, via Business for Britain. As I pointed out yesterday, one of the key messages we needed to get across was that business leaders were divided on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union.

Our nightmare wasn’t just facing all of the major political parties bar UKIP, but all of the business organisations too: the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors, the Federation of Small Businesses, all singing from the Project Fear hymn sheet.

On 12th November, tucked away on the balcony at the Reform Club, John told me he was minded to come out for Leave. He confirmed it again at a breakfast with me and Dom early in the New Year – this time at the Royal Automobile Club. We agreed that it would make the most impact if the announcement was held back until the BCC’s annual conference on 3rd March, once David Cameron had come back with his deal.

Coming in the wake of the six Cabinet ministers coming out for us, as well as Boris, it was exactly the momentum boost we needed – even if John then had to resign for violating the BCC’s neutrality.

It confirmed that business was indeed divided – that there were sensible, serious experienced financial types who didn’t think that ‘Project Fear’ would come to pass if we were to leave the EU.

In the end, while Remain unsurprisingly signed up more FTSE companies, it was only the CBI of the major business organisations that actually came out for them. That was a big win for us – and a vindication of the work we had put in at Business for Britain.

The fifth person I’d like to single out is the indefatigable Gisela Stuart.

Gisela is now indelibly associated with the Leave campaign. Along with Boris, Michael, Dom and me, she ended up as one of the five members of Vote Leave’s core group: all five of us spoke at least once a day in person or on a conference call. She and I went up together to the official count in Manchester on the night of the vote to represent Vote Leave – where she delivered what I still think is the best victory speech of the campaign.

But she almost wasn’t on the team at all.

Gisela and I first met during the wrangling over the European Constitution – what became the Lisbon Treaty. I was a wet-behind-the-ears researcher working for Timothy Kirkhope MEP, and she was one of the UK’s official representatives to the Constitutional Convention, and a member of the 13-person steering group charged with overseeing proceedings.

The disillusionment she experienced about Europe as a result of the Convention was a key milestone on her journey to being Chairman of Vote Leave – and the scathing pamphlet she wrote for the Fabian Society at the time is still worth reading.

Gisela and I got to know each other properly during the NOtoAV referendum campaign, when she’d been one of our staunchest Labour supporters. At the beginning of the campaign, she told me that we hadn’t got a hope in hell of winning. Afterwards, she sent me a very sweet congratulatory text.

In February 2015, Gisela had been interviewed on Radio 4 and announced that she favoured leaving the EU over the status quo. But throughout the summer, she’d resisted my and others’ entreaties, saying she didn’t want to get involved, that life was too short to be immersed in eurosceptic infighting.

In January 2016, I met up with Lord Owen – who had come out as a firm eurosceptic back in 2012 and would become part of our Campaign Committee – to discuss our options. At that stage, he was thinking of forming a separate group for people on the centre-left that would work alongside Vote Leave, of which Gisela would have been part. There was a precedent in the form of his New Europe group, which had worked alongside Rodney Leach’s Business for Sterling to prevent Britain signing up to the euro.

But I kept chipping away. At a dinner at Grumbles restaurant in Pimlico on 26th January, Gisela finally agreed in principle to come on board at Vote Leave. The deal was signed and sealed over coffee three days later. 

Having Gisela on board was as important as any of the Tories, if not more so. By that point, Labour Leave (led by John Mills and Kate Hoey) was vacillating between Vote Leave and Leave.EU. But if we were going to appeal to Labour voters, and show the Electoral Commission our cross-party credentials, we needed a heavyweight Labour figure at the helm of the Vote Leave campaign.

Gisela was perfect. She was a woman, from a Midlands constituency, who was actually born and raised in Germany – embodying our vision of an outward-looking Britain, friendly to its European neighbours, but reaching out across the globe as an independent nation (when some would try to paint us as Little Englanders). Not only that, she had a wonderful kind of maternal charm. But she could also be as tough as nails when she needed to be: our country’s safety is greatly enhanced by her membership of the Intelligence and Security Committee.

I think there was a personal element to the campaign for Gisela. Her husband, Derek Scott, had died in 2012. Like her, he had been a Labour figure – an adviser to Denis Healey and later Tony Blair – who had become increasingly sceptical about the single currency, ever closer union, and ultimately the EU project as a whole. Alongside Lord Owen, he had campaigned against the euro with New Europe and was the Vice-Chairman of Open Europe. In a way, by agreeing to play such a prominent role in Vote Leave, Gisela was completing a journey that they started together.


I’ve singled out these five people not just because they were vitally important to Brexit – though they were – but because they collectively tell the story of how we won.

For years, Brexit was a fringe position. As I wrote yesterday, people who wanted Britain to quit the EU without even an attempt at renegotiation were seen as cranks and weirdos. When we looked back at the 1975 referendum, held just after Britain joined the European Economic Community, that was the clear lesson from the Leave side’s overwhelming defeat: you needed mainstream, respectable figures to make the case.

Lord Lawson’s comments, back in 2013, were one of the first cracks in the wall – they made it intellectually respectable within the Tory party to be a Brexiteer.

The ultimatum that Chris Grayling and Theresa Villiers gave to David Cameron paved the way for the right messengers to come on board to convince the vital swing voters we needed to win the referendum.

Without Chris and Theresa ensuring that ministers could campaign for Leave without resigning their positions in the Government, we might well have not got Michael Gove and Boris Johnson.

And John Longworth and Gisela Stuart were people who not only played a vital part in the campaign, but symbolised the fact that this wasn’t just a Tory preoccupation. They helped us show voters that business really was divided, and that it was OK to be a Labour supporter and vote for Brexit (though Jeremy Corbyn certainly also helped on that score…).

It’s a year today since Vote Leave properly got going – since those Cabinet ministers stood in our offices holding a banner promising to take back control.

I’d like to thank these five people, and all the others who worked on the campaign. It’s still hard to believe we did it. But I know for a fact that we couldn’t have done it without you.