‘There was no shock. We just went straight into depression’ – What next for Remain campaigners?
For Remain campaigners, the evening of 12 December proved devastating. Months if not years of work to preserve Britain’s membership of the European Union had gone up in smoke. How do they plan to pick up the pieces? Sebastian Whale reports
Femi Oluwole picked up a meal deal and a few microwaveable items from Sainsbury’s to get him through the night. He settled into his desk at the office of ‘Our Future, Our Choice’ in Millbank.
The clock struck ten. As soon as he saw the exit poll, he stood up, put his food on the table, and addressed his fellow activists. “You guys can have this.” He walked out of the office, headed to Euston and got the last train back to Birmingham, forgoing an appearance on CNN in the process. “I knew it wasn’t going to be what we needed. So, I accepted it right away and went home,” he says.
In a London flat nearby, several campaigners involved with For Our Future’s Sake (FFS), a pro-Remain organisation focussed on young people, were sat in absolute silence for more than ten minutes. “Shock was the overriding emotion,” says one present. The result was even more crushing than the 2016 referendum. “In terms of absolute defeat, it was probably the worst,” says another FFS campaigner.
For those involved with the People’s Vote campaign, the night of 12 December threw up contrasting emotions. “Partly a lot of sadness and disappointment that the result was going to mean Brexit happening, but also anger that the campaign was disabled at a really important time,” says a former activist.
Dozens of staff had walked out after Roland Rudd, the chair of the official Remain group Open Britain, sacked People’s Vote director James McGrory and Tom Baldwin, the head of communications, at the end of October. They were replaced by Patrick Heneghan, who was then accused of harassment towards three female staff members, which he denies. “When those two things collided it just massively exploded,” says an FFS activist. The case against Heneghan, who stood down in November, was dropped after no employees came forward to give evidence to lawyers Farrer and Co, who conducted the investigation.
The sacking of Baldwin and McGrory, carried out just days before the start of the general election, came soon after the Mail on Sunday reported that New Labour grandees Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, who sat on the board of Open Britain, were plotting a ‘Blairite coup’ to oust Rudd from the top of the organisation.
Earlier in the year, an argument had raged over the campaign’s messaging on a second referendum. Rudd disagreed with the idea that a referendum would be a way of bringing the country together. “He believed it was a way of being able to stay in the European Union, otherwise he wouldn’t have been part of it,” an ally of Rudd says. Baldwin and others, who did not want to alienate potentially supportive MPs, wanted the focus to be on the merits of a new vote.
Those in the Rudd camp alleged that Baldwin, a former Times journalist and ex-Labour adviser, was unpopular with staff and had been leaking stories about internal disputes to the media. “One side or the other was going to prevail as Tom had declared an unofficial war in the media,” says a source. Baldwin says: “He thought he could sack us and nothing would happen because he had been misled about what the state of relationships were in the campaign and had never bothered to speak to staff before.”
The Tuesday after McGrory and Baldwin were fired, a meeting was held with staff at People’s Vote HQ. “It was a very poisonous atmosphere. Roland had brought his own security guards to stand on the door,” says a former activist. A motion of no confidence in Rudd and Heneghan was passed by 40 votes to three.
On the mass walkout, Baldwin says: “I didn’t want all these young people, often on the living wage, to put their jobs and careers on the line. It was a very tough few weeks for all of us.” Some employees were later sacked for helping out with a separate pro-Remain rally, addressed by former prime ministers Tony Blair and Sir John Major, according to a People's Vote insider. During the election, Baldwin and others set up the ‘Vote for a Final Say’ group in a bid to contribute to the cause.
Allies of Rudd say that, other than in the media messaging, which was Baldwin’s jurisdiction, the People’s Vote campaign started to operate at a higher level. “We were far more effective in the election than we’d ever been before in the number of people we had managed to get out, the number of people that we’d reached through our digital means, and the amount of money we had raised,” a senior figure says.
Activists, however, take a different view. Several cannot forgive Rudd for derailing People’s Vote as the country went to an election. “Let’s be candid here. He blew up the largest political campaign in the country at the time. Why did he think that was the right call to make?” asks an activist. Baldwin says: “Obviously, I thought it was a bad idea but the timing of it was simply bizarre. I’ve been told subsequently that Roland Rudd recognises this which is further evidence that the guy had a tin ear for politics and isn’t even much good at PR.”
