Brexit: 10 Things That We Learnt (30 June 2016)

Brexit: 10 Things That We Learnt


James Downes (Visiting Scholar, European Union Academic Programme Hong Kong)


As Harold Wilson once remarked, “A week is a long time in politics.” We may now have to change this phrase to “Four days is a long time in politics.” Brexit has provided otherwise and the events that have happened in the last four days have proved to be unprecedented. The Referendum that took place in the United Kingdom on whether the country should remain or leave the European Union resulted in a narrow final vote, with 52% voting leave and 48% choosing to stay in the European Union. This article briefly examines 10 things that we have learnt about Brexit in the last four days alongside the political, social, and economic uncertainties that lie ahead in the coming weeks and months ahead.


  1. It’s not the economy, stupid that won the day. Rather, emotions trumped objective facts and immigration emerged as the key issue on the day. The final result on the 24th June also clearly highlighted the polarisation of politics and divide within the wider British population on both Remain and Leave sides of the campaign.


  1. The polls have further highlighted the problems that polling companies have had in tracking public opinion in Britain. However, as polling expert John Curtice pointed out before the Referendum, predicting the outcome would be a monumental challenge for polling companies. This is partly because “the last Referendum to compare to the one we have just had was 41 years ago- and there was not an exit poll then. There is, therefore, no baseline against which to measure how people have voted this time.” An additional explanation for the differing results of the polls may lie with the online and telephone polling methodologies used by different companies such as YouGov and Ipsos MORI that under or over sampled certain demographic groups in society.


  1. Rather than providing an opportunity for Labour to gain momentum, Brexit now has the potential to split the party in half. With more than half of the Shadow Cabinet resigning in the last two days, Jeremy Corbyn has his work cut out to remain as leader of the party. As the political scientists Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford have shown in their groundbreaking 2014 book ‘Revolt on the Right’, the decline of Labour’s traditional working class vote base has been a long time in the making and pre-dates Corbyn’s leadership of the party. However, it is clear that Corbyn should have done more for the Remain campaign and often seemed a casual bystander during the course of the Referendum campaign.


  1. Since Brexit the pound has tumbled considerably and led to further macroeconomic shocks in the British economy. The chart below created by Christopher Hanley (Director of Public Opinion & Polling, Parliament Street) provides a snapshot and shows the volatility in the British pound as Leave asserted a lead in the Referendum.

Sterling Brexit

  1. The current uncertainty in British Politics is unprecedented and may now become part and parcel of the contemporary political landscape. The political uncertainty over a possible second Scottish Independence Referendum alongside Wales and Northern Ireland potentially pursuing a similar path has created shockwaves. However, uncertainty also now extends to the European Union project, with the Far-Right National Front leader Marine Le Pen pushing forward a similar referendum in France. It is conceivable that a domino effect may take place across the European Union, with further calls for Referendums in a number of other EU member states. I further discussed this point in an interview on Radio Television Hong Kong last Friday (11:14 minutes onwards).


  1. With David Cameron announcing his resignation as Prime Minister, a Conservative Party Leadership Election will be held in the coming months. Potential candidates include Boris Johnson and Michael Gove from the Brexit camp alongside Theresa May from the Remain camp. Whoever wins the election will need to bring a divided country together.


  1. It is also now clear that macroeconomic volatility has extended beyond Europe, with both a slowdown and economic uncertainty being experienced throughout the financial markets in Hong Kong and Mainland China. The next few weeks will give us a clearer picture on how wide ranging this economic slowdown will be.


  1. Traditionally speaking, EU negotiations are fraught with complex legality and administration. The Brexit talks have led to different remarks by key EU officials such as the President of the EU Council Donald Tusk and the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called for time on Brexit negotiations, at the same time though she has ruled out ‘informal negotiations’ with the UK “before the UK formally begins the process of leaving the EU.”


  1. Both within British and European politics, we are experiencing a new form of politics, with uncertainty being the new order of the day. Do the Brexiteers have a clear roadmap for the coming years? These are uncharted waters and the next Prime Minister will need to steer a safe passage onwards for the next chapter of British history.


  1. Britain can still be a major world player, but a coherent plan is required by Boris Johnson and other key officials from both the Remain and Leave camps to bring the country together. Brexit will involve complex negotiations and it is likely to be until 2018 or even 2019 until the UK fully leaves the European Union.


However, as the pollster Keiran Pedley has outlined recently, there are four key points and uncertainties that have emerged from the Referendum results and will need to be addresses in the coming weeks and months:


  • Who will be the next Prime Minister?
  • When will Article 50 be invoked?
  • What will happen on the key issue of freedom of movement?
  • What will Labour’s strategic response be and who will be their leader?