Few, if anybody, at the time had talked about the possibility of a “Hard Remain.” To the contrary, many of the loudest voices in the campaign to stay, including then Prime Minister David Cameron, insisted that victory would be a continuation of the status quo, with the U.K. enjoying the pick-and-choose relationship it already has.
The days afterward were a blur. Cameron resigned, a move which baffled many initially. It emerged that he and George Osborne had made a pact over dinner at Sushisamba one night that he’d step down in the event of a margin of less than 5 percent either way.
Former London Mayor Boris Johnson, after a leaked flurry of embarrassing texts that showed he’d “always really been in favor” of remaining, had no choice but to move into the backbenches. Leave’s losing campaign, followed by Boris’s exposure as a cynical hypocrite who sided with Out for purely tactical reasons, was too much even for Britain’s king of teflon, the consummate political survivor.
After a brief period of bloodletting, George Osborne saw off a series of challengers, including Ken Clarke, to become prime minister, moving from No. 11 to No. 10 Downing Street.
“The people have spoken,” he said, wearing his iconic hi-vis jacket in front of a backdrop of gleaming new Minis rolling out of the BMW plant in Cowley. “They have chosen to remain in Europe, giving us a new mandate to deepen, enhance and cement this relationship.”
Of course, there were protests. Nigel Farage had warned back in May that “on a 52-48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way,” and his loyal followers wasted no time in taking to the streets.
The “Walk Away from Europe” protest saw 50,000 angry Leave voters march on the Houses of Parliament, their faces painted with the Cross of Saint George and Union Flags, chanting “Say no to the 52 / Britain must leave the EU.”
Heartbroken Leave voters launched petitions calling for a second referendum, doubling down on claims that pencil marks in ballot boxes had been erased by MI5 operatives. “Pen truthers” were highly active on social media, especially after Katie Hopkins wrote a column about how she took her own pen because a pencil might have been touched by illegal immigrants. But even a U.N. investigation could find no evidence of tampering.
At the same time, Remain campaigners held street fairs celebrating European diversity. Owen Jones jumped out of a giant EU-star-covered cake to launch the new series of “Bake Off,” and well-wishers brought flowers to the Polish Social and Cultural Association in Hammersmith.
Arguments raged on social media. “Of course, there should be a second vote — ordinary British people should have their say,” tweeted Farage, blaming stormy weather and rain across the North for keeping older Leave voters at home. “BOO HOO stop crying #BrexitTEARS, losers! #proudtobe52,” responded Lily Allen. Charlotte Church added, “It’s democracy, get over it leaver losers #prosecco for all.”
The pound soared back to pre-referendum announcement highs, prompting many to take an extra summer holiday. “Holidays in #Remainia” became a social media leitmotif for millennials. Cameron, freed of his duties, took his family on an extended break to Mallorca. “Holi-Dave Says EU’re On Your Own, George,” read the top of the Sun.
Few expected that by October, the U.K. would have embarked on a whole new direction.
“Remain means remain,” explained George Osborne at the groundbreaking ceremony of a new Airbus plant in Preston. “The will of the British people is to stay in the EU, and we’ve never been half-hearted as a nation. We need to end this two-speed Europe nonsense and switch to top gear.”
Immigration caps were scrapped. Nick Clegg — now Lord Clegg — was back in the cabinet as minister for European integration charged with fast-tracking the U.K. into the Exchange Rate Mechanism II system, the first part of the eurozone convergence process. Mark Carney announced he would step down as Governor of the Bank of England in 2019 — because on eurozone accession, monetary policy would be controlled from Frankfurt.
After his brief period in purdah, Osborne brought Boris back into his “Hard Remain” cabinet, in what was described as a cunning move to neutralize the Tory Euro-holdouts. Johnson made the most of his Turkish ancestry on a trip to Ankara to support rapid EU enlargement “all the way to the Caspian.” Pressed for a timeline on further integration, he announced that in March 2017 the U.K. would join the Schengen passport-free area.
“It’s simply splendiferous to be able to spirit through this magnificent Continent without so much as laissez-passer,” he said. “We are no longer like Theseus, trapped in a labyrinth of borders.”
The Leave camp tried to object 52-48 was hardly an overwhelming mandate for this level of change, but their concerns were quickly brushed aside. “It’s as if Leave had won and suddenly the U.K. were being dragged out of the single market with zero plan for how to manage the transition,” grumbled one high-profile pro-Leave MEP. “Ludicrous.”
UKIP took to the floor in the European Parliament in protest, introducing an amendment offering “Associate Non-Citizenship” for Leave voters. For a small, yearly fee, they’d receive a blue passport, be able to continue to order pints in the pub and contribute to the Royal Yacht Fund.
Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt was formally reprimanded by European Parliament President Martin Schulz for mooning the Euroskeptic party during the debate, declaring “You can kiss my flabby Belgian ass, losers.” It was not the Parliament’s finest hour.
Six months into hard Remain, much remains unclear, including how much the U.K. will contribute to Greece’s next bailout package. And U.S. President-elect Hillary Clinton has expressed concerns about London’s enthusiastic embrace of the EU combined defense force. David Miliband, the former Labour foreign secretary who is good friends with Clinton and has praised her “fantastic smile,” is taking U.S. citizenship in anticipation of a top job in her administration when she’s sworn in next month.
Rumors are already swirling about Cameron’s plans for a return to politics; some have floated him as a replacement for European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who cited “health reasons” as his reason for stepping down midway through his term. Who knows? It could be that 2017 holds even more surprises than the year gone by.
Author: Frances Robinson