Boris Johnson (left) kisses a wild salmon as he is shown around Billingsgate Fish Market in London with porter Greg Essex, uncle of TV presenter Joey Essex, on the final day of campaigning before Thursday's EU Referendum. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday June 22, 2016. See PA story POLIICS EU. Photo credit should read: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Boris Johnson (left) almost kissed a fish in Billingsgate fish market in London © PA
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The referendum campaign was marked by exaggerated statistics, hyperbolic claims and party infighting. But it also threw up some weird and occasionally wonderful moments.

Conspiracy theories

This was an area where the Brexiters dominated. In one YouGov poll, 46 per cent of Leave voters agreed the referendum would be rigged; 28 per cent thought MI5 was already working on it.

One widely-circulated suspicion was that the government had deliberately crashed the voter registration system to allow more time for Remain supporters to register. (Which discounted the possibility that government websites simply do not function very well.)

Another was that any Leave votes made in pencil would be erased, and converted to Remain votes. And yet another theory was that Sarah Wollaston, the fiercely-independent Tory MP who defected from Leave to Remain, was a government plant.

Daniel Jolley, a professor at Staffordshire University, and Karen Douglas, at the University of Kent, recently conducted an experiment asking 400 people to what degree they subscribed to such theories, including one stating that major broadcasters were colluding with Remain by placing its propaganda on their websites.

They discovered that the degree to which people accepted such theories outstripped almost all other factors as a predictor of their voting intentions. (YouGov’s survey found that only 11 per cent of Remainers thought the vote would be rigged, and 16 per cent that MI5 was involved.)

“Conspiracy theories can actually be quite powerful,” said Ms Douglas, noting that they tended to gain currency among people who feel disillusioned and powerless. “People turn to conspiracy theories as a way to regain control,” she said.

Some conspiracy theories were probably just outright lies, such as the claim in a Ukip leaflet distributed in Hemel Hempstead that remaining in the EU meant “No More Queen or Royal Family”, “NHS will be privatised by TTIP” and “The UK divided into regions”. But if that seemed funny, speculation around the killing of Labour MP Jo Cox showed a much darker side.

Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney arrives to deliver his monthly inflation report at the Bank of England in the City of London, Britain, May 12, 2016. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez
The Vote Leave campaign targeted Mark Carney, Bank of England governor © Reuters

Personal attacks

Negative campaigning is out of fashion, but at least it produces a few jokes.

Remain’s Amber Rudd surely won the prize for referendum roasting. “The only number Boris is interested in is Number 10” was merely a warm-up line in an ITV debate. Her real punchline was this: “Boris is the life and soul of the party but he is not the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening.”

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron came a close second. “Perhaps the quote of the whole campaign is Michael Gove saying we have had enough of experts,” he said this week. “Well, that perhaps explains why he was such a dreadful education secretary.”

If such comments seem harsh, then at least they were a bit saner than some of the Brexiters’ efforts against David Cameron. “Look into his eyes . . . And then make sure you vote leave tomorrow,” said the Sun, slightly hypnotically, omitting to mention that it had backed him as prime minister little over a year earlier.

Another Vote Leave target was the governor of the Bank of England, the man previously seen as the George Clooney of central banking. “The truth about Mark Carney and Goldman Sachs — the bank that crashed the economy,” an official campaign video was entitled. At least the video managed not to mention the Nazis.

Chart: FT Poll of Polls


“We are not in the European Union,” proclaimed Labour’s Angela Eagle confidently during an ITV debate. “We are not in the European Union.”

She, of course, meant the eurozone, and she was not the only one to get muddled.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JUNE 9: (NO ARCHIVE AFTER JUNE 30, 2016) In this handout image provided by ITV, (L-R) Nicola Sturgeon, Angela Eagle and Amber Rudd during The ITV Referendum Debate on June 9, 2016 in London, United Kingdom. During the two hour long live debate participants answered questions posed by the audience. Nicola Sturgeon, Angela Eagle and Amber Rudd argued for staying in the EU, whilst Boris Johnson, Andrea Leadsom and Gisela Stuarttake argued for leaving the EU. (Photo by Matt Frost/ITV via Getty Images)
Angela Eagle (centre) proclaimed 'we are not in the European Union' during a debate on ITV

Ukip MEP David Coburn fumed about one TV debate: “BBC knew the questions in advance and chose which audience members speak and Cameron still lost despite Auntie’s best efforts.” Only one problem: the programme was on ITV.

Then there was Stuart Rose, the chairman of Britain Stronger in Europe. Or was he? “I’m the chairman of Ocado. I’m chairman of, sorry, Stay in Britain, Better in Britain campaign,” the former Marks and Spencer’s boss told a TV crew. “Right, start again. I’m Stuart Rose and I’m chairman of the Better in Britain campaign, Better Stay in Britain campaign.” The whole thing only took 10 seconds, but it felt like so much longer.

But not even Lord Rose swallowed his foot as comprehensively as Pat Glass, the shadow Europe minister, on a visit to Derbyshire. “The very first person I come to is a horrible racist,” she was overhead as saying. “I am never coming back to wherever this is.”

Stunts and photo calls

Nigel Farage leading in a flotilla down the Thames; Boris Johnson almost kissing a fish; Tim Farron rapping to an England football song; Vote Leave offering £50m to whoever predicted all the Euro 2016 games correctly. We would mention more, but it might encourage them.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 15: (L-R) Kate Hoey and Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party show their support for the 'Leave' campaign for the upcoming EU Referendum aboard a boat on the River Thames on June 15, 2016 in London, England. Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, is campaigning for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union in a referendum being held on June 23, 2016. (Photo by Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)
Nigel Farage (right) led a flotilla down the Thames river in London © Getty


“You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose,” the former New York governor Mario Cuomo used to say. He forgot to add that the poetry might be of uneven quality.

“Freeborn men and women should cry / O why, o why, o why / Have they imprisoned us / With this grand lie,” ran one part of a poem by Steven Woolfe, Ukip’s immigration spokesman, imagining a world if Britain voted Remain.


Brexit? In or Out

© Jonathan McHugh

What a British divorce from the EU would look like
How any break-up is carried out will have a huge impact on Britain for generations
The economic consequences of Brexit
Three very different outcomes of a British vote to leave the EU
What would Brexit mean for the City of London?
There is a clear split over how a vote to leave would shape the capital’s future as a financial centre
What the City stands to lose and gain from Brexit
Sectors such as foreign exchange trading have boomed during EU years
What has the EU done for the UK?
The long-running debate over the economic benefits of membership remains unresolved


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