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Moment that mattered: The UK leave the EU

A Brexit supporter wears a union flag suit and a ‘Happy Brexit Day’ badge at a party in Parliament Square in London on 31st January 2020


A Brexit supporter wears a union flag suit and a ‘Happy Brexit Day’ badge at a party in Parliament Square in London on 31st January 2020

On the evening of Friday 31st January, Parliament Square in London was filled with tens of thousands of Brexit supporters who had gathered to mark the UK’s official departure from the EU at 11pm. Hundreds of union flags were on display, waved on poles above the crowd and adorning waistcoats, bobble hats and plastic stetsons. There were banners – ‘Nigel for PM’, ‘Let’s go WTO’, ‘Our country again’. There were also boos – for Tony Blair, Lord Adonis, Anna Soubry, Guy Verhofstadt, Gina Miller, the BBC and the idea of a European army.

At 10.46pm after an hour of speakers and patriotic sing-songs, Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage stepped up to the microphone. “In just 14 minutes’ time something truly remarkable is going to happen,” he told the delighted crowd. “Something that I have fought for for 27 years. And something that many thousands of you gave your time, love and money for.” Shortly before the ten second countdown to 11pm began, he exhorted his audience to “celebrate tonight as we’ve never done before.” “You and all of us have made history,” he said. “This is the greatest moment in the modern history of our great nation.”

While the night was a major symbolic milestone, professor David Runciman believes the real moment of significance took place seven weeks earlier on 12th December. “The exit poll on the night of the general election was like a balloon going pop,” he tells me in June 2020. “If you had any interest in politics you knew within ten seconds of seeing that poll that we would leave the EU on 31st January and that Johnson would be prime minister for long enough with a big enough majority that he could engineer a Brexit of his own choosing. So if he chose not to reach a trade agreement, he could do that, and all of those arguments about a second referendum were just gone.”

“Nigel Farage stepped up. ‘In just 14 minutes’ time something truly remarkable is going to happen,’ he told the crowd”

Whether you count the final date from 12th December or 31st January, an end had been brought to one of the strangest periods in British politics. It was one that Runciman and his co-host Helen Thompson, like him a professor at the University of Cambridge, had tracked in intimate detail on their podcast, Talking Politics. Their analysis began in the wake of the June 2016 referendum, but increased after then-prime minister Theresa May’s snap election in June 2017 in which she lost her working majority. “That election produced a parliament which was almost designed by an evil genius to make it impossible for anything to happen,” says Runciman. “It was the fantasy parliament, the deadlock parliament, the stuck parliament. We had a frozen politics and in that frozen state people fantasised about breaking the deadlock.”

In order to gain a working majority, May had to be propped up by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, who in December 2017 dramatically vetoed an EU deal she had been working on due to its proposals over the Irish border. Then there was May’s new Chequers plan, which led to cabinet resignations – a record 36 ministers resigned during her premiership, 22 of them over Brexit. May’s party put her to a motion of confidence, which she narrowly won. A vote on her Brexit deal in parliament was lost by the greatest majority in British history, with large numbers of Tory MPs rebelling against the whips. A second vote was also lost. An extension to the May 2019 departure date was sought and granted. Mass demonstrations took place across the country. The deal was then rejected by the house for a third time.

MPs used an amendment by Sir Oliver Letwin to take over parliamentary business and tried to find ways forward – including a second referendum, a revocation of Article 50 and a ‘Common Market 2.0’ proposal – but none could command a majority. A further delay was granted, until 31st October 2019. The UK was forced to take part in EU elections, at which Farage’s Brexit Party was the runaway winner. Theresa May stepped down and was replaced as prime minister by Boris Johnson. He prorogued parliament, left himself without a working majority by expelling 21 Tory MPs from the party, said he would rather be dead in a ditch than ask for a further extension – and was then forced to do exactly that.

Keeping up with the twists and turns was intense. “I’m almost slightly embarrassed now to look back on the heightened drama,” says Runciman. “There were definitely weeks in the podcast when we jumped the shark, getting into these elaborate scenarios and hypotheticals.” A credible way forward did not emerge until 29th October 2019 when MPs voted for a general election. “Parliament took the only action it could which was to abolish itself,” says Runciman. “I think this period will be remembered as a very unique part of British parliamentary history, unlikely to be repeated.”

“It was a gamble, Johnson put his career on the line in that election, and they still think there are forces out there that will derail Brexit”

But the deadlock could easily have remained unbroken. “There was nothing inevitable about that 2019 election,” says Runciman. “Johnson and [his chief adviser] Dominic Cummings bamboozled the opposition and then Jeremy Corbyn came out and said ‘Right, we’re going to take them on.’ But let’s say they had kept Johnson trapped without an election and we’d got through to early spring and then Covid-19 had hit, in that political climate. I feel that my ability to do counterfactuals and hypotheticals collapses at that point.”

Even with the UK’s departure from the EU secured, the coronavirus pandemic looks set to have an effect on the politics of a future trade deal. “The most interesting political story I’ve seen recently is the polling in Red Wall seats [former Labour seats that went to Johnson’s Conservatives in December 2020], asking people about Brexit now,” says Runciman. The research shows that 70 percent of voters in these areas now want the UK to prioritise working with Europe over the US on “issues like coronavirus and trade”, and that 90 percent think that securing an EU trade deal is either important or ‘very important’, with many making it clear that their priorities have shifted from Brexit to the health crisis.

The impact of coronavirus will also leave the UK in a serious recession by the end of the year, which would almost certainly be significantly deepened by a failure to reach a deal. However Runciman does not believe this will lead to the prime minister changing course. “The people in Downing Street think that they got there by not blinking,” he says. “It was a gamble, Johnson put his career on the line in that election, and they still think there are forces out there that will derail Brexit if they do blink. I think that they are still determined to press on and, if the EU doesn’t agree, to just leave on WTO [World Trade Organisation] terms. But to do that in these conditions is not just not blinking – it’s like stepping into thin air.”

Supporters of Brexit might argue that taking that step into thin air is preferable to maintaining ties with an EU that has been split by the coronavirus pandemic, with bitter disagreements over how to raise and distribute funds to fight the crisis. “Those divisions could widen, Europe could become very unstable and a country could crash out of the Euro and you don’t want to be part of that,” says Runciman. “Alternatively those divisions could narrow and it could become a more federal institution. If there is something by the end of this year that looks a bit more like European solidarity, Eurosceptics will say that’s exactly what we didn’t want to be a part of – but is everyone going to agree? Solidarity is not a terrible thing to have in a dangerous and wicked world.”

One thing that Runciman cannot see coming to fruition in the immediate aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic is Johnson’s vision of a “Global Britain.” “We’re not moving to the next stage of some sort of glorious free trade world,” he says. “Forms of domestic production and economic support are going to have to be prioritised, we’re not going to get to the sunlit uplands through 150 different trade deals.” Those trade deals the UK does achieve will be fiercely negotiated and the decisions – on things like food and environmental standards, fishing rights and access to public services and infrastructure – will be stark. “One of the things coming out of the EU means is that you have to decide for yourself,” says Runciman. “Britain has to decide who it’s going to hitch its wagon to. Do you hitch your wagon to the Chinese, for example? There are some incredibly tough choices to come.”

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