Peter Mandelson was angry, and the object of his anger was his old friend Roland Rudd. Both men had made their names as suave spin-doctors — Mandelson for Tony Blair, Rudd for some of Britain’s biggest companies. They were ideological bedfellows — centrist, pro-business, pro-European. Mandelson was godfather to Rudd’s son.

They saw themselves as key figures in the campaign to reverse the 2016 referendum and keep the UK in the EU. But by December 2018, relations were at breaking point. In the boardroom of Rudd’s PR firm Finsbury, overlooking the river Thames and the Palace of Westminster, Mandelson shouted that his friend was monopolising the main anti-Brexit group, Open Britain. 

“I pleaded with him. He was incredibly rude,” says Mandelson. “He was behaving as if he were involved in a massive City takeover.”

Rudd, Open Britain’s chair, had already tilted the board in his favour. Now he grabbed a supermajority by bringing in three new directors. He broke his friendship with Mandelson — but tightened his grip on the boardroom. As it entered its final, frenzied months, the move for a second referendum was being torn apart by personalities and strategy.

Historians will make the UK’s departure from the EU sound almost inevitable. They will trace it back to the moment the land bridge was replaced by the Channel, to the Maastricht treaty of 1992, or to the UK’s 2004 opening to eastern European migrants. They may say the 2016 Brexit referendum, in which 33.6m people, 72 per cent of the electorate, voted, marked a political Rubicon. They may argue that Jeremy Corbyn, then leader of the opposition, could never build the necessary coalition to cross it.

But inevitability is overrated. Is Scottish independence inevitable? A united Ireland? Other EU states had reversed referendum results. In the turbulence of 2019, Britain came close to following suit. If it had done, the global narrative of resurgent nationalism would have changed, even before coronavirus hit. The stakes were high, and the odds seemed even. That’s why Britain wasn’t just Remainers against Leavers; it was also Remainers against Remainers, and Leavers against Leavers. Anyone with an ego and a passing knowledge of politics thought they could shape the future.

Between the general elections of 2017 and 2019, Britain was suspended in mid-air. There seemed to be no Brexit deal that could win the support of a majority of the House of Commons. Theresa May, the prime minister, was repeatedly humiliated. Defiant MPs such as Dominic Grieve, John Bercow and Mark Francois became household names. Westminster, normally so good at delivering powerful executives, made global headlines for its paralysis. It was unclear whether Britain’s political system and its main parties could survive intact. 

On the streets and on social media, the lifeless Remain campaign had been reincarnated as a very different beast. Many people who had considered themselves political moderates had become almost obsessively anti-Brexit. In March 2019, an estimated 1m marched through London to demand a People’s Vote. It was one of the biggest rallies in British political history — probably the biggest outpouring of pro-EU sentiment anywhere, ever. Six million people signed an online petition to stop Brexit. 

In the dying days of her premiership, May herself came close to allowing a second referendum. Remainer MPs thought they might have enough votes in parliament. If they’d managed, it is almost certain that Brexit wouldn’t have happened in January 2020. Coronavirus would have pushed it down the political to-do list, perhaps indefinitely. 

The People’s Vote campaign is therefore a case study in political near-misses. It showed how to create a noisy minority, or even a narrow majority — but how that’s not the same as taking charge. It showed how passion can be poisonous. “I’ve done oil deals in Russia, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” is how Geeta Sidhu-Robb, a former lawyer and one of Rudd’s appointees to the Open Britain board, describes the infighting.

With five months to go until the end of the Brexit transition period, the UK is still waiting to find out what leaving the EU really means. Not since January 2018 has a plurality of the public thought it was a good idea, according to pollsters YouGov. As of June, 47 per cent of Britons thought the country was wrong to leave the EU, compared with 40 per cent who thought it was right. So what went wrong with Britain’s pro-EU movement?

Peter Mandelson and Roland Rudd in 2009 © Alan Davidson/Shutterstock

There was never supposed to be a campaign for a second referendum. Ahead of the June 2016 referendum, it suited both sides to deny the prospect of a rerun. “It’s a once-in-a-generation, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said then prime minister David Cameron.

Senior Brexiters, who expected to lose, privately said a close result would tee up another vote within a decade. Remainers, who expected to win, came to the same conclusion after they lost. The campaign had left plenty of bruises — and data. In modern campaigns, email addresses allow you to raise awareness and money. Britain Stronger in Europe had half a million of them. 

