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Brexit: Why UK voted to leave EU in 2016 from Nigel Farage's Ukip to David Cameron's referendum pledge

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With just days to go until the UK begins life alone we'll be bringing you a series of features looking back at our strained relationship with Europe and exploring how we reached this point. In the second part political editor Paul Francis goes back to where Brexit began.

Nigel Farage, then Ukip leader Picture: iStock
Nigel Farage, then Ukip leader Picture: iStock

The referendum on whether to stay or leave the EU was an historic moment, not least because it was only the third to be held - the others being the one in 1975 that took the UK into the EEC and the largely overlooked one on the voting system.

But why had the political waters become so choppy in 2015 that the Conservative government were unable to resist the growing clamour to ask the British people what they wanted?

Here are the key issues that led to Brexit.


If there was one touchstone subject that divided opinion on the EU most acutely, it was the issue of the growing numbers of migrant workers coming into the UK.

For those backing Brexit, the argument was an unambiguous one: the UK was letting too many people in and successive Labour and Conservative governments had ignored the growing clamour for action to curb those numbers.

And the reason they had failed to do anything was symptomatic of the relationship the UK had with Europe. The perception was that the UK was powerless to limit the numbers precisely because, as a member of the EU, the country was committed to the free movement of labour.

Not only that but the government of the day failed to recognise that new countries - accession states - would, as part of the EU, have the same entitlements.

From 2004 to 2007 the EU expanded as Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria joined.

The Labour government decided not to impose temporary travel restrictions on migrants from these new member states, forecasting that there would be 5,000 to 13,000 arrivals.

But those were woefully wide of the mark: 129,000 people came in the first two years, an influx that only served to increase hostility towards the EU.

A large number of migrant workers came to the UK to work in industries such as soft fruit picking Stock picture
A large number of migrant workers came to the UK to work in industries such as soft fruit picking Stock picture

As the Gateway to Europe, this was a particularly sensitive issue for Kent. After Brexit the number of new arrivals declined.

According to data based on National Insurance number allocations, in 2016-17 the number of migrant workers coming to Kent fell to 12,528, a drop of 956 or 6.4% compared to 2015-16.

The rise of Ukip

The rise of Ukip as a political force, led by the divisive figure of Nigel Farage, propelled the issue of leaving the EU to centre stage.

And it was Kent more than any other part of the country where the party’s political ascendancy was, for a brief period, meteoric.

Mark Reckless (Ukip), for Rochester and Strood Picture: Andy Payton
Mark Reckless (Ukip), for Rochester and Strood Picture: Andy Payton

It traded on the growing disenchantment and antipathy towards Europe among voters that the main parties were unable to contain.

Important though it was, the purple tide that washed over Kent reflected not just concerns about immigration.

Ukip presented itself as the “people’s party” - it was not part of the political mainstream, led by "metropolitan elites" that "didn’t care about the daily struggles of ordinary voters".

When Conservative leader David Cameron dismissed Ukip as a “sort of a bunch of ... fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists mostly,” the off-the-cuff sideswipe was repeatedly invoked by Farage as showing how out-of-touch the main parties were.

In Kent, Ukip’s charge took off when it came within a whisker of depriving the Conservatives of outright control in the county council election in 2013. It scooped up 17 seats from having none - delivering a political shockwave few had seen coming.

The party followed up with victory in the 2014 EU election, winning 24 seats - historic because it was the first election a party other than Labour or the Conservatives had won the largest number of seats in a national election since the December 1910.

As the main parties seemed increasingly incapable of holding back Ukip, it went on to score other successes. The former Conservative Rochester and Strood MP Mark Reckless defected and won a by-election in November 2014.

By the time of the general election in 2015, the Conservatives and Labour had both committed to a referendum to head off the threat posed by Ukip. The constituency of Thanet South was the election cauldron: Ukip leader Nigel Farage was in a titanic struggle with the Conservative candidate Craig Mackinlay for the seat.

Farage lost and the party entered a period of turmoil with acrimonious leadership battles. In 2017, it lost every single seat that is had gained at the county council elections in 2013.

But its enduring achievement was to force the government to agree to a referendum.

Then Prime Minister David Cameron with current leader Boris Johnson Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire.
Then Prime Minister David Cameron with current leader Boris Johnson Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire.

Party politics

Fighting off the threat of Ukip was not the only challenge for the Conservative leader David Cameron. There was hostility within his own ranks over the failure to deliver a referendum on membership of the EU. That was not confined to the usual suspects - MPs who were not even born at the time of the 1975 vote argued that they represented a generation who had no say in that decision and the time was right to ask the question again.

Cameron was aware that if he did not accede to another vote, the dissenting voices within his own party would become louder and there was every prospect of defections.

So, there was an element of political expediency about calling a referendum: his hope was that he could close down debate on an issue that had been a party faultline for decades.

The Brexit Party

While Ukip had imploded, Nigel Farage returned to the political fray with the launch of the Brexit party, driven by fears that the government would not deliver on its pledge and concerned that the government under Theresa May was prevaricating.

Once again Farage demonstrated his skills as a sharp political operator, proving as divisive as ever but drumming up support for the cause and standing candidates in the 2019 European election.

Ann Widdecombe, former Conservative MP and South West MEP Picture: John Westhrop
Ann Widdecombe, former Conservative MP and South West MEP Picture: John Westhrop

Among those candidates was the former Maidstone Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe, who Farage persuaded to come out of retirement and stand for the party.

The campaign strategy involved a series of rallies up and down the country, with former Maidstone MP Ann Widdecombe becoming something of a star attraction with her trademark uncompromising warm-up speeches in which she berated those standing in the way of leaving the EU.

If Ukip’s success in the EU poll in 2014 caught people by surprise, the results in 2019 were equally astonishing: the party won more or less from a standing start.

Beleaguered Mrs May tried and failed to get a Brexit deal through Parliament and quit - leading to the election of Boris Johnson as the party’s new leader.

A general election in December 2019 rewarded him with a working majority of more than 80 on the back of of a pledge to “Get Brexit done.”


How is Brexit going to affect Kent? For all the latest news, views and analysis visit our dedicated page here.

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