Sir Craig Oliver was at the centre of the action of the political revolution and the Shakespearean betrayals surrounding Brexit, itself a seismic shift in UK and European politics. It was the outcome that was never meant to happen, so why did the Prime Minister put UK membership of the European Union to the vote? Why was he so confident the stay vote would prevail, and why did he get it so wrong?
Sir Craig was the head of former British Prime Minister David Cameron’s communications team. He spent six years at Downing Street advising on how policy and the Prime Minister should be portrayed. He was there for the Brexit campaign and the outcome.
In his new book, Unleashing Demons: The Inside Story of the EU Referendum, he outlines the shifting loyalties and disloyalties of some of the biggest names involved – David Cameron himself, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and the woman who is now the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Teresa May.
Prior to his Downing Street role, Sir Craig worked as a journalist and in executive roles at the BBC and ITV. He got the job with Cameron after the departure of communications chief Andy Colson, who was jailed after the phone hacking scandal during his time at the now defunct News of the World newspaper. Sir Craig has written this book about his time at the coalface of British politics.
Read an edited excerpt from the interview below:
Why did David Cameron choose to put this to the vote at all?
Well a lot of people act as if David Cameron woke up one morning and thought, ‘You know what, I fancy having an EU referendum today’. In fact, it was a slow train coming in British politics that arrived in his station on his watch.
We were in a situation where scores of conservative MPs were rebelling on anything and everything to do with Europe and they were also looking at ways of changing legislation that didn’t even have anything to do with Europe, to amend it so they could talk about the subject as well. The UK Independence Party was not only doing well in Britain, it actually won the 2014 European Elections, when you had to be nearly 60 to have voted on the then common market, so all of those things came together to create a huge amount of pressure for the Prime Minister to have a referendum.
In another way, it had become a kind of boulder in the road of politics. Nothing was really getting done until this was resolved. So he could have tried to ignore it, but if he had done, I suspect the conservative party would have sacked him and put somebody in who would have actually held the referendum.
On the day of the Brexit vote, you describe a growing sense of disbelief or panic and David Cameron is coming to you and saying, 'Can we still win this?' Was everyone genuinely shocked by the way those results came in?
Yeah, at 10pm you were in this weird calm before the storm where people are still voting. We had this dinner at Downing Street where people were having some food and talking and pollsters were saying on the TV that there was an eight-point win by Remain. Hedge funds who had spent a lot of money to make sure that they didn’t lose money on the markets, spent a lot of money trying to find out the result and modelling and they believed that Remain would win. It was impossible to find anybody who thought that Leave had won. Even Nigel Farrage at 10pm had conceded that he believed that Remain had won, but then results started coming in and it was very clear in the Leave parts of the country that they had outstripped expectation and in Remain areas they were below expectation.
The way I described it was like feeling like you are walking on a path to safety, only to suddenly drop into quick sand and realising that nothing and no one is going to pull you out. It was an extraordinary feeling.
At about 4am I went in to see the Prime Minister in his office and we talked about it and we had talked about what would happen in this situation before. We both basically realised that he was going to have to resign. We talked a little bit about what the consequences of not resigning would be and he said ‘Well, I would just have to be prepared for the slaughter house.’ He could stay on for a few weeks or a few months, but the reality was that he wouldn’t survive. And also he would be being expected to deliver Brexit, which just wasn’t something that he believed in and doesn’t believe is the right thing for the country.
Will the EU in anything like a recognisable form survive all of this?
I think that is the big question. The truth is… I have been in Europe and I have given a couple of speeches recently and I have been travelling around. A lot of the countries in the Euro zone is just inherently tied into this, that their currencies is just the same, they have land borders with each other. There is a sense of great investment in the European project.
Britain leaving has shaken the EU I think and there is a real danger for the EU, that if it doesn’t pay attention to the alternatives… if it doesn’t find ways to answer them, then that is going to continuously challenge them. I suspect the EU is here to stay, but it is in for some rocky times.
Does he regret going to that EU referendum vote now, have you asked him?
Yeah, we have spoken about it and we have talked about it a lot. Our conclusion is that this was inevitable. It was not something that we felt could be avoided by a conservative Prime Minister at this time and the reality was… you could say, ‘Well if he didn’t believe it was right for the country, he could have stood down as Prime Minister’. But the reality is that the next leader of the conservative party would only be elected by saying, 'We are going to have a referendum'. So it was real, it was there, UKIP had won the 2014 elections. This was an issue that Britain needed to deal with. I feel very strongly that we should have remained, however the country voted to leave and the most important thing now is that we make the best of that.