All bets were off: How the EU referendum unfolded

Nigel Farage speaks to journalists at the Leave.EU referendum party at Millbank Tower in central London. Picture: Getty

Nigel Farage speaks to journalists at the Leave.EU referendum party at Millbank Tower in central London. Picture: Getty

2
Have your say

The expectation as polls closed across the UK was for a tense night and a long wait ahead for those with enough stamina to watch as the results rolled in.

But as he has done throughout this referendum campaign, Nigel Farage had other plans.

Leave campaigners celebrate as they win the vote in Sunderland. Picture: Getty

Leave campaigners celebrate as they win the vote in Sunderland. Picture: Getty

The opening credits of the 10 o’clock news bulletins had barely finished when the Ukip leader, rarely on message in the past two months, effectively conceded defeat, saying he thought “Remain will edge it”.

After weeks of railing against the establishment, he had been tipped off by some former colleagues in the financial sector who commissioned their own exit polling, and it pointed towards a narrow victory for Remain.

A final poll from YouGov suggested the same, and as trading in Asia pushed the pound upwards, it seemed that the knife-edge vote had been blunted.

Britain votes to leave the European Union

It took just a few results for that illusion to be shattered. In London, battered by storms throughout the day, it was the thunderclap from Sunderland at around midnight that grabbed attention. Despite being home to a major Nissan car plant, where employers had asked staff to back EU membership, 61 per cent of voters wanted out. The 22 per cent margin of victory was twice what was expected.

A Leave.EU supporter wears Union flags anda Union flag  hat as the results come in. Picture: Getty

A Leave.EU supporter wears Union flags anda Union flag hat as the results come in. Picture: Getty

The result did what a two- month political campaign clearly had not, and got people wondering what it all might mean. Google reported a 250 per cent jump in the number of searches for “what happens if we leave the EU” in the hour after midnight.

On the financial markets, the pound fell off a cliff in the most volatile trading since 1985. John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, appeared on ITV to warn that the Chancellor and the Bank of England would have to act to protect the value of sterling. The tone suddenly became very serious.

The Sunderland result meant all bets were off, which really meant all bets were on. Online oddsmakers furiously recalculated as the price on Brexit tumbled.

On the BBC, horse-racing fanatic and former first minister Alex Salmond seemed to have secured his dream job as bookie to the nation, gleefully updating David Dimbleby each time the likelihood of a Leave vote leapt.

In Scotland, considered a bastion for the Remain side, turnouts in places like Glasgow and Inverclyde were on par with last year’s General Election, while in England, voters had clearly been more energised by the campaign.

At the party hosted by the maverick Leave. EU campaign, millionaire Ukip donor Arron Banks, who was bankrolling the champagne chaser to the £6 million he put towards securing Brexit, popped up to say he expected victory.

With just a few of the results declared, the blame game started early. Labour sources briefed journalists that low Scots turnout was the fault of a “lacklustre” SNP campaign.

“Sturgeon had more to say about criticising the Remain camp than making the positive case for Europe and she was nowhere to be seen until the dying days of the campaign,” one source was quoted as saying. The accusation prompted derision from Nationalists as one after another Labour strongholds in the northern England declared for Brexit.

If Scottish voters were a bit ambivalent about the EU referendum, it seemed that was nothing on the rift opening up between the Labour leadership and their own supporters.

“There is disaffection with politics overall, and with Westminster politics in particular,” Mr McDonnell admitted. “A lot of people’s grievances are coming out and we have got to start listening to them.”

At the Stronger In campaign event other grievances were being aired. “I might go and punch him because he’s a tosspot and he left the party in the state it’s in,” MP Chris Bryant said after watching former Labour leader Ed Miliband give interviews.

Declarations in central London areas including Lambeth and Wandsworth, where three quarters of voters backed staying in the EU, offered a glimmer of hope to the Remain campaign. But the UK’s master pollster John Curtice warned that for every good result for Remain, there were two or three areas where the Leave campaign were outperforming expectations.

It meant that just four hours after conceding defeat, to jubilant scenes, Nigel Farage was claiming victory and calling for David Cameron’s resignation.