Rudd, then aged 55, was almost the only person interested in being chair. This was not a political party; there were no members’ votes. Rudd provided free space in Finsbury’s offices and raised some funds. Renamed Open Britain, the campaign drifted with just nine staff, headed by an earthy, former Liberal Democrat adviser, James McGrory. Rudd called no board meetings between July 2016 and December 2017. 

MPs supporting a second referendum in formal House of Commons votes or public declarations (316 needed for majority)

Initially, Open Britain wasn’t anti-Brexit: it simply wanted to keep the UK in the single market. Only after the 2017 election, when May lost her majority and her momentum for a swift and crisp Brexit, did activists push for a bolder stance. Open Britain joined with eight other pro-EU groups in new Westminster offices to form the People’s Vote campaign.

One of them, InFacts, was an anti-Brexit blog by Hugo Dixon, a friend of Rudd’s from Oxford university, and one-time Financial Times journalist, who had made a small fortune selling a commentary website to Thomson Reuters. Just as FTSE chief executives relied on Rudd for advice, Rudd seemed to rely on Dixon. Dixon would prove central to the coming disputes. 

The new coalition needed a legal entity — to operate bank accounts and hire staff. It was simplest for this to be the largest of the nine groups, Open Britain, which was controlled by Rudd. This makeshift solution would be hugely damaging. 

The campaign won the backing of celebrities such as former footballer Gary Lineker and actor Patrick Stewart. But the UK was due to leave the EU within a year. Then only a small minority of MPs publicly opposed leaving the EU; Corbyn’s hard-left Labour opposition backed a soft Brexit. People’s Vote was scrambling in a vacuum of political leadership. “It was like living in Stalingrad. You’d never paint the house because it might be blown up the next day,” says Tom Baldwin, a combative former Labour spin-doctor, who joined as director of communications in June 2018. 

Pro-EU protesters march through London in October 2019 in a bid to halt or delay Boris Johnson’s Brexit plan © Andrew Johnstone/Panos Pictures

Baldwin brought experience but exacerbated tensions. His arrival meant growing influence for his friend Alastair Campbell, Blair’s rumbustious former press secretary. Both men were like characters from The Thick of It. Relations between them and the old Etonian Dixon rapidly deteriorated. Campbell was heard to say, “If a computer designed someone to annoy me, you would get Hugo Dixon.” One person familiar with Rudd’s thinking says of Campbell: “If he can’t control it, he wants to destroy it.”

There were clashes over who represented the campaign. Rudd and Dixon felt they were in charge; Baldwin felt that two Kensington-based millionaires weren’t the ideal image for a campaign already pigeonholed as elitist. Rudd had made an estimated £40m selling Finsbury to WPP in 2001; he wears monogrammed shirts and specialises in networking dinner parties. In January 2019, he was interviewed on Radio 4’s flagship Today programme, “live from Davos”. 

Rudd countered that the real damage to the campaign’s image was Baldwin and Campbell’s habit of seeking advice from their former lodestar, Blair. What was clear is that seasoned political campaigners saw little value in Rudd’s own strategy meetings. “For anyone who’d been involved in a serious national campaign, they were just ridiculous,” says Mandelson. “An inordinate amount of my time was spent dealing with people who thought they owned the campaign. It was frankly a total mess,” says McGrory, campaign director. McGrory hired Baldwin — the campaign’s second-in-command — without a formal job description and without consulting Rudd. 

Open Britain’s directors noticed they were being ignored. “James would turn up and say yes, yes, yes. [But] the board minutes wouldn’t reflect what had happened in the meeting. And he was taking the minutes,” says Sidhu-Robb. “We were being patted on the head and told to go away. Brexit mattered to us so much that we couldn’t allow this to continue.” 

Campbell, Baldwin and Mandelson formed a shadow group, which directed the campaign. They felt they owed Rudd little. People’s Vote email appeals were raising more than £100,000 a week in funding. Campbell also arranged a £1m donation from Julian Dunkerton, a clothing entrepreneur, for opinion polling. 

Chart.. asking In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the EU? Per cent of YouGov survey respondents

People’s Vote marchers — with their EU flags, and their handwritten placards proclaiming “We really are quite upset” and “Ikea has better cabinets” — didn’t know that their cause was split at the top. On one side were Rudd and his allies, who controlled the corporate structure. On the other were Mandelson and the senior staff, who ran day-to-day operations, including the march. It was businesspeople with an interest in politics against New Labour veterans looking for one last victory. Or, as one person caught in the crossfire put it: “It was armchair generals over here and retired generals over there.” 