Another source says: “When people in my generation look back at how Boris Johnson was able to deliver a hard Brexit and how Erasmus votes were lost, they will blame Boris Johnson, they will blame Nigel Farage, and I think over time they will put Roland Rudd in the same category. I hope he gets as much blame as they do.”
Such is the residual ill-feeling that Rudd decided to block Campbell on Twitter and email. “He took the decision after the first few days to completely block him,” says a source.
The People’s Vote is still in operation. Sources say Rudd wants the campaign to survive “in a different form” as an organisation that promotes education and cultural links towards the European Nations and Europe. According to a friend of Rudd, he plans to lead the campaign into the “next phase of its life” before stepping back and letting others take it forward.
Best for Britain, a data-led campaign, had been warning about the result for some time. An MRP poll it carried out in the summer of 2019 pointed to a Conservative majority. Naomi Smith, the organisation’s CEO, says: “There was no shock – we skipped that stage of the grief cycle – and just went straight into depression.”
A combination of Remain in-fighting – a universal frustration for pro-EU campaigners – and Nigel Farage’s decision to not contest seats with Conservative incumbents, sealed the deal, says Smith. “The best day of the election for us was when Farage said, ‘We’re going to stand’ and then the worst day was when he then said, ‘Actually, no we’re not’.”
Smith argues the election outcome was a “slightly larger reversal of the referendum result”. “It was 53-47 instead of 52-48 the other way. It showed that people are prepared to vote for the party that isn’t their first preference in order to get a confirmatory vote,” she says, arguing pro-EU parties receive more votes than their pro-Brexit rivals.
The team at Best for Britain gathered in the days after the election. Their mission had been to stop Brexit. With their finances in a healthy state, they decided to concentrate on the UK’s future ties with the European Union. “We believe that a very close trading relationship and geopolitical security relationship with our nearest neighbours is what is best for Britain,” says Smith.
FFS, which had disaffiliated from the People’s Vote campaign after the Roland Rudd row, came about after a night in the pub in January 2018. The afternoon of Friday 13 December 2019, nearly two years later, they agreed the campaign had run its course.
As with many who supported a second referendum, they were incandescent that MPs had endorsed an election, with Remainers holding the balance of power in parliament. Former Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson in particular is persona non grata. Femi Oluwole, who co-founded Our Future, Our Choice, says: “The people who called for a general election have the history of this country on their hands.”
Several former FFS and People’s Vote activists now work for Labour MPs running in either the leadership or deputy leadership elections. Will Straw, who worked on the Stronger In campaign during the referendum, was involved with Jess Phillips’ bid to replace Jeremy Corbyn. Others have gone to work at organisations such as Hope not Hate and Save the Children, as well as PR companies. Oluwole is now campaigning to unite parties on the left in UK politics. “The reason why we’re in this situation is because of first-past-the-post,” he says.
No activists I spoke to for this piece are currently calling for a campaign to re-join the European Union. “That would be both politically tin-eared as well as a bit masochistic,” says one. The battleground for Remain campaigners is now on the UK’s future relationship with the EU.
The New European was set up in the wake of the referendum. Jasper Copping, who edits the publication, insists the paper is planning on “sticking around”.
Copping argues the referendum created a community and movement that has united people from different political backgrounds. “That’s why we’re still here; we still offer them a platform, a voice and a place for debate to promote their arguments, their ideas and their agenda,” he says. Writing in the New European, Matt Kelly, its founder, said: “I’m happy to say we’re not going anywhere. In fact, we have exciting plans to get bigger, better and broader.”
Steve Bray, famed for shouting, “Stop Brexit!” outside parliament, is not going away either. On 30 January, he invited like-minded people to join him for a “mega sodem” rally in Westminster.
Though the election result was a crushing blow for those who advocated staying in the EU, not all have completely given up hope.
Femi Oluwole, who has accumulated more than 246,000 Twitter followers, is putting Brexit on ice until June. At that point, a decision will be made as to whether the transition period is extended beyond the end of the year. Believing that the UK cannot sign a trade deal in time, Oluwole believes only three options will remain; extension, no deal or full regulatory alignment. “There is no path that doesn’t result in a significant number of people across the country recognising this is something that simply has failed,” he says.
“What happens as a result of that? Don’t know, not going to put any bets on it. Anything could happen.”
Many pro-Remain campaigns do not have the resources to continue. Others, after years of graft and ultimately, failure, have given up the ghost. For those still fighting, this is a source of some frustration.
Naomi Smith says: “I don’t know yet what its future is, but all of us feel that history won’t look kindly to those who walked off the pitch just as the match was getting going.”