Here is the latest in our series reflecting on the Brexit process with regular BrexitCentral authors and others who have played an important role in our journey out of the European Union. Here are the answers to our questions from Patrick O’Flynn, who as a Daily Express journalist was instrumental in getting his paper to back UK withdrawal from the EU and later became a UKIP MEP.
BC: When did you first come to the view that the UK would be better off out of the EU? Did you ever think that the EU could be reformed from within to make membership tolerable for the UK? Tell us how your views developed over time on the issue.
After the debacle of the Lisbon Treaty, which gave the EU the legal personality of a state and was rammed through without the promised referendum in Britain, I concluded that the EU was dead set on becoming a superstate and that we would be better off out.
I remember a notable conversation about the issue with Matthew Elliott, who was then boss of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, some time around 2008. I suggested the Lib Dems under Nick Clegg had just called for an In/Out referendum because they thought that was the one EU referendum issue that could be won by their side. But Matthew told me he thought a Leave campaign could win if the campaign was pitched correctly. That stuck with me.
As Chief Political Commentator of the Daily Express, the main task at the time was to see off Gordon Brown and help David Cameron get elected. But shortly after the 2010 election, I pitched the idea of the paper launching a Better Off Out campaign to the editor and his deputy. Slightly to my surprise, they went for it.
We launched in November 2010 and despite having had an instinct for the pent-up anti-EU feeling in the country, I was astonished by the volume of support it attracted from the off – hundreds of thousands of people were signed up supporters within a few weeks.
BC: What was your most memorable moment during the referendum campaign?
I had several very memorable moments. Appearing for the Vote Leave side, along with the Tory MEP David Campbell Bannerman, in the main BBC TV Look East live referendum debate against the likes of Liz Truss was a great honour. I may be biased, but I think we performed rather well.
Being master of ceremonies at a huge Leave rally in Peterborough starring Nigel Farage was another great moment and appearing for the Leave side at the Cambridge Union in a debate organised by my old school in a very pro-Remain city was also a lovely experience.
BC: Who was the most unlikely ally you campaigned with or shared a platform with during the referendum? Did you strike up any unexpected new friendships across traditional political divides?
I’ve been campaigning for Leave since the back end of 2010, so I have been on platforms with a lot of people over the years. I very much enjoyed sharing platforms with various newspaper journalists such as Tony Parsons, Allison Pearson and Leo McKinstry at events I organised. It was very important to our chances of success that a core of newspaper columnists came out for Leave and as a former newspaper man myself, I was delighted to contribute to encouraging some of them to get involved in campaigning – not that they needed much encouragement!
As a long-standing political journalist, I always had friends and acquaintances across the parties. My respect for some politicians grew enormously during the campaign though – people like Graham Stringer for Labour and also Iain Duncan Smith who rang me during the campaign as he had heard I was concerned Vote Leave hadn’t been making enough of a case about the economic risks of Remain.
I’d written a piece for the Express about it and IDS was very interested to go through the arguments. I’d given him quite a tough time when I was Daily Express Political Editor and he was Leader of the Opposition, so I was especially impressed by his willingness to set that aside for the greater cause. He also struck me as one of the best-briefed senior politicians on the Leave side – a relatively unsung hero of the campaign. Shortly after our conversation, Boris Johnson wrote a piece in his Telegraph column covering similar territory, so I hope it got fed into the system.
BC: Where were you on referendum night? How did it feel?
During the day I campaigned with my friend Stewart Jackson in Peterborough, where I had my MEP office and where Stewart was the MP. I felt rather gloomy by late afternoon, feeling that the Remainers were likely to narrowly win – although I remember Stewart reporting that Andrew Bridgen had rung to say the queues in his patch were remarkable and they weren’t formed by people waiting to vote to stay in the EU!
On the night itself I decided not to go to any receptions, but sat at home watching on television. It felt very emotional. Not for the first time – and not for the last – I found the stoicism and courage of the British people, particularly of working class communities, in the face of the Project Fear bombardment quite humbling. We have to deliver for those patriotic communities that never stopped believing in Britain and were ready to take a risk on our vision, despite not having the cushion of lots of money in the bank.
BC: Did you think then that it would take as long as it has for Brexit to actually happen?
Brexit on Amazon
Not really. I was naïve enough to think that the other side would be sensible and honourable enough to try and make the best of a new political paradigm outside the EU. At one point – around autumn 2016 – I think most of them were of that mindset. But May’s “Dithering Doris” antics and her failure to instil any sense of confidence or enthusiasm about the Brexit process let them back in the game.
BC: Were there any moments in these last few years since the referendum when you thought the prize could yet be snatched from us?
Yes, absolutely. I thought May’s terrible “lock-in” deal on the backstop could easily turn into a prelude to Britain rejoining and assumed that the Remainers might see this and help push it through. Fortunately they became so arrogant that they focused on blocking our EU departure altogether.
Last autumn I thought the so-called “Remain Alliance” was likely to block an early election and keep ratcheting up the pressure for a second, rigged referendum. But luckily that is not how things turned out in the end, mainly thanks to the Lib Dems believing their own hype after coming second in the European elections.
I think Brexit has delivered lasting change to the political complexion of the country. It has broken the grip of the liberal left elite and the consequences will unfurl over many years. It has led working-class voters to stop allowing Labour to take them for granted and to regain a confident, distinctive voice. That can only be a good thing in my book.
BC: What changes do you want/hope to see made now that the UK has taken back control? Can you summarise your vision for Brexit Britain?
The changes are up to the electorate. Our general elections will become more substantial events, with many more policy issues decided at the national level once more. Obviously I hope for a more sensible immigration policy, but the biggest change is the return to nation state democracy so that the people can decide.
BC: Do you have any special plans for 1st February, our first day outside the EU?
I expect to be nursing a rather sore head, but am also likely to be at a football match, surrounded by fellow supporters who on the main are of a Brexity persuasion, so I should be in good company.
I will be hosting a lunch some time in February for some of the people who’ve helped me the most in my own campaigning and also trying to seek out other long-term collaborators from the early days – people like Malcolm Pearson and Toby Blackwell – to pass on my heartfelt thanks and raise a toast with them to our marvellous country and the many millions of brilliant, patriotic people who reside within it.
BC: Do you have a favourite photo of yourself from the Brexit process? If so, please share it and give us the context for it.
One of my favourite photos is as above, from the early days of the Daily Express campaign. It shows a small group of us walking, Reservoir Dogs-style, up Downing Street early in 2011 to deliver some of the hundreds of thousands of campaign coupons to David Cameron’s front door. I remember being flanked by Peter Bone and Kate Hoey, while Philip Hollobone, Philip Davies and Douglas Carswell were also there.
There was only a small band of MPs prepared to put their heads above the parapets back then. I can’t emphasise enough what a radical departure campaigning to leave the EU was seen as. I think some lobby colleagues on the likes of The Sun, Daily Mail and Telegraph – let alone the BBC and other broadcasters – just thought this was a moonshot from me and that I had lost the plot.