Campbell, Baldwin and Mandelson didn’t want to be explicitly anti-Brexit. Citing their polling, they argued instead that the campaign had to be about resolving the blockage in British politics — thereby appealing to both Leavers and Remainers. 

This also chimed with what Downing Street saw. James Johnson, who ran polling for May, recalls: “In every focus group I did, the reaction was always the same: ‘It’s done, we voted, we just need to get on with it’ . . . The only shred of credibility [People’s Vote] ever had was when it was framed as a way to resolve things.”

In contrast, Dixon wanted an unambiguously pro-Remain stance, making up for what he saw as Cameron’s original sin of not offering a positive message in 2016. Rudd agreed with Dixon that framing the People’s Vote as a neutral option was disingenuous. Their strategy would be less about converting Brexiters than mobilising lapsed Remainers.

From left: Richard Reed, Karren Brady, Stuart Rose, Roland Rudd, Brendan Barber, Caroline Lucas and June Sarpong at the launch of the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign in 2015 © PA

The campaign’s real challenge was to convince a majority of MPs to back a second referendum. By mid-2019, it was making headway. The March rally had been a success, and Theresa May’s Brexit deal had been defeated three times in parliament. 

In April, 280 MPs voted for a second referendum, 292 against. In May, pro-EU parties did well in the European elections — a move that would push Labour towards an all-out endorsement of a second referendum. 

There were two possible routes to success. One was to get May herself to back a referendum, in exchange for Remainers allowing her Brexit deal through parliament. Around Easter 2019, the prime minister met twice with two People’s Vote MPs, Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson, including once at her home in Maidenhead. Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson was present at that meeting. It was a relaxed setting, with tea and coffee. The MPs argued that a referendum could take place in October — settling Brexit.

“I got the impression that people around her wanted her to go in that direction,” says Wilson, then MP for Sedgefield. That was probably the closest a referendum came to happening. 

In talks between the Tories and Labour to find a compromise Brexit deal, Labour’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer also insisted that the government sign up to a referendum. 

But there were multiple problems. Would the referendum have to offer voters the option of “No Deal” on the ballot? Would passing a referendum split the Tory party, meaning the government would fall anyway? May decided against compromising. She announced her resignation in May 2019, and was soon replaced by Boris Johnson. Johnson had won the vote for Brexit with his magnetic campaigning; now he convinced the Tory grassroots he could deliver, through force of will. 

In October 2019, an estimated million protesters marched through London to demand a second referendum on Brexit © Zuma Press/eyevine

At this point, as the feuding Brexiters were regrouping around Johnson, the split between People’s Vote campaigners became irretrievable. Dixon supported a “March against Boris”. Baldwin and other senior People’s Vote campaigners were furious: it undercut their effort to win over Tory MPs and therefore a majority in the House of Commons. Without the support of the People’s Vote database, the march flopped. 

Governance issues had been dodged until now. People’s Vote, a swollen coalition, had no formal board — it was being controlled by its largest member, Open Britain. Campbell had pressed Rudd to give other anti-Brexit groups a say. Between May and July, Rudd repeatedly stalled. “Roland never says no. He says, ‘that’s really interesting — let me go away and think about it’,” says one senior campaigner. “Thousands of man and woman hours were wasted,” says Campbell. “Some days, it felt we were doing nothing other than trying to get people to get on.”

In all the fury, few people were asking if the campaign would win a second referendum if it managed to secure one. A consultant’s report, commissioned by anti-Brexit donor Stephen Dawson, suggested not. It highlighted governance problems, “chaotic reporting lines”, and “cloak-and-dagger factionalism”. 

There are two accounts of the office culture. For one group, it was a great, familial atmosphere. There was karaoke and Monday-night football. Baldwin had become almost a father figure to some young activists, who had never previously worked in an office.

For another, it was male-dominated and aggressive. “Disagreements were sorted out by who shouted the loudest,” says one former staff member. Board members became worried by McGrory’s leadership style and the lack of processes to handle complaints.

“I made a lot of enemies. I knew that would make my position untenable in the longer term,” says McGrory. “But I always thought objectively I’d done a good job. And I thought they would be properly insane to get rid of me during the campaign.”

