Brexit: Why it happened

By Lexington Communications

At the beginning of May we speculated on whether Britain was about to be hit by a political earthquake without warning. We noted that while the betting markets and most polls pointed towards a Remain vote, the evidence was inconsistent and that “we are moving towards the most important political decision in modern times with no clear idea of what will happen”.

That absence of clarity continued until the first results began to emerge, and the realisation slowly dawned that Britain had voted to leave the EU. The margin of victory was slim (51.9% to 48.1%) but nonetheless decisive. It has stunned the political class and sent shockwaves through global markets. How did it come to this?

We concluded that the lack of strong feeling on the overarching question of EU membership meant “the contest could be more influenced by a particular event or a bandwagon effect than a normal election, making the final result unpredictable and the campaign important.”

We noted there were a number of factors highlighted by the polling which threatened to have a bearing on the final result. Many proved significant: turnout, the role of Labour voters, the high level of undecided voters in North, the Midlands and Wales, the impact of particular message carriers, demographic differences between old and young voters, and the potential salience of immigration.

In this note, we explore these and the other crucial factors that led to Brexit in more detail:

Cameron’s flawed strategy: The referendum was essentially the product of party management. In early 2013 Cameron determined that the only way he could spike UKIP and contain internal Tory parliamentary dissent was to offer an In/Out vote on EU membership.It is possible that Cameron never expected to have to hold the referendum, because he didn’t expect an overall majority. But the premise was a referendum on a reformed Europe. Cameron hoped that securing a deal on key issues including migrant benefits would give him a springboard into the campaign. In the event it undermined the campaign. His ‘deal’ lacked political purchase and was quickly pushed to one side in the debate that followed.

Mid-term blues: While the decision to move for a referendum early in the parliament held merit at the time it was made, in retrospect it was a mistake. Holding any form of referendum in the midst of a parliamentary cycle is dangerous as it holds the potential to become a proxy ballot on the popularity of the Government, which tends not to be at its highest. Many Brexit voters appear to have viewed the referendum as, at least in part, an opportunity to stick two fingers to the Government and the wider political class.

Cameron’s lame duck status created space for his opponents: Cameron’s decision to announce his intention to stand down before the next election now looks misjudged. It undermined his authority, creating a vacuum for Conservative MPs to jockey for position, focusing on life in a post-Cameron world. In other circumstances, the big beasts of the Leave campaign may have thought twice about opposing a Prime Minister who assumed a relatively settled position following a spectacular 2015 General Election victory. As his authority waned it created the conditions for MPs like Boris Johnson to feel comfortable about deviating from the official Government line. With hindsight, Cameron unwittingly galvanised his opponents.

The message carrier mattered: Previously we highlighted that Boris was a trusted voice in critical areas like the North where there were many undecided voters. Leave’s message cut through and Boris’ support was vital in areas where the campaign would be won or lost. In contrast, Cameron had very few allies to count on, and where he did, they either proved to be ineffective or equally carried political baggage. Cameron was not as trusted in critical parts of the country and he was therefore isolated.

The absence of fear: For all Vote Leave’s criticism of Remain’s ‘Project Fear’ strategy, in practice the campaign was marked by an absence of panic or alarm. Occasional dips in the value of the pound when polling suggested a Leave advance were generally corrected and the markets never really exhibited any sign of panic. That reflected the absence of any widespread belief that Leave was going to win. Even among Leave voters polls suggested the vast majority expected Remain to win. So the sense of genuine alarm which coloured the final days of the Scottish independence vote never materialised.

StrongerIn: The absence of concern about the prospect or the consequences of a Leave win also reflected the weakness of the StrongerIn campaign, which raised fears in general terms without ever really addressing them. The campaign was also hampered by the lack of powerful message carriers. Stuart Rose, chair of the campaign, quickly disappeared after a handful of outings. The campaign’s political leadership, meanwhile, proved less effective than their counterparts on the Leave side.

Differential turnout was important: Individual results will be pored over but some trends are clear. In broad terms, turnout was significantly higher in areas where Leave won, whereas in areas where Remain triumphed, turnout was lower and Leave did better than expected. This made it difficult to make up ground in larger urban areas where Remain was expected to win well. Take Glasgow and Sheffield, two cities with similar populations. Glasgow may have returned a victory for Remain but turnout was 56%. In Sheffield, Leave scored an unexpected victory by two per cent but turnout was over 67%. In addition, turnout in England and Wales, which both back Leave, turnout was well above 70%; by contrast, in Scotland and Northern Ireland where Remain won out, the turnout was below that threshold.

Postal votes: The very high turnout in the end proved beneficial to Leave, and was helped by significant levels of postal voting. It may have been important that most postal votes landed at a point in the campaign when the focus on immigration was at its most acute.

Immigration became the key issue: Immigration and the economy were the two most important issues in the campaign. Remain sought to make economic risk the dominant theme but it is now clear that immigration was the huge motivating factor for many voters. It proved to be the trump card for Leave.

Labour failed to persuade its vote of the case for Remain: Perhaps the single most significant factor was the number of Labour voters who backed Leave. Cameron’s fortunes were dependent on Labour turning out its vote for Remain. In many of Labour’s heartlands they turned out, but not in the way expected. The West Midlands, where Labour holds the vast majority of parliamentary seats, was the most Eurosceptic region, almost 60% voting Leave and 40% for Remain. Overall Labour lacked a presence in the campaign and where Jeremy Corbyn made a limited number of interventions they proved counter-productive. He now faces the serious threat of a no confidence vote by Labour MPs who look energised to force the issue of his leadership.

A lot of focus in the aftermath of this stunning result has rightly been on the motivation and views of the 51.9% who voted Leave. However, just as crucial to the future of politics in this country will be the reaction of the 48.1% who voted Remain and who are currently feeling dismayed and angry. Any party that aspires to win future elections will have to galvanise and reach out to these people, as part of their efforts to construct a coalition of electoral support that delivers majority power.