Ten moments that led to Brexit

Two years on from the Leave vote, we still don't acknowledge how we got here

June 22, 2018
Jacques Delors, President of the European Comission, addressing the Trade Union Congress in Bournemouth. Introduced as "Mr Europe" by TUC General Secretary Norman Willis, he also spoke of a wider European TUC concept.  * an historic turnabout for the move
Jacques Delors, President of the European Comission, addressing the Trade Union Congress in Bournemouth. Introduced as "Mr Europe" by TUC General Secretary Norman Willis, he also spoke of a wider European TUC concept. * an historic turnabout for the move

Two years ago Britain voted to leave the European Union. There is no shortage of decisions, events and blunders that laid the ground for Brexit, from the financial crash in 2008 to Boris Johnson’s wobbly shopping trolley ending up in the Leave aisle, but some of these moments have been less analysed than others. Here, then, are 10 of the least discussed moments from British political history that led us on the path to Brexit.

1988: Jacques Delors’ speech to the TUC

Many of the big unions had opposed British entry into the European Economic Community in 1973—they were still sceptical 15 years later. Delors’ speech at the 1988 TUC Congress, seeking the British left’s support for the single market, was a turning point. He promised a “social Europe” not the “capitalists’ club” that many on the left still feared it would become. Delors received a standing ovation—the unions were on board. But Delors’ speech had unintended consequences. Margaret Thatcher was furious and two weeks later responded with a speech in Bruges bemoaning the threat of a European “superstate.” This was the moment Conservative Euroscepticism was born.

1999: Proportional representation is introduced for European elections

The 1997 Labour manifesto promised a referendum on electoral reform. Then Labour won by a landslide and suddenly the leadership was less keen. As a compromise, PR was brought in for European elections. A fringe right-wing group called the UK Independence Party won six per cent of the vote, granting it three seats, one of which was taken by a 35-year-old public-school-educated commodities trader, Nigel Farage. Ukip gains prominence and—more importantly—money.

2004: Germany says no

Despite being a supporter of the EU’s enlargement to the east, Germany was also concerned about the impact it could have on its labour market. Along with 11 other nations it imposes a seven-year transition period, limiting the right of free movement for citizens from the 10 new nations. Prior to this it had been expected that most Poles travelling to other EU states would move to Germany. Instead more than 430,000 come to the UK over the next three years, far more than predicted.

2004: Blair’s referendum

Calls for a referendum on whether to accept the new EU constitution had been growing in the right-wing press and were championed by the then Tory leader Michael Howard. Labour had ignored them but in April 2004, Tony Blair U-turned. “Let the battle be joined,” he cried, promising a referendum the following year. His call led to both France and the Netherlands deciding to hold their own plebiscites on the constitution, both of which were lost. The constitution was ditched and Britain never held its own vote—but the idea that a referendum on Europe was necessary now had much broader support.

2005: Cameron’s foolish pledge

David Cameron was the least Eurosceptic contender for the Tory leadership in 2005—something he feared might harm him with the party’s MPs. As the race appeared to be tightening he vowed to pull the Conservatives out of the centre-right EPP grouping in the European Parliament. It won him the support of the right-wing Cornerstone group of MPs, but in the long run lost him the support of his European centre-right allies, including Angela Merkel. Support wasn’t the only thing he lost from Merkel—he lost respect too, as well as opportunities to meet, talk and get to know her.

2009: Duck moats and bath plugs

The expenses scandal destroys what little trust there was towards politicians. It is a cross-party affair, taking down politicians across the spectrum. The seeds have been sown for an anti-establishment politician who can claim to be different to the rest of them.

2010: Tens of thousands

In the run-up to the general election Damian Green tells an interviewer that immigration should return to the levels that existed in the 1980s and 1990s and uses the phrase “tens of thousands.” There had been no cabinet discussion about such a pledge; Green just blurted it out. A version of Green’s suggestion makes it into the manifesto (“We will take steps to take net migration back to the levels of the 1990s—tens of thousands a year, not hundreds of thousands.”) When it’s pointed out that EU freedom of movement makes this pledge impossible, everyone shrugs.

2010: Ken wins

Labour decides to hold its election to decide the London mayoral candidate at the same time as it choose its new leader, despite it being two years until the vote. Ken Livingstone runs again, defeating Oona King. Had Labour waited a year, Livingstone would have faced a stiffer challenge. Boris Johnson narrowly wins re-election and uses the London Olympics to boost his profile and become a serious political figure.

2013: Project Fear

Rob Shorthouse, director of communications for the Better Together campaign, coins the phrase “Project Fear.” While it might have been a decent internal phrase to sum up part of the campaign, once out in the open it becomes a term of abuse. Every time the No campaign points out a factually-accurate downside to independence, the Yes camp screams “Project Fear.”

2014: EVEL

The morning after the Scottish independence referendum David Cameron makes an appalling divisive speech outside Downing Street, calling for English votes for English laws (known, appropriately enough, as EVEL). It brutally signals the end of all cross-party co-operation. Coupled with Scottish Labour’s insistence that working with the Tories damaged their vote, Labour vows not to campaign alongside the Conservatives during the EU referendum. This leads to the creation of the barely functional Labour In campaign and Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to ever share a stage with David Cameron.