He and Baldwin had taken a fringe idea to the mainstream. But their critics accused them of focusing on press coverage, rather than targeted Facebook ads and useful polling. “It wasn’t a data-led campaign,” said one staff member. 

People’s Vote’s most visible achievements were huge marches in October 2018 and March 2019. But critics say that these were not rocket science: turnout stemmed from the strength of feeling about Brexit, a large email list, and advertising in London’s Evening Standard. The biggest march in British political history was the 2003 Stop the War coalition’s demonstration against the Iraq war; no one suggests that group was a model of efficiency. 

The marches also didn’t win over floating voters, such as those in the north and Midlands who had backed Brexit in the hope of better public services. Instead, they may have skewed the campaign towards a passionate, pro-immigration minority.

Baldwin concedes: “The proportion of soft Leavers supporting a People’s Vote was going down and down.” People’s Vote never found the right language. Its slogans included “Put It to the People” and “Demand a Final Say”. These proved less catchy than Vote Leave’s “Take Back Control” or Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done”. Baldwin argues that People’s Vote added to the polarisation, when the challenge was to overcome it. It was easy to be outraged by Brexit; it was much harder to understand why other people weren’t.

Roland Rudd, Open Britain’s chair © Bloomberg

Brexit was still in the balance. Johnson didn’t have a deal with Brussels. Polls suggested, if a second referendum were held, Remain would narrowly win. In August 2019, Baldwin, Mandelson and Campbell — now joined by the campaign director McGrory — attempted a coup against Rudd. They proposed a new structure, in which the PR expert would be replaced as chair by a political big-hitter, the former Conservative minister Michael Heseltine. In one email, Campbell said: “I do not see how this gets done without a public battle and it should happen soon and be fast and brutal.” Mandelson wrote: “We have reached the end of the road with Roland and his ridiculous board.”

Rudd counter-attacked. He tightened his grip on the data. He sent his personal assistant to Millbank to ask McGrory to sign a document removing himself as a person with significant control of Open Britain; a Slaughter and May lawyer stood witness via FaceTime. Rudd and his allies set up a new company, Baybridge, and made it the sole corporate member of Open Britain. They were legally impregnable. Rudd also tried to win over the staff. He went to the Millbank offices — trusting in his charm and a tray of doughnuts. But he arrived late, and left the staff mostly unimpressed. One long-serving activist asked if Rudd knew her name. Embarrassingly, he didn’t. 

Relations were beyond repair. Big donors were getting cold feet. In October 2019, when a general election was inevitable, Rudd moved. One Sunday evening, with the board’s backing, he fired McGrory and Baldwin by email. “We needed to do more to focus on digital and data operations, which had been hugely neglected. Frankly, it was not 1997 any more,” Rudd recalls.

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At this point, People’s Vote imploded — in public view. Most staff went on an impromptu strike. They used People’s Vote Twitter and Facebook accounts to attack Rudd. Rudd had to change the locks of the offices. It was an astonishing scene, just as the country was preparing for an election.

Rudd arranged a staff meeting at the Hilton hotel, which descended into uproar. He had underestimated the campaign team’s antipathy to him and Patrick Heneghan, newly appointed as the campaign’s director — and their loyalty to McGrory and Baldwin. The net result was disastrous. Ahead of the 2019 election, People’s Vote had more than £1.5m in cash and detailed tactical voting recommendations. Its dissident staff spent the start of the campaign in the Grosvenor pub.

Three board members who opposed Rudd — Peter Mandelson, Will Straw and Joe Carberry — were forced out. “Whereas the People’s Vote campaign has been a movement of millions, for you it has been simply a vehicle for your ego,” they wrote to Rudd in their resignation letter. 

Tom Baldwin (left), James McGrory (second left) with Alastair Cambell (right), leaving a meeting in Westminster © SOLO Syndication

When Johnson agreed an exit deal with the EU in October 2019, many anti-Brexit campaigners felt the game was up. 

Even so, People’s Vote MPs thought they had a majority in October 2019, with the support of 22 pro-European MPs including Rory Stewart and Amber Rudd, Roland’s sister, who had been kicked out of the Tory party. That fragile coalition probably couldn’t have survived the process of agreeing on the details of the referendum. MPs and the public were exhausted by months of political trench warfare. They wanted a resolution. 

