Five years on from the Brexit vote – what have we learned?

John Rentoul recalls the night of the referendum and reflects on how we have ended up where we are

Wednesday 23 June 2021 04:51
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<p>David Frost, right, speaks to his EU counterpart Maros Sefcovic earlier this month. There have been many, many discussions over Brexit during the last five years</p>

David Frost, right, speaks to his EU counterpart Maros Sefcovic earlier this month. There have been many, many discussions over Brexit during the last five years

The night after the Brexit referendum five years ago, I had meant to watch the first few results and then get some sleep before waking early to write about the implications of the vote. Instead, when the first result was declared at one minute past midnight – Newcastle beat Sunderland in the race to count first – it was obvious that I would be staying up all night.

That first result showed a one-point lead for Remain, but what was significant was that it was a lower lead than the benchmark for a 50-50 outcome that had been calculated and published online by Professor Chris Hanretty, the statistics guru. When the Sunderland result was announced, a few minutes later, it too pointed towards a win for Leave. It could, though, have been that northeast England was unrepresentative, so the dramatic tension remained high.

By 2.16am, with early results in from all over the country, Hanretty was predicting a 97 per cent chance that Leave would win. At 3am, David Cameron decided it was all over and started writing his resignation speech. It was not until 4.39am, though, that the BBC felt bold enough to announce the result, with David Dimbleby’s historic declaration: “The decision taken in 1975 by this country to join the common market has been reversed.” On the many occasions when I have heard those words replayed I wince, because he got it wrong. The vote in 1975 was to stay in the European Community, which the UK joined in 1973.

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