It might have been different had the Labour leadership, and some rebel Conservatives, supported a second referendum in, say, 2018 — so that the issue came to a head sooner. “With the appropriate leadership of the Labour party, we could have done it,” says Wilson. 

The other headwind was public opinion. The 2016 vote had forced Britons to take a side, which they were subsequently reluctant to abandon. Public opinion shifted to a slight majority against Brexit — 50-55 per cent — but never swung decisively. “We were vulnerable to accidents because, although public opinion did change, we were stuck in the low fifties,” says anti-Brexit campaigner Dixon. “Everything had to go right for us to win.”

Johnson found his Brexit deal blocked by parliament. “They had him trapped. They could have left him there for another year. The idea of getting Brexit done would have been slowly tarnished,” says one People’s Vote official. Jonathan Powell, Blair’s former chief of staff, had been trying to link moderate Tory and Labour MPs, to create an alternative force to Johnson and Corbyn. Downing Street might even have come round to a second referendum: Johnson’s key adviser Dominic Cummings would have fancied their chances of winning. 

Instead, the Scottish National party and the Liberal Democrats backed an early election, forcing Corbyn’s Labour to do likewise. The SNP were assumed to want a vote before their former leader Alex Salmond went on high-profile sexual assault trial in early 2020 (he was acquitted). The gamble may have worked for them: Scottish independence is on the cards once more. 

The Lib Dems and Labour both overestimated their chances of taking seats from the Tories. Like People’s Vote itself, they were caught up with their activists’ enthusiasm — rather than judging the popular mood and the electoral system. The Remain vote was splintered, while the Leave vote was largely united behind the Conservatives. In December’s election, parties committed to a second referendum won 52 per cent of the votes, but only 43 per cent of the seats.

Brexit happened, but it is a stunted revolution. Britons remain sceptical of free-trade deals. They are now more pro-immigration than many European countries. On many issues, from gay rights to climate change, polls show a progressive majority. Membership of the EU just happened to be among the least popular progressive causes to build a movement behind. 

Starmer, now Labour leader, has hardly spoken about Brexit. The less the left talk about Brexit, the better for them — and the same is true for the Tories, who promised in December’s election to solve the issue, says pollster James Johnson. “I see in my focus groups the absolute same focus on not wanting to hear about it, especially in light of the pandemic,” he says. “[Brexit] tends to prompt derision and laughter (‘why would we be arguing over that now, when there’s the virus’ et cetera).”

The legacy of the campaign is “a much less complacent middle class”, says Jolyon Maugham, a barrister who campaigned against Brexit. “There are battles ahead — more important battles than Brexit — where that engagement will be really important.” Maugham thinks the UK will rejoin the EU, albeit maybe as separate nations.

By late 2019, anti-Brexit radicalism was eclipsed by the Extinction Rebellion climate activists; 2020 has been marked by Black Lives Matter. The People’s Vote campaign is a lesson that engagement only takes you so far. In 2019, what really counted was not a campaign group, but the political parties. Many people wanted to stop Brexit. They couldn’t agree how to do it or who should take the credit. They couldn’t find a language or a vehicle to win a majority. 

McGrory and Baldwin reject the idea that their campaign was digitally deficient, citing its millions of video views. “With a load of kids, we did something amazing, despite a preposterous governance structure,” says McGrory. “We took a lost cause and nearly changed the course of British history.”

Rudd, the PR crisis specialist, ended up in a PR crisis. He was far from the only businessperson who was burnt by dabbling in Brexit politics. “You think your side of politics is full of fundamentally nicer people. But Alastair [Campbell] and his gang are full-blown carnivores,” says one person familiar with Rudd’s thinking. 

Rudd had donated £200,000 over three years to People’s Vote. In the hours after the election, he texted congratulations to Johnson. Now he has returned to the world he knows best. This summer, he was named chairman of the Tate, his dream job. He has unveiled plans to merge Finsbury with two rival PR firms, wresting back some of the control he sold to WPP in 2001.

In June, four years after the referendum, People’s Vote — with its large email lists and half a million Facebook followers — renamed itself “Democracy Unleashed”. It has warmed up with attacks on Cummings but is yet to mention the word Brexit. Its eyes are on the general election due in 2024. Its slogans include “Campaigning to put power back in the hands of the people” and “Political influence should not be bought”. Those who experienced the boardroom tussles of last year might see an irony.

Henry Mance is the FT’s chief features